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Just a Thought - So Ends The PDA Fad

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- February 24th, 2005

It's official: Sony has bowed out of the PDA market.

To many industry watchers, Sony's move is not surprising, if not necessarily expected. Many believe that the PDA as a distinct device has pretty much had its day. It is not surprising because many of the functions found in a PDA can now be found in other devices, like cell phones and iPods. It is expected, to my way of thinking at least, because the PDA's inevitable demise in the form we know today is nothing more than the natural evolution of the device.

When the Newton and Palm devices first came out, I wondered why anyone would use these devices over, say, a paper based organizer. Of course, there was a certain convenience factor with being able to connect the handheld device to a computer, and then sync the information, but the Newton, Palm-based devices, and all Windows CE/PocketPC based devices suffer from the same problem: they were not good enough to completely replace pencil and paper.

PDAs are basically used in 2 ways -- as an enhanced information manager (phone numbers, schedules, todo lists), and as a document manager (document creation and reading, spreadsheets, graphics).

Palm devices sold well because they came closest to meeting the challenge of replacing the trusty leather bound organizer when it came to managing information. Palm devices are small, light weight, and fairly rugged. The Palm user interface was simple to understand, and information is easy to get to and use. But as technology progressed and we became more connected, we needed to be able to use the information stored in our Palms in new ways.

Marrying the Palm PDA to a cell phone was the next logical step in the evolution of the information manager. Now, users can make better use of the data stored in their handheld devices; the phone is not simply a phone, it can now let you make connections to and with data that you may not have been able to before.

As a document manager, however, all handheld devices fall woefully short. Nothing has thus far matched pen and paper for convenience, reliability, ruggedness, or longevity. Paper can be torn, wadded, wetted, folded, twisted, and in some cases, burned, and the information written on it would still be useable.

You can carry paper anywhere, store it anywhere, and use it nearly anywhere. The same is true for writing devices.

Handheld devices have a few advantages over the venerable team of paper and pen, too. Data, once entered, can be more easily manipulated, moved, modified, and deleted. Still, in the end, those advantages are not enough.

Comparatively speaking, handheld devices are delicate, weighty, and bulky due to the glass screens. Information is tough to put into these devices, and, because they are necessarily small, the data presented on the tiny screens can be hard to see. Try reading a lengthy document on the Palm or PocketPC device, and you'll quickly appreciate the simplicity of a paperback novel.

Further, in a quest to become more useful, handheld devices have become more complicated. PocketPC PDAs, and now Palm based PDAs can play movie clips, music, surf the Internet, play high quality games, and more. You navigate through a Windows-like user interface to get to these features, and it is my humble opinion that Windows is bad enough on a 17" monitor; on a PDA's tiny screen, Windows, even a stripped down version, is just plain silly. I know many will argue this point with me, but navigating Windows menus on a 5" screen (or smaller) without the benefit of a mouse or keyboard is not my idea of a fun time.

Palm based devices make things a bit easier because the user interface is less cumbersome, but they typically have smaller screen, thus raising your squint-factor appreciably.

Of course, there are the e-books, with larger screens that were designed to be the replacement of books and magazines. The idea was sound, but again, the devices are far more fragile than what they were designed to replace, and the cost of the data they displayed (electronic novels costs almost as much as paper versions) made them less than economical to use.

I'm not saying that the PDA is dead; I happen to believe that the PDAs will continue in some form or another, but don't look for them to be the discrete devices we've known up till now. Instead you'll see more logical integration of the data manager features of PDAs with phones and other devices.

As for the PDA as a document manager, I'm afraid its days are numbered. Until someone comes up with a device that approaches any of the positive aspects of paper and pen, I believe you'll find that anything else is just - dare I say it?- a fad.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

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