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 News.com
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.