Best of the Web

Our CEOs toured Web sites that sell software for personal digital assistants. What they found, what they liked, and what they found lacking

When a CEO I know flies cross-country, he looks for bright lights on the ground. Not that he cares about the view. He wants to send and receive E-mail on a wireless Palm VII. With a foldout keyboard on the tray table, he types messages with a simple text editor until a populated area comes within range. Then he does quick uploads and downloads -- literally on the fly.

When his plane touches down, he can switch the use of his personal digital assistant (PDA) seamlessly from business to pleasure. During the taxicab ride from the airport, he often dials up and punches in the zip code of his hotel. By the time he arrives at his destination, he knows which movies are playing where and how many minutes he has until show time.

"It's one of the little things I like the most," says the CEO, who flew 90,000 miles last year alone and has owned five PDAs since he first bought a BOSS, a long-forgotten ancestor of today's devices, in the late 1980s. "When I show up late in the evening, I don't need to spend time looking for a movie. I already know what I want to see." In some cases, when he has just enough time to drop his bags at the hotel before heading to the multiplex, the Palm makes a significant difference. Without it he would be unable to squeeze 100 minutes of entertainment into a 15-hour workday.

Some CEOs buy their first PDA when their shoulders get sore. A few months ago, Sharon Middendorf grew tired of lugging a laptop computer wherever she went. The lead singer and songwriter for the New York City­based rock band Motorbaby, Middendorf is also CEO of the eponymous After some early successes, her band was signed to a major record label. But after the deal fell through, she decided to market and promote the group herself. She recently released a new CD, Rush, but her high-velocity core business is licensing her music for films such as Troma Entertainment's Terror Firmer and television shows like Jack & Jill and Baywatch. "I have to have so much contact information with me all the time," she says. "When I travel, even when I'm just walking around New York, I need my database."

So Middendorf bought a Handspring Visor and began the process of deciding what software she needed to run her life. It started with contact management, but other applications are migrating slowly from her calendar to her handheld. She still, however, makes appointments on paper. "I prefer to see things on the page and write them down," she says. The next application? Probably an MP3 player -- a module that Handspring conveniently offers as a Visor attachment.

Middendorf is one of the nine CEOs who rated Web sites for downloading software for handhelds. The panel included more experienced users than beginners, but the real difference among our CEOs lay in their lifestyles. And that proved to be the crucial difference. It seems that who you are dictates what you download.

Our executives visited the sites to report on the lay of the land as well as to download freeware and shareware. We chose six sites that are getting particularly good buzz. Two sister sites, and, are probably better known as news and information sites, but visitors can find a wide range of software and hardware accessories for all kinds of computers, including handhelds, on them.,, and Handango .com are more tightly focused on handheld applications, and each aspires to be a complete, one-stop shop. is all about downloads -- for every type of computer, including handhelds.

