Agenda VR3

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What would you do if your product was nearly a year late, you’d experienced a complete management changeover, and the product still is having major performance problems? Well, if you’re Agenda Computing you’d simply bring in a couple of public relations and advertising folks, develop some slick marketing materials and cool packaging, and focus on a hot industry buzzword, like Linux. Or so it seems.

But as the old saying goes: You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And my friends, after a few days using the Agenda VR3 (US$249) I can safely say that it is definitely a sow’s ear.

But before we get into the device, let’s talk about the company. Agenda Computing Inc. is based in California, but are in fact a wholly owned subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Kessel International Holdings Limited. Also, as much as they’d like you to believe they’ve got Linux in their blood, Kessel actually first considered using Windows CE when it initially researched the handheld market.

My first taste of the Agenda VR3 was actually at Comdex in Las Vegas back in November. It was incredibly slow launching applications, possibly the slowest PDA I’d ever used, and I wrote about it in a report I filed from the show. Shane Nay, Agenda’s Vice President of Research and Development, contacted me by email after reading my article on Brighthand and for the next couple of months we’d regularly corresponded regarding the status of the VR3. After all, Agenda announced at Linux World in August that it would ship the VR3 in October, and the beefier VR5 in November. But that was back when Roger Roberts headed Agenda, since then former VP of R&D Bradley LaRonde had taken over and Nay had stepped in to fill LaRonde’s R&D role. Nay has since resigned from Agenda.

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Agenda at its headquarters in Irvine, California. During that visit I learned that the VR3 still had obvious shortcomings but that Agenda planned to release the device–bugs and all–to Linux enthusiasts in early April. Agenda envisioned these hardcore Linux users "helping" Agenda find and fix the bugs, in time for a November release to the mainstream consumer market. Needless to say, I left that meeting with grave reservations about both the company and its soon to be released device. The VR3 was an overdue device with a history of performance problems. And Agenda was a company that had shuffled through its major players in search of the right combination that would get the product to market.

Still, when I received the VR3 in the mail last week I was initially impressed with the packaging (see picture below) and the look-and-feel of the device. Maybe I misjudged, I thought.

But after using it for two days I suddenly understood what was happening back in Irvine. Kessel was obviously pushing Agenda to release the long-overdue device. Shane Nay, prior to his departure, had been working to fix the VR3’s performance problems, but apparently to no avail. Agenda, which seems to be simply a U.S.-based sales and marketing shell for Kessel (with several software developers scattered throughout North America), found a couple of advertising and public relations folks to push the product. But as Nay must have figured out, sooner or later someone would discover the sow’s ear, and Nay likely didn’t have the desire to be around when the squealing begins.

So, what makes the Agenda VR3 a sow’s ear?

Well, I’ve only had the device for a few days so the following report consists only of my first impressions, still there’s a lot I already don’t like about the VR3. But let’s start with what’s in the box.

What’s in the box?

Here’s what you get with the Agenda VR3:

  • Agenda VR3
  • Serial synchronization cradle and cable
  • Leather flipcase with extra stylus
  • Software CD
  • Quick Start Guide
  • Plug-in earpiece and microphone


When you first start up the VR3, the screen scrolls with dozens of Linux messages (picture, below left) before stopping at a login screen (picture, below center). You must tap Login at this point to continue, which after a few seconds brings you to the VR3’s splash screen (picture, below right). Guess what? That’s your starting point.

   

You can tap on the "a" button, which pops up a list (picture, below left), and select System and then LaunchPad to get to a more user-friendly screen (picture, below right). Why Agenda didn’t automatically get you to that point is beyond me. It’s what they show on the front of the box and in other product literature, but it’s not where you’ll find yourself when you start up your device.

  

In general, the applications are basic and slow. And here’s the squeal–load up a few apps and the VR3 becomes a paperweight. That’s right, the Linux operating system that works so phenomenally well for web servers (including the two running the Brighthand web site) grinds to a halt in this version after you launch six applications or more with the VR3. It cannot seem to manage either tasks or memory–or both! Each subsequent app (or even switching to another active app) takes 10-40 seconds. Nay was working on this issue for several months but it’s obviously still not corrected.

That one issue alone kills the VR3. The only recourse for a typical user would be to reset, which takes nearly a minute and then each app takes 4-5 seconds to load.

Beyond that, the included apps contain limited functionality–and a lot of bugs. The handwriting recognition software is somewhat like Grafitti, except it divides the screen into four quadrants–one each for punctuation, numbers, lower case letters and upper case letters. But the digitizer recognized less than a third of the letters I wrote and therefore I found the Agenda’s handwriting recognition capabilities to be highly suspect. The single earpiece and microphone is nice but there is no built-in voice recorder or MP3 app. Also, the alarms didn’t seem to work in the Schedule application.

