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.
PDA/Phone/Pager Combinations: Handset Designs Run Amok?
The PDA Landscape- Nobody's Perfect (Column 29, 4/24/02) I focused on
PDA-phone combinations from the PDA perspective. At the time, I picked the
HandSpring Treo as the best choice if you need one device to do everything.
But sometimes you don’t want one device that does everything.
|As small as it is, the Treo is fairly large compared to the
latest pure-phone handsets, and it doesn't support upcoming fast wireless
data standards. Despite all the combo variants on the market, it may be
time to reconsider the design of these gizmos based on what you actually do
PalmPilot turned the failed handheld PC industry on it's head by realizing
many people were looking for a handheld in addition to their desktop,
not as a replacement. Today's
handheld manufacturers may want to consider this approach, and create
PDA-enabled phones for use in addition to a PDA, not as a
replacement. The phone would be used primarily as a phone, with easy access
to the simplest, most useful features of a PDA (contacts, calendar, and
In theory, it would be
great to carry a single device that did everything, but the combination is
inherently a compromise. Consider:
A full-featured PDA
requires a fairly large screen, and the trend in phone handsets is to go tiny.
There are real world reasons for microscopic phones. There are times – when
wearing an evening dress, for example – when a phone is all that is required,
and even minimal added size or weight is counterproductive.
Web surfing and email
require a keyboard - also tough to fit on a tiny handset.
Battery requirements are
different: a phone needs a lot of juice for a relatively short time. Newer
PDAs with color screens are becoming more like phones (with quick-draining
rechargeable batteries), but most PDA's need less power over a longer period
of time. Not only that, they have different dead battery consequences: when a
phone goes dead, you can recharge it. If a PDA goes dead, you’ll lose any new
or changed data.
In the U.S., today's data
networks using cellular carriers are dial-up and slow. The telecom industry
is investing in higher speed, always-on "2.5G" and "3G" networks, but in the
meantime, the computing world is rapidly standardizing on a completely
different networking standard - inexpensive, local hotspots based on 802.11b
Even with high speed
networks in place, there may not be much demand for them on a phone handset.
Palm realized that web surfing isn’t well suited to a PDA back with the Palm
VII. Unfortunately, their solution – simple web “clipping” sites – never
caught on in a big way. In Japan, millions use I-mode (3G) to download
cartoons, play games, and care for virtual pets. These simply aren’t
services North Americans – or most Europeans, for that matter – are likely to
pay for. We’ve already seen that stock quotes and sports scores have limited
appeal. It’s possible that some new application will explode onto the scene,
but even so, the demand for wireless web and email will remain. And for those
purposes, a micro-notebook, or even a Wi-Fi enabled PDA – one such model has
just been announced from Toshiba – will be a better fit than a Phone-PDA
short-distance wireless networking standard, should be ideal for linking
phones to PDAs. However, it simply doesn’t work well enough in the real
world just yet.
I also suspect
manufacturers have been so focused on adding data capability to their handsets
that innovation on basic phone features has been neglected.
So, what would an
innovative, phone-as-PDA-adjunct handset look like?
It should be designed
primarily for use as phone, with PDA features secondary.
The form factor would be
a small - as small as possible for portability - flip phone – for ease of use
Separate hard buttons for
dialing should be included, although dialing should be possible using the hard
buttons, speed dial, voice, or when looking up a contact from the contact
A Caller ID window must
be visible when phone is closed – more phones are being designed with this in
mind; all should.
Vibrate ring option – not
only should this be a mandatory feature on all mobile handsets, it should be
easy to set and remove, not buried deep in a menu somewhere.
External “Can’t Talk Now”
button for times when the user wants to accept the call without disturbing
everyone in the vicinity. Pressing the button answers the call, plays a short
voice message to the caller explaining that the user is accepting the call but
is currently excusing him/herself to a location where talking won’t disturb
anyone, and then plays on-hold music while the caller waits.
(I’m surprised that no
manufacturer has hit upon this essential feature yet, especially since they
could sell a variety of downloadable on-hold music to generate additional
The PDA features which
are most useful on a phone. They are: dialing from the contact list, and
handy reference to calendar, memos, and to-do lists when you aren’t carrying a
separate PDA. Since Palm has the best implementation of these basic functions
and the lion’s share of the PDA market, the phone should run the Palm
Several options for data
entry and synchronization with an external PDA: direct connection to your PC
using a cradle, direct connection to your Palm device using a cable, the
ability to use the hard dialing buttons for inputting names (a la text
messaging) and phone numbers, grafitti, Infra-red
A small, high resolution
touch screen – not full Palm sized – with enough space to see critical contact
information or a few lines of your calendar. A “virtual” graffiti area could
be included for limited text input.
Separate battery backup
for data – a watch battery would work perfectly well here.
There is certainly a market
for all-in-one devices. But, given the compromises required, manufacturers
would be foolish to focus all their efforts on uber-phones when an
adjunct-phones would be better suited for what real people want to do with their
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