Beam It Up… to a Palm Pilot

No sooner had my colleague Dan Butler written about the new PayPal service for exchanging funds by the Internet (TNPC #3.02), than a message arrives from the ever-aggressive Palm Computing tech support/promotion team plugging PayPal’s Palm device “beaming” capabilities.

Notwithstanding the blatant pandering to the Star Trek fan base, “beaming” is one of the genuinely cool features of a Palm. It’s just your basic infrared data transmission port. As implemented in the Palm, it can be used to exchange information from one device to another. For example, if a friend or business associate and I are holding a meeting and we both have Palm devices, when we want to schedule a subsequent meeting, only one of us has to enter it in the Palm’s calendar. I can then transmit the calendar entry to the other person’s Palm (or vice versa).

It’s particularly helpful for exchanging phone numbers and addresses. You take an entry in one address book and beam it to another. There is also a provision for designating one of your address book entries (presumably your own addresses) as an electronic business card that you can transfer instantly from your Palm to someone else’s.

Now PayPal is applying the same technology to money transfer.

Does this make sense?

The point of beaming is that it saves steps: if the information is destined to be included in the Palm Pilot (and whatever PIM you might sync it with), this saves you the time of jotting down the information on paper, then entering it into your organizer. Presumably, if you are close enough to someone to establish a line-of-sight infrared transmission, you are close enough to be able to hand over some cash. So to that extent the Palm-PayPal link is something of a gimmick.

But not completely. With very little effort, I can think of at least two circumstances where it would be useful.

For example, you ask a friend to do you a favor and purchase something for you at the store. If you had bought it yourself, you would have put it on a credit card, but normally you write your friend a check, as he or she is not likely to be a certified Visa card merchant. But if you beam the money over, your friend gets credit quickly on the credit card that was used and you, in effect, do get to treat your friend as a credit card merchant.

Similarly, in the all too familiar Dutch treat lunch scenario, instead of the traditional shuffling of cash, one person hands over a credit card to the restaurant, and gets reimbursed by the rest of the group via infrared.

The point is that using PayPal and a Palm Pilot is nowhere nearly as far-fetched as it might seem initially. The concept strikes me something like that of the ’80s Radio Shack TRS-80. For the youngsters out there, that was a very primitive battery-powered laptop that at the time seemed of value only to a limited audience, e.g., traveling newspaper reporters. Now, of course, your grandmother has a laptop. For that matter, Palm Pilots started out as a toy for tech heads, now no self-respecting executive leaves home without one.

That’s the fun thing about technology: sometimes it meets a need, but just as often you figure out why you need it after the technology is already there.