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The Future of Handhelds July 5, 2000

Attending the Handango Developer's conference was a great way to hear from all the hardware manufacturers to find out what was coming next. Like the PC Expo, which should have been called the "Wireless and Handheld Expo", the common thread at the conference was definitely wireless internet.

But what does this mean for gamers? Before you start thinking how cool it would be to have massively multiplayer games like EverQuest on your handheld, available bandwidth and the high costs involved are still very limiting. A simple game such as multiplayer online chess would be cool though, and might have a good audience. After all, there's really no substitute for a real human opponent, and being able to instantly play a quick game anywhere you are is definitely an added bonus.

In order to get around the bandwidth issues that will likely be a problem for the next few years, the games must be designed to make the most of the connection and to minimize access charges. A simple solution for a good multiplayer roleplaying game, for example, might be designed to have the game data sent to the handheld from the server at the start of the game, and to have the handheld send any changed data at the end of the game. Real-time interactivity would likely require far too much bandwidth to make it worthwhile, however the gameworld will still benefit from multiple players. In the future when bandwidth is not so much of an issue, I envision client-server type games, where the main game is hosted on the server and the PDA client does little else than display information sent from the server and relay any input. The benefits of this type of model will be that the footprint on the PDA will be small, and any intensive processing is done on the server side. It will likely be at least 2 years before this type of game becomes a reality, however...

Another interesting idea to come out of the conference was the suggestion that all handhelds would eventually have Java support. This would be great for users and developers alike, since an application can easily be made to run on all platforms. Imagine a wireless handheld that can download Java games and play against opponents on other platforms, even the PC. I find it hard to believe that windowsCE or Palm will ever have a real Java VM, but if the 100 million cell phones out there start to be Java enabled, they may have no other choice.

The other improvements to handheld devices are predictable: More RAM, more memory, faster processors, better resolution. What I'm most interested to see is how Palm handles the problem of increasing their screen size. 160x160 just doesn't cut it anymore, even in color. If they do increase the screen size, will the thousands of developers want to maintain separate versions? WindowsCE is plagued with similar problems, and developers have usually targeted a single device to avoid the headaches.

It is clear that the handheld revolution is just begging, and before long the devices will appeal to the mass consumer market. I personally can't wait until major game developers start offering handheld versions of all their new games. The time may come before you know it!

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