Published Wednesday, December 16, 1998, in the San Jose Mercury News

Is Palm III a Hacker's Dream?

Mercury News Staff Writer

The Palm III, the third generation of hand-held electronic organizers made by 3Com Corp., has proven to be an amazingly versatile device, fostering near-cult-like devotion among its many innovative users.

But as sometimes happens with technological devices, not all near-cultists can be managed. As a result, 3Com officials have been startled by reports in recent weeks that users can adapt the Palm III to mimic keyless car-entry devices. And they've been surprised by reports that some hackers put a Palm twist on the art of phreaking -- or tricking old pay phones into making free long-distance calls.

Until now, the company has reveled in the enthusiasm generated among users, who have adapted the $369 device (more than 2 million sold, they say) for uses from tuning a guitar to surfing the Web, far afield from the basic functions of storing schedules and phone numbers. ``It's doing things that (the manufacturers) never dreamed of,'' said Kenny West, president of PalmPilotGear H.Q., a software and accessories store in Arlington, Texas.

The Palm III has an infrared beaming capability that allows it to exchange information with similarly equipped devices. Using software not made by 3Com, some users reportedly have been able to copy infrared commands such as those emitted from a TV remote control or a garage door opener.

But Santa Clara-based 3Com, which acquired the product, then called PalmPilot, when it bought U.S. Robotics in 1997, went into all-out damage control when USA Today reported last week that the device's infrared capability allows it to be ``programmed to pick car locks.''

That's a bit of an over-simplification -- a user could copy an infrared signal from a regular car-door opener, but the two devices would have to be placed close together and aimed directly at each other, preferably in the dark. In addition, most U.S. cars use radio signals, which are more secure and work at longer range than infrared.

``The risk has been dramatically overstated,'' West said with a laugh.

Janice Roberts, 3Com senior vice president of business development, said a potential thief could also use a laptop computer with an infrared signal or a universal remote control to try to unlock a car. Even so, she said, the company will do anything it can to make the slim chance of a break-in even slimmer.

Another report said the device can be programmed to fool certain older pay phones by reproducing tones that gain access to long-distance lines.

Roberts said the company knew of no cases in which the Palm III was used to break into a car or make free calls.

Whatever the versatility of the Palm III, it's apparent from user newsgroup postings that these extreme adaptations are pursued mostly by folks with a lot of time on their hands. Dillon Pyron, a systems administrator at Advanced Micro Devices, said he tried for a while to get the device to work as a TV remote control but with little success. ``It's not one of my high-priority items,'' he said.

Mercury News Staff Writer Mike Cassidy contributed to this report.