[Editor’s Note: Subsequent to receiving the device I got a message from Agenda stating that it had found and corrected 30 bugs that were in the device I received. I was unaware that this was a pre-production model. It was not stated as such in any materials I received and Agenda announced the device as available for consumer ordering at Comdex in Chicago on April 3rd (I received the device on April 5th) with a ship date of April 23rd.]

The QuickSync software is apparently homegrown by Agenda. I haven’t synchronized it yet with any of my desktop or laptop computers. Truth is, the software CD did not contain the QuickSync software. The readme file stated to download it from the Agenda Computing web site, but I could not find it on the site.

[Editor’s Note: Subsequent to receiving the device I got a message from Agenda stating that the "…the QuickSync software did not make it onto the CD, the developers are finalizing it."]

The Agenda VR3 comes with a full-body case, which is difficult to insert the device into (due to an incredibly small spring loaded mechanism) and difficult to close (due to the design of the hinge on the VR3’s cover). I wondered why they included a spare stylus in the case, but I quickly discovered that you cannot remove the stylus from the VR3 when it is in the case.

The VR3 measures 4.5" x 3.0" x0.8", which puts it in the same size class as the Palm m105. Agenda claims it weighs 4.4 ounces with batteries, but it weighed 5.3 ounces on our scale (see photo, below left), heavier than the m105 (see photo, below right).

   

And you’ll get 6-8 hours of use on a pair of AAA batteries.

How’s the display? Passable, but certainly not as good as the m105. It employs the same reverse backlight, however, I found the m105’s backlight to be brighter (see picture below). Also, the VR3’s backlight has a noticable squeal (no pun intended).

 

Bottom line

Steve Ballmer and company may be worried about Linux encroaching on Microsoft’s desktop dominance, but Palm and Pocket PC certainly needn’t worry about Agenda Linux and the VR3 handheld. The VR3 is only for the hardcore Linux user with the patience of Job; I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to the average PDA user.

Editor’s Update (April 11, 2001):

I never realized how much controversy this brief product review would cause. On the day of posting I received dozens of emails about the Agenda situation from people in and around the company. Slashdot featured our story and our discussion board was hopping.

What I discovered was that my hunch was true. Agenda Computing is a company with serious issues and a product that should likely not be released at this point.

According to several Agenda insiders, my observations and comments were "…on target." And none felt the product should be released at this time.

"The re-conditioning of Agenda (abrupt hiring of sales and marketing staff, eye-catching packaging, and knowingly overly-optimistic press releases) were in fact a ploy to make the inferior end-result glow in a more positive light," said one person.

Several mentioned that there were warning signs last year, but those who spoke out were silenced.

"Many members of the company were actually squealing," said one person. "Former President Roger was squealing from the start as well, but all his squealing got him was fired."

Still, others blame current president Bradley LaRonde, calling him, "…probably 90% of why Agenda may not make it."

So what will likely become of Agenda and the VR3? That drew the most surprising comment from an insider.

"Being that parent-company Kessel is more-than-displeased with negative profits which it forsees as remaining negative, Agenda Computing probably will be up for sale to the most reasonable bidder (though if he has reviewed the product, and proceeds to bid, he will undoubtedly be "unreasonable")."

Well, that’s the update. Now, here’s the review.

Steve Bush
Editor
Brighthand

Reply from Agenda Computing (April 12, 2001):

I would like to clear up some of the misinformation that you received about our company (as I fear you received much of this information from former employees) and give you a quick overview for your records.

First, although Kessel originally researched Windows CE for use on their PDA, they changed their direction when Bradley D. LaRonde, Agenda President and CEO, caught their attention when he co-founded the Linux VR project. In July of 1999, and together with Mike Klar, LaRonde began to develop software which allowed Linux to run on handheld computers. Kessel was interested, hired Brad as a consultant, and since then he functions as President and CEO, as well as the head of software development. Brad’s vision, his commitment to the Linux community, and his passion to create innovative and affordable electronic devices makes him the number one choice for leading Agenda Computing.

"The re-conditioning of Agenda (abrupt hiring of sales and marketing staff, eye-catching packaging, and knowingly overly-optimistic press releases) were in fact a ploy to make the inferior end-result glow in a more positive light," said one person.

Second, and in response to the statement above, I would like to say a couple of things. The first is that Agenda is growing, so it is natural for us to hire team members to assist with our growth–from tech support and customer service to accountants and art directors. We are neither re-conditioning the company nor trying to pull a fast-one. We are simply growing. The second is that we are an honest company with strong values. Agenda is made up of a dedicated team of individuals who believe in this product and believe in the Linux community and the success of the Linux OS. You will not find a single item in any of our press releases, on our website, or spoken in an interview that is not true, regardless of what you may have been told.

Angela LeWinter
Director of Corporate Communications
Agenda Computing

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