14 June, 2004

The future of PDAs

Being the resident Palm OS freak in my circle of friends, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what’s going to happen to PDAs in light of Sony’s announcement that it won’t be producing any new CLIÉ models in the United States this year. Here’s a question I received from a friend via email:

Does this mean they are stopping forever?

Only Sony knows the answer to that question. I don’t think they’re likely to give up on the PDA entirely, especially because they’re still planning to produce new models in Japan. PDAs of all kinds haven’t sold as well in the last year or two as they did in previous years, and there are a lot of people in the industry who think that convergence devices, like smartphones, are the right direction to look for future small electronics.

My guess is that Sony might develop Palm OS-based smartphones through their Sony Ericsson division. At the very least, they’re still producing their existing line of PDAs, which they’ll still be selling for a while; they’re just not going to release any new models in the U.S.

I don’t think the dedicated PDA is likely to completely disappear,despite the dire predictions analysts are making. In the consumer electronics space, they’re not going to sell as well as devices that are able to make calls, take pictures, play music, and make coffee. As electronic components become smaller, cheaper, and higher quality, carrying a single device instead of a PDA, cell phone, MP3 player, digital camera, and coffee maker makes more sense, but only if someone can manufacture a device that’s able to do all of those functions well.

Dedicated handheld computers are likely to be around for a while, because they make more sense in the enterprise space. A large company that uses PDAs for a custom sales force application, for instance, isn’t going to want to pay extra for a coffee maker on their employees’ PDAs, especially when they can get just the PDA by itself dirt cheap.

The other thing dedicated PDAs have in their favor is that they are very good at what they do. I’m sure someone clever will eventually figure out how to make a converged device that does everything well, but so far, you end up with a half-assed effort at all the individual parts. The PDA is harder to use because of the form factor; the phone doesn’t get the reception of a true cell phone; the camera takes fuzzy pictures; the coffee tastes like motor oil. I know several people on the upper end of the gadget freak market who carry a separate MP3 player from their music-playing PDA, simply because it plays music better than the PDA can. And if it’s an iPod Mini that you want, why buy anything else?

And then there’s my wife’s argument against a combined PDA and cell phone: what do you do when someone asks you for a telephone number?

“Yes, I’ve got that right here. Just a moment.”

[move cell phone from ear so you can look at the screen and use the stylus]

“Hang on. Almost got it.”

[make loud scratching and tapping noises while looking up the number]

“Okay here it is.”

[move phone away from ear to look at number]

“206…”

[move phone away again]

“555…”

[move phone away again]

“8974.”

[glance at phone again]

“Oh, no, sorry, it’s 8947. Got that?”

[check number again]

“Sorry, I missed that; I was looking at the phone while you were talking. Say again?”

“And do you want his address, too?”

This scenario isn’t as problematic if you’ve got a headset, but who wants to take the time to plug in and use a headset every single time a call comes in? Bluetooth headsets are a bit more convenient (you can skip the plugging in step), but at $150 or more for one that I’d actually consider using, they’re a bit steep. I’m not on the phone that often.

I think eventually, when all the bugs have been hammered out and the public has been forced to endure a series of truly terrible convergence devices (like the Nokia N-Gage, a combined cell phone and game console that performs neither function well), someone will hit upon a perfect combination. Handspring/palmOne already did a great job with the Treo 600, as I’m sure any Treo 600 user will tell you. It will just be a while before the device can also take great photos, play clear and crisp music, and serve up fabulous coffee.

Posted on 14 June, 2004 10:55 AM | TrackBack
in Palm OS
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