Uses for PDAs

Been thinking about blogging on my use of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) for a little while. Here’s my chance:

There’s simply no market these days for the traditional PDA, as even basic mobile phones can do everything a PDA can do, just with more style. Report: Apple developing OS X minitablet | One More Thing – CNET

Uh-oh! No you didn’t! Well, Steve Jobs made a similar statement a long time ago so it’s not like you’re the first one to say it. But you’re still wrong!

(This blog entry will be choppier than usual. Should have posted this as a comment. But this is getting longer than I expected and I prefer trackbacks anyway.)

Not exactly sure where people in the Bay Area get the impression that there is no market for the traditional PDA. In my mind, the potential market for “the traditional PDA” is underestimated because the ideal PDA has yet to be released. No, the current crop of smartphones aren’t it.

Having said this, I do think cellphones have the brightest future of pretty much any other electronic device type, but I don’t agree that any cellphone currently does what a PDA can do. So, while I think the ideal portable device would likely be a cellphone, I’d like to focus on what a PDA really is.

While it’s clear that PDAs have had a tortuous history since the first Newton and Magic Cap devices were released, other tools haven’t completely obliterated the need for PDAs. Hence the “cult following” for Newton Message Pads and the interest in new generations of PDA-like devices.

One thing to keep in mind is that PDAs are not merely PIMs (personal information managers, typically focusing on contacts and calendars). Instead of a glorified organiser, a PDA is a complete computer with a focus on personal data. And people do care about personal data in computing.

Now, a disclaimer of sorts: I’ve been an active PDA user for a number of years. When I don’t have a PDA, I almost feel like something is missing from my life.

I have been taken by the very concept of PDAs the first time I saw an article on Apple’s Newton devices in a mainstream U.S. newspaper, way back in the early 1990s. I was dreaming of all the possibilities. And longed for my own Newton MessagePad.

I received a MessagePad 130 from Apple a few years later, having done some work for them. Used that Newton for a while and really enjoyed the experience. While human beings find my handwriting extremely difficult to read, my Newton MP130 did a fairly good job at recognising it. And having installed a version of Graffiti, I was able to write rather quickly on the device. The main issue I had with Newton devices was size. The MP was simply too bulky for me to carry around everywhere. I eventually stopped using the MP after a while, but was missing the convenience of my MP130.

I started using that Newton again in 2001, as I was preparing for fieldwork. Because I didn’t have a parallel port on the iBook I was getting for fieldwork, I also bought a Handspring Visor Deluxe. The Visor became a very valuable tool during my fieldwork trip to Mali, in 2002. IIRC, this model had already been discontinued but I had no trouble using it or finding new software for it. I used the Visor to take copious amounts of data which I was able to periodically transfer to my iBook. The fact that the Visor ran on standard batteries was definitely an asset in the field but I did lose data on occasion because, unlike Newton devices, Palm devices didn’t have persistent memory storage.

Coming back from Mali, I bought my first Sony Clié. I pretty much stuck with Cliés ever since and have been quite happy with them. Cliés have a few advantages over other PalmOS devices like MemorySticks and the jog dial. The form factor and screen resolution of an entry-level Clié were much better than those of my old Visor. Sony has discontinued sales of its Clié devices outside of Japan. Some used Cliés go for 30$ on eBay.

So, what do I do with a PDA? Actually, the main thing really is taking notes. Reading notes, research notes, lecture notes, conference notes, etc. I’ve taken notes on coffee I’ve tried, on things I’d like to learn, on moments I want to write more extensively about… Though my fingers are rather small, typing on a small QWERTY keyboard has never been a real option for me. I tried using the keyboard on a Clié NX70V and it wasn’t nearly as efficient as using Graffiti. In fact, I’ve become quite adept at MessagEase. I can usually take elaborate notes in real time and organise them as I wish. Some notes remain as snippets while other notes become part of bigger pieces, including much of what I’ve written in the past ten years.

I also use my PDA for a number of “simpler” things like converting units (volume and temperature, especially), playing games (while waiting for something or while listening to podcasts), setting different timers, planning trips on public transportation systems, etc. I used to try and use more PDA applications than I do now but I still find third party applications an important component of any real PDA.

I always wanted to have a WiFi-enabled PDA. It’s probably the main reason behind my original reaction to the iPod touch launch. With a good input system and a semi-ubiquitous WiFi connection, a WiFi-enabled PDA could be a “dream come true,” for me. Especially in terms of email, blogging, and social networking. Not to mention simple Web queries.

I do have a very clear idea in mind as to what would be my ideal PDA. I don’t need it to be an MP3 player, a gaming console, or a phone. I don’t really want it to have a qwerty keyboard or a still camera. I don’t even care so much about it having a colour screen. But it should have an excellent battery life, a small size, good synchronisation features, third party apps, persistent memory, a very efficient input system, and a user community. I dream of it having a high-quality sound recorder, a webcam (think videoconferencing), large amounts of memory, and a complete set of voice features perfectly tuned to its owner’s voice (like voice activation and speaker-dependent, continuous speech recognition). It could act as the perfect unit to store any kind of personal data as a kind of “smart thumbdrive.” It could be synchronised with almost any other machine without any loss of information. It would probably have GPS and location-enabled features. It could be used to drive other systems or act as the ultimate smartcard. And it should be inexpensive.

