Avi Greengart is the Research Director for Consumer Devices at Current Analysis (Mobile Phones, Connected Devices, and Digital Home). He also regularly writes for Slashgear, sporadically blogs at Home Theater View and Tweets far too often as @greengartAvi's expertise lies in understanding consumer electronics marketing, consumer behavior, and technology adoption patterns: where new technologies meet the mass market. 

 

 

Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment: video, audio, computing, and wireless, how these are coming together, and what's likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life.

Column #29 (12/31/2007)

The PDA Landscape: Nobody's Perfect

Back in February 1998, Steve Jobs, Apple's "interim" CEO, killed the Apple Newton, and everyone thought small handheld computers were dead for good.  After all, the pursuit of the small handheld holy grail had cut a wide swath through silicon valley - Momenta, Go, EO, and Apple had all tried and failed.  As it turned out, they had the right idea, but the wrong product design - the wildly successful PalmPilot was content to sit alongside the PC and mostly act like an electronic Day-Timer, not a PC replacement.

Combine the PalmPilot's success with the march of technology, and today we have a confusing array of choices.  You can still get simple organizers, or combine them with PC functionality, wireless email, or a cellular phone.  You can get PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant) based on software from Palm, Microsoft, Research In Motion (RIM), or Linux.  You can spend under $100 or well over $600.  There are even models for models - for a while, Palm's lineup included a Claudia Schiffer edition.

Nobody's perfect - there is no model currently on the market that does everything well.  To make an intelligent choice, you have to figure out what you want to do with your PDA.

Basic Organizer Functionality

If all you really need from your PDA is an organizer, your best bet is a PDA based on the Palm operating system.  Palm's applications - a calendar, address book, memo pad, and to-do lists - are models of elegant simplicity.  Should you need other applications of any sort, Palm has wonderful third party software support, allowing you to customize as little or as much as you like.

As you might expect, Palm itself makes some of the better entry level Palm-based PDAs.  The least expensive Palm (M105) has all the organizer functionality most people need - even if you plan to add an application or two.  But capitalism is a wonderful thing, and you can choose models from Palm, Handspring, HandEra, Sony, and others with different amounts of internal memory, external expansion options, color screens, higher resolution screens, and smaller/more attractive designs.

Mini-Notebooks

If you need to view or edit Word or Excel files on the go, you could use add-ons for the Palm - both  DataViz and Cutting Edge offer nice packages.  But a better solution is to get a PDA from Compaq, HP, and many others that uses Microsoft’s Pocket PC operating system.  All Pocket PCs come with versions of Word and Excel from Microsoft that maintain most formatting, functionality, and compatibility with their desktop equivalents. 

A Pocket PC's organizer features are nearly as good as those on a Palm, but the extra applications dictate a larger amount of RAM, and often a color screen.  This affects device size, battery life, and price – these PDAs do more, but they’re bigger and more expensive. 

Pocket PCs are also useful for corporations, as it is easier to move an existing Windows application onto a Pocket PC than to rewrite it for a Palm.  Several alternatives based on the free Linux operating system are just arriving on the market from Sharp and Brother.  They’re OK if you’re a corporate developer and want to use them for specialized applications, or managing Internet servers.  However, for general use, the organizer and Office functionality are simply not up to the standards set by Palm and Microsoft.

Email

Many PDAs come with an email application, but if you are serious about using a tiny mobile device for email, you need to keep two things in mind:

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How are you going to write anything on an itty-bitty PDA?

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How useful is it if you need to connect each time to get new email?

To enter data onto most PDAs, you have two choices: 1. Tap an on-screen keyboard with a stylus - one letter at a time.  2. Using a stylus, write in an abbreviated block-type script on the screen.  Either method works well for jotting five word appointments and nine digit phone numbers, but that's about it.  You could carry around a separate keyboard, but that's more trouble than it's worth - you might as well just carry a sub-notebook. 

The solution - drumroll please - is a thumb keyboard. 

First appearing on RIM's Blackberry pager/email device, a thumb keyboard is a tiny little keyboard suitable for pecking out short messages with your thumbs.  While you wouldn't want to write full page memos using a thumb keyboard, it works a lot better than you'd think to dash off a short response.

