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 #33 (06/22/02)

PDA/Phone/Pager Combinations: Handset Designs Run Amok?

In 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 with them.
The original 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 memos).

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 ("Wi-Fi").

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 combo.

“Bluetooth,” a 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 when opened.


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 list.


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 revenue.)


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 operating system.


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 handsets.


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