(FORTUNE Magazine) – As now I lay me down to sleep, please, Lord, tell me that consumer electronics companies will not be allowed to act like computer companies! And tell me they won't be allowed to mess around with computers!

I want to talk about two products, one created by a computer company and one created by a consumer electronics company. In so doing, I want to lay to rest the idea that consumer electronics companies have any clue about how to produce complex digital products. In other words, I want to challenge the central idea of convergence, in which consumer products companies make lots of things with microprocessors and relegate computer companies to the back offices of the world.

The first product is relatively well known: the U.S. Robotics PalmPilot, which was launched about a year ago. The second product was introduced in the U.S. last month: the Philips Velo 1.

Here's what is similar about the products. Both address the same basic opportunity: to deliver a hand-held device that people can carry around to conveniently manage personal information such as their calendar, phone book, messages, and documents. Both products come bundled with a docking mechanism and software that allows the owner to connect the device to a personal computer, copy information from the device to the PC, and integrate software programs. Both products were designed by a team of veteran computer industry people in Silicon Valley.

Here's what is different: The team that made the PalmPilot is part of a very large computer industry company, U.S. Robotics (which recently agreed to merge with another large computer company, 3Com). The team that made the Velo 1 is part of a very large consumer electronics company, Philips.

The proposition that governs the design of the PalmPilot is that it is a peripheral device for your personal computer--it serves as a digital container for the information you want with you all the time, even when you can't or don't want to carry around a laptop. It weighs less than a pound, gives you an easy-to-use pen to enter data and control the device, is small enough to fit in a man's shirt pocket, and comes with a way to easily reconcile the information in the PalmPilot with information on your personal computer.

The proposition that governs the design of the Velo 1 is similar, but with one major difference. Philips couldn't quite give up the idea that you might want to use the Velo 1 as a really, really small personal computer. So Philips leaves it up to the consumer to decide whether the device is either a peripheral for a PC or a tiny PC itself. And this is precisely where the differences start to show up.

Computer companies have learned that you cannot create an almost-pregnant computer: People who want to buy a computer system want the whole enchilada--they don't want some of it, or even most of it. So computer companies know that you have to make the choice between designing something that is a peripheral for a real computer and designing something that is itself the computer.

I have owned and used a PalmPilot for more than a year. I love the product and have helped most of the partners at our venture capital firm decide to use one. (Our partners meetings now look like a PalmPilot store.) The PalmPilot is a certifiable smash hit that has sold at least 500,000 units since it was introduced. One research firm gives the thing 50% of the market for hand-held computing devices.

But I decided to look at the Velo 1, based on the proposition that it may really be a small and portable PC that can synchronize easily with a big personal computer. Maybe, I fantasized, I could finally travel without having to carry the five or so pounds of computer and other junk I need to bring my notebook PC with me.

As an ultra-small PC, the Velo 1 is very, very cool. It uses Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, as do the competitive products from Casio, Compaq, and Hewlett-Packard. Windows CE is a different operating system from Windows 95--it looks and acts like Windows but is designed for very small, battery-operated computers. Unlike the mini devices offered by competitors, the Philips Velo actually looks nice and doesn't instantly identify you as a nerd when you pull it out of your pocket. More important, Philips was smart enough to build communications into the device--you don't have to buy an expensive modem that drains battery power in just a few minutes. Clearly, the Velo is the best of breed of the extremely small PCs that use the Windows CE operating system. It has won several noteworthy awards from industry trade magazines. That's the best you can say about it.

Now let me take you back to the PalmPilot. In over a year of using the device, I've never read a manual for the product. I recently swapped my old one for the most recent version, and I still don't know if it even comes with a manual. Since the PalmPilot people weren't confused about what the device actually was, since they knew it was a computer peripheral, they designed it in such a fashion that even a novice PC user would know what to plug where. The one part of the Pilot that involves any work is getting the pen to write characters the device will recognize. Learning this takes about 20 to 30 minutes of futzing around. And after about a month you don't even worry about the pen anymore. But just in case, the designers created a handy sheet of pen clues that you can paste to the back of the PalmPilot, as well as a fun little game that lets you practice writing characters.

Then there's the Velo 1. The Velo 1's documentation and packaging must have been designed by a completely different group of people from the ones who designed the product. When you open the box, you have to excavate everything--Velo, dock, cables, and several other pieces of junk--to get the manual at the bottom. As you dig through the mess, you'll run across a CD called Velo 1 Update. If you try to run that CD, you'll get a message that you have to install something called the "HPC Explorer" first. It may take you a while to discover that the HPC Explorer is on another CD, this one packaged in an envelope labeled "Certificate of Authenticity" that's in the back of the shrink-wrapped manual. Take a peek inside, and you discover that you can't find any info about the HPC Explorer until the third chapter of the manual.

I love the opening paragraph of the manual: "This chapter contains important information and operating instructions. Please read this chapter carefully before using the Philips Velo 1." That chapter carefully tells you to remove something inside the battery door before it tells you how to open it. Okay, most people know how to open a battery door, so this is not that big a deal--except that you wonder how good the rest of the manual is if it can't deliver basic information correctly on the second page. In fact, the manual is a poorly written disaster.

It goes from bad to worse. The aspiring Velo user soon gets the distinct impression that Windows CE is just as complicated and unpredictable as Windows 95. But this version of Windows CE is encased inside a product from a consumer electronics company that probably doesn't have the first idea about how to support any kind of computer product, much less one running Windows. Indeed, nowhere in the introductory materials is there even a hint of a support organization, aside from a reply card that mentions an 800 number for registering. And right now, frankly, I'd like to know where to turn--I keep getting an error message from my computer telling me that the connector socket I plugged the Velo cable into is already being used by another device. That's not true--but I can't figure out how to straighten it out. (Ironically, it's the same connector I plug the PalmPilot into, without any problem at all.) And even if Philips did give me a phone number, I'm not about to call a company that can't even tell me how to insert batteries correctly. Talk about unreliable.

Bottom line: A computer company has created a product that consistently delivers what it promises at a reasonable price and that is backed up by a reasonable service organization. A consumer electronics company has delivered a really cool product, but it doesn't seem to work that well. I wish it did work. I wish I could reduce my travel weight by another four pounds. Wishful thinking just doesn't cut it when you've got a job to do.

So I've resorted to prayer. Please, Lord, let those consumer electronics companies find something new to distract them from the promise of digital convergence!

STEWART ALSOP is a partner with New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm. Neither he nor his partnership has financial interests in the companies mentioned. Alsop may be reached at