Since the keyboard is suitable for short messages, PDA email is only appropriate for people who need to be constantly connected (for full email on the road, you'll still need a notebook with a regular size keyboard).  Right now, only Blackberry offers a combination of a thumb keyboard and wireless service that is constantly connected, downloading new messages in the background.  Services for Palm and Pocket PC devices are based on wireless modems - you need to dial up each time you want to check your messages, and then wait for the mail to arrive.

The Blackberry's Achilles heel?  It doesn't offer organizer functionality comparable to Palm or Microsoft.  Handspring's Treo 180 may be an alternative soon - it is based on the Palm software, has a thumb keyboard, and Handspring promises a software upgrade that will provide Blackberry-like messaging in the near future.

Web Surfing

For now, web surfing simply isn't practical on a PDA.  The screens are too small, and on most Palm devices, do not have very good resolution.  Wireless networks are still slow, and coverage is spotty.  Most web sites have not been reformatted for small screens, and interactive content (Java, Shockwave, audio files) generally won't work on a PDA. 

Palm recognized this a few years back when they introduced the Palm VII with "web clipping."  This is a way for web sites to provide quick and easy question-and-answer style information perfectly suited to a PDA.  While innovative, the concept never took off broadly enough to be universally useful.

Cell Phone Replacement

Anyone who carries around a cell phone and a PDA knows deep down that they're carrying one gizmo too many.  A combination is obvious – but it hasn't been easy to get right.  Cell phones need a lot of power, while PDAs need consistent power (you don't want your PDA going dead and losing data after using the phone for a few hours).  PDAs have a relatively large touch screen; phones need to be as small as possible yet still easy to talk into - you don't want to smudge the screen with makeup by putting it up to your face.  And how useful is a  PDA if you can't use it while you're on the phone?

Some combo units are designed so the screen doesn't touch your face, avoiding the smudge problem. Several have built-in speakerphones so you can talk and jot notes at the same time - as long as you aren't in a noisy environment.  But the solution to the problem is actually quite simple - use a phone headset.  Blackberry's model 5810 was the first PDA-phone to hit upon this design.

If you carry a cell phone and need wireless email, you may want to consider the Blackberry 5810 and leave your phone at home.  If you need better organizer functionality, a good phone with Palm organizer functionality built in is the bulky Kyocera Smartphone.  A good Palm with cell phone functionality built in is the Samsung I300 (this is the one most prone to face smudging, though).  The best true combination organizer/phone is Handspring's Treo 180.  But other combo units are sure to follow - the cell phone-PDA combination is where we will see the most innovation in the future.  Microsoft has a whole cell phone software platform separate from the Pocket PC, and things should get really interesting once manufacturers start bringing those models to market.

Recommendations

I had one of the first Palms (then called a PalmPilot), and I've tried many since.  Choosing one all boils down to determining what you plan to use it for.  If you mostly need an

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organizer - get whichever Palm-based device best meets your style, budget, and expansion needs.

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organizer plus occasional use of Word and Excel documents - here too, a Palm plus add-on software is your best choice.

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organizer plus regular use of Word and Excel documents - a Pocket PC becomes your best choice.

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email - the only device that is really worth using for quick-response email is RIM's Blackberry.  But if you need a full featured organizer, you'll also have to buy a Palm or Pocket PC.  For regular email responses, a full sized keyboard is still required; a small, light notebook equipped with an 802.11b Wi-Fi card may be your best mobile choice.

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email plus a cell phone - while you may still need a separate organizer, Blackberry's new model 5810 can handily replace your cell phone.

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organizer plus a cell phone - the Handspring Treo 180 is the best combination so far.  With upcoming updates to its email software, and separate phone headsets surely on the way, the Treo may become the first "total" gizmo.  But be sure to keep in mind that competition and innovation in this space will bring alternatives to the Treo in the future.

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web surfing and email - at this time, web surfing on a PDA just isn't worth the hassle: for the web on the go, you're much better off with a small, light notebook equipped with an 802.11b Wi-Fi card.

-avi

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