Speaking of downloads, it seems that the men and women of the corner office have indeed mastered them. During our panel's testing of the following sites, not one reviewer found it necessary to call customer service. And few even had to turn to the Help or FAQ sections -- in fact, the favorite response of panelists queried about the sites' online-help function was "N/A." But our CEOs did look especially closely at product quality, as well as site reliability, navigation, and all-around ease of ordering. Here's what they found.
This was among the most popular sites with our CEOs, though some loved it for the same reasons that others found it superfluous. One exec felt it would be easier to bypass this middleman and go directly to the producer. Others praised the site for keeping up with the rapid changes in wireless products and services and for offering a broad selection of software. Some panelists complained that the site had uninspiring graphics and was slow to download. (One CEO even reported that his browser had crashed in the process.) But overall, most of our Handango visitors said they would go back.
A technology-news site as well as an E-commerce outlet, ZDNet got high marks for ambition and scope. Veteran users returned over and over to browse for software and read the extensive PDA "Tips and FAQs." Most saw the site as a useful resource for beginners, but one naysayer considered ZDNet "crowded and busy" -- he reported suffering from "information overload" during his visit. The CEOs said that ZDNet filled their orders reliably, although two thought that the checkout process was confusing. The site earned kudos as a research tool. The worst things that anyone could say about the site's huge selection of freeware and shareware were that full versions of the programs weren't available on the site and that leaving ZDNet to visit manufacturers' sites was a bit of a hassle.
Palm won the trust of our panelists simply because it is the official site of manufacturer Palm Inc. Who would know the product better, our CEOs wondered, than the people who make it? "It seems to be PDA central: everything you ever wanted to know about your Palm," one CEO raved. Sure, the panel found some faults. One reviewer who tried to take some items out of the shopping cart before checkout suffered through a few confusing moments. But overall, panelists liked the site's clean layout and good prices. (It should be noted that part of Palm's software section is powered by Palm Gear HQ, the force behind, reviewed here as well.)
Like its sister ZDNet, CNET offers news as well as downloads -- and the mix proved controversial here as well. "Clear, complete information on each application was the best value of this site," one enthusiast remarked. Panelists judged CNET as a great place to compare prices, although some complained about the sheer volume of information. One called it a resource for the "information junkie," even as another warned of overdose, saying it was just too hard to navigate between news and downloads. Still, even he said he would go back: instead of "Just say no," the consensus seemed to be "Use responsibly."
This site was branded "cartoony" by one serious soul but praised as colorful by others. Although everyone liked the Palm OS selection, some panelists complained that the downloads weren't available directly on the site. "Almost everything on the site is either shareware, freeware, or demos," complained one reviewer who wanted to buy full programs without clicking over to manufacturers' sites. But the most serious criticism concerned other extra clicks. One CEO complained about having to specify the download location that was closest to him geographically before being allowed to search for software; he said that if he hadn't agreed to evaluate the site, Tucows would have lost his business immediately. When it came to rating ease of ordering, those extra steps cost the otherwise well-received site some points.
Unlike Palm, which received stronger written evaluations than grades, Palmgear was damned with faint praise. In the categories of selection, navigation, and especially value, our panelists gave the site very low marks. The effort required to slog through a confusing selection of products was the determining factor. "Lots of software in inventory, but it is difficult to find what you need," one CEO said. Difficulties in determining the price and especially the memory requirements of applications immediately discouraged some visitors. Since most handhelds have only 8MB of memory, many users will no doubt want to know the file size of the software they're interested in.

The Bottom Line
On the whole our panelists wanted to cut to the chase. When placing an order, they wanted to get in and get out. "I would like to see the information broken out by device," one panelist said. "If you have a Palm VII, you should be able to search only for Palm VII software." Like many users, he was concerned about file size and hoped that more concisely written software applications would be available soon. "I kept seeing a lot of applications that were memory hogs. Some of them were 4MB or larger," he said.

Our panel clearly saw CNET and ZDNet as the information leaders among the sites -- not just for industry news but for price comparisons. Tucows and Palmgear made our panelists click through too many hoops when they ordered software, and Handango reportedly crashed a browser. If who you are determines what you download, then what you like in a Web site may determine where you download it from. Folks who like to window-shop will flock to sites like CNET and ZDNet that are crowded with information. Those seeking a more streamlined experience will like Palm for its broad selection of software and ease of navigation.

Ron Feemster is a freelance writer based in New York City.

The Savvy CEO's Guide to PDA Software

Would CEOs go back? What is the site good for? CEOs' quick take "Yes." "Extensive software listings." Varies from "very professional" to "out of business soon" (a comment on the quality of the site, not its financial health). "Yes, to browse." "Product information, tips, and FAQs." Judgments from "great for beginners" to "information overload." "Yes, as needed." "Ordering hardware, software, and accessories." "Very fast and easy to navigate." "Yes, occasionally." "Product price comparisons." "Clear, complete information." "Maybe." "Very fast downloads." "If you want freeware, Tucows has it." "Once in a while." "Difficult to find things." "Needs an overhaul on the user interface."
Navigation Selection Ease of Use Reliability Value Average Grade A A- A A B+ A- B A A A A A- A+ A B A A+ A A- B B A A- B+ B- C C A- A- B B B B B B- B

Our Panelists

Doug Carlson, cofounder and president, Knowledge Strategies
Seth Christian, CEO, HotelTools
Robert Karpman, president and cofounder, Socket Media
Tim Longnecker, principal and CEO, Dynamis Solutions
Sharon Middendorf, CEO,
Ron Reed, CEO, Fullscope
Marcus Samuelsson, chef and co-owner, Aquavit
Howard Sherman, CEO, Roundhouse
Scott Snyder, CEO, OmniChoice

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