When I travel, I make it a point to check out the tools and technologies people around me are using to keep in touch with the office. The most popular tool is the cellular phone—everyone has one.

The number of other gadgets available continues to rise as companies release new technologies. Which makes me wonder: When does a technology move from the “gee whiz” or “gadget” phase into the necessity phase, as the cell phone has? Let’s look at the most promising gadget technology hitting the market, and the most useful technology I’ve encountered this year.

Promising technology
When executives travel with a laptop computer, they primarily need three applications: e-mail, Internet access, and Microsoft Word. But carrying a nine-pound laptop and getting repeatedly snarled in airport security lines hardly seems worth the effort for just three applications. Moreover, most of us still need that critical tool, the cell phone, to keep in touch.

One tool executives are using to replace laptop capabilities is the personal digital assistant (PDA). The Palm took an early lead in the market, but the Pocket PC is now surpassing Palm in month-over-month shipments. Its increasing popularity is due to the fact that it provides what the Palm can’t—rich, portable, connected (or disconnected) applications supported by the three primary applications I cited.

The combination of a Pocket PC and a cell phone has the potential to integrate the two best portable accessories into a single, integrated device. Microsoft and hardware OEMs have released the first versions, and the devices are being sold by major cellular providers.

I recently evaluated Verizon’s Thera phone, a combination of Pocket PC and mobile phone in an integrated device, and I was impressed by its capabilities.

Wireless phone capabilities: Thera can be used as a wireless phone with either a hands-free headset (included) or the built-in speakerphone (good for conference calls). You don’t hold it up to your ear like a regular phone—but it doesn’t really make sense to, anyway. To take notes or use other Pocket PC features, you have to be able to tap the screen while talking on the phone. The Thera offers two-line capabilities to allow simple three-way calling. It supports the two-way text messaging features of the Verizon network, allowing users to send messages regardless of which wireless device or service provider the recipient is using.

Internet access: Internet access from Verizon and the communications applications built into the Pocket PC make for a powerful combination. You can browse the Internet with a standards-based HTML browser, and you can use the VPN software to connect to a corporate intranet, the Terminal Services client (to access and use corporate servers), and the built-in MSN Messaging client (for instant messaging). AOL has also released a Pocket PC version of AOL Instant Messenger and I was able to use it to chat with my children while I was on the road.

Mail synchronization features: Using the Pocket PC cradle, you can synchronize e-mail, contacts, calendar, notes, and other files with a desktop PC. Of course, when you’re traveling, that doesn’t help very much. My company has installed the Microsoft Mobile Information Server and connected it with Microsoft Exchange 2000. This allows me to synchronize my inbox, calendar, and contacts with my Exchange Server remotely—making the Thera an ideal remote device. Even without a Mobile Information Server, you can use the POP3 client to synchronize mail with the corporate electronic mail server. And since the Pocket PC includes built-in versions of Word and Excel, in addition to Outlook, I could view, edit, and create new Word and Excel documents on the device. It would be ideal if the device had a portable keyboard like the HP/Compaq iPAQ to make it simple to create and edit documents with a full keyboard.

Multimedia player feature: I was surprised at how useful the device was as a multimedia player. Since it has a built-in media player (Windows Media Player), I was able to play CDs at reasonable quality on a 128-MB Secure Digital (SD/MMC) card that fits in the slot on top of the device.

Don’t jump just yet
So would I recommend this device? I can’t yet, but I don’t think it’ll be too long until this device or one like it hits the mark and everyone runs to get one.

The main problems are the battery life and the headset requirement. With a car adapter to keep the battery (or a replacement battery) charged, you would be able to talk and use the Pocket PC for over three hours. The headset is a requirement for a private conversation, but having a cable between the device and the headset makes it unwieldy. This device really needs a Bluetooth headset to allow unfettered access to the calling features of the phone and the uncompromised use of the features of the Pocket PC.

HP has already shipped a version of its iPAQ device with a Bluetooth radio in its top-end models, so Bluetooth support in phone versions of the Pocket PC is right around the corner.

So what’s the best gadget out there?
If you can’t wait for the inevitable improvements in the Pocket PC phone devices, and your primary concern is e-mail access while on the road, the best device is the BlackBerry.

Although the BlackBerry only allows text messaging, it has incredible range and a remarkably usable keyboard. I’ve had more than one person tell me that he has been able to send and receive messages from anywhere—even a plane 30,000 feet in the air. The keyboard allows you to type using your thumbs while holding the device. When I tested one, I was able to get up to about 15 words per minute. (I type about 65 words per minute on a normal keyboard.)

For people like me who travel extensively but can’t live without constant connection to electronic mail, both devices have easily advanced beyond the gadget aspect and into the “must have” productivity tool category.