I personally think price is one of the main reasons the traditional PDA has had such a hard time building/reaching markets. Inexpensive PDAs tended to miss important features. The most interesting PDAs were as expensive as much more powerful computers. Surely, miniaturisation is costly and it never was possible for any company to release a really inexpensive yet full-featured PDA. So it may be accurate to say that the traditional PDA is too expensive for its potential market. I perceive a huge difference between problems associated with costs and the utter lack of any PDA market.

Price does tend to be a very important factor with computer technology. The OLPC project is a good example of this. While the laptop produced through this project has many other features, the one feature which caught most of the media attention was the expected price for the device, around USD$100. All this time, many people are thinking that the project should have been a cellphone project because cellphone penetration is already high and cellphones are already the perfect leapfrog tool.

So it’s unlikely that I will get my dream PDA any time soon. Chances are, I’ll end up having to use a smartphone with very few of the features I really want my PDA to have. But, as is my impression with the OLPC project, we still need to dream and talk about what these devices can be.

14 thoughts on “Uses for PDAs”

  1. “it may be accurate to say that the traditional PDA is too expensive for its potential market”…I think this is right on. The price of the feature set I personally need is coming down, so it’s only a matter of time until the level of functionality meets the price I’m willing to pay. If it keeps going down, it won’t be long until most users won’t need these big clunky boxes or laptops to accomplish what they need and will be quite satisfied plugging their iPhone (or whatever) in to a monitor and keyboard, using more dedicated appliances for heavy tasks (like consoles for games).

  2. RS,
    Thanks for your comment! Did think about some of our prior conversations while writing this post so I’m glad we can follow it up. And I quite like the “docking” use you describe. Use an inexpensive device anywhere and get the expensive machine for actual “sessions.”
    Speaking of price points. I only heard about Palm’s pricing of the Centro today, on Radio-Canada’s Carnet techno. Tech pundits from California haven’t been very enthusiastic about Palm’s devices but I think the 100$ price point will be a very convincing argument for several people. I just wish it had WiFi.

  3. Oops! Just saw the small print on Centro’s 99$ pricing:

    After instant discount, mail-in rebate, and qualifying two-year Sprint service agreement.

    Doh! Though it’s still much less expensive than an iPhone, the fact that it necessitates a Sprint agreement makes it much less interesting.

  4. It is true that mobile phones have PDA functions, but I have found it more difficult to program a mobile phone (Symbian OS, Motorola, etc.) than it is to make PalmOS PDA programs. I’ve been a PalmOS Software developer since 2000 and able to freely, make my Palm OS device (Palm Tungsten W, Palm Tungsten T) do more than any Nokia or Motorola phone. Though I have my Motorola SLVR L7 souped up… The PalmOS PDA sure beats it by a long shot.

    I’m in Philippines (originally from Seattle, WA USA) and Filipinos are anxious to sell me their Palm OS devices, especially when they know I’m a Palm OS software developer, and I may be the only Palm OS software developer in the Philippines. (I kindof like the idea of having no competition.)

    My wife finds it entertaining that I can make a Palm OS program in just a few minutes and her Tungsten W will run the program as I have created it.

    Still my development stages remain unique in todays world, but I find it amusing to run software with my name or even my business name as the programmer of it.

    For me, if I had my way (and I wasn’t married), I would acquire every unused PalmOS PDA I can get ahold of. I would deploy my own software (to my future employees and clients) and never run out of stuff to do.

    For those that have a PDA they are no longer using, give it to a PDA software developer.

    For those that have a PalmOS PDA they are no longer using, and collecting dust, send it to me… (For Free? ha ha ha!)

    I told my wife that I would not mind having my own PalmOS PDA collection by the end of 2007 or 2008… I’m thinking of over 100 devices… All running my own software… 🙂 It’s like having my own mini-Army.

    Have a Nice Day, Everybody!

    1. Well, now that you mention it … I do have two perfectly functional Palm T3’s and a Treo 680 that I wanted to sell. Interested? Get back to me with an offer, or else they go on eBay.

      1. Well… I wrote that post before getting an iPod touch. Since then, my ‘touch provides me with most of the functionalities for which I was using PDAs. And a whole lot more. But thanks for the offer!

  5. Thanks for your comment. It does sound like developing for these PDA platforms is easier than for phones. If the PalmOS goes the way of the NewtonOS (not present on any currently-produced device), we’d lose a lot of neat apps, including some niche ones which might be hard to code on another platform.
    But aren’t there phones using Linux? That would make it even easier to develop new apps, wouldn’t it?
    Also, we probably all think about the iPhone and iPod touch. If Apple were to finally see the light and really open the “mobile Mac OS X” platform, it should be easier to develop on it than on even the PalmOS, no? Not to mention that it could get more developers hooked on Mac OS X…
    Maybe I’m just way off on all of this. IANAC. Also, many people are discouraged by Apple’s practises with respect to development.

    Ah, well…

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