Checklist for the ideal PDA

This post is geeky, and it’s all about PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) such as the Palm Pilot, the Zaurus, or the Pocket PC. This will be geeky: non-geeks may get bored.

Right now, PDAs are in a terrible slump.

Once upon a time, a company called 3com came up with this thing called a Palm Pilot (let us not go so far back as the Newton, for I am ignorant of its glory, knowing it only for its failure). The Palm Pilot was cool: it was a tiny little computer you held in the palm of one hand, and you interacted with it by ‘writing’ on it with a stylus. It was intended to be deliberately low-featured and simple, providing the tools you needed to keep track of your schedule, your memos and your address book, plus maybe a few other simple things. This made it (relatively) cheap.

Later, Microsoft, the company we love to hate, came up with their own competing hardware model and operating system for PDAs, fostering the breed of devices now known as Pocket PCs, among many other names.

This, along with the ongoing need for 3com (later Palm inc.) to make money by selling new gadgets, caused a bit of an arms race (pun intentional). These stylus-based PDAs began acquiring new (expensive) features at a terrible rate. Microsoft coped with this by throwing armies of programmers at the new problems arising from these new devices. The scrawny beast that was PalmOS, however, grew shaky in the extreme at the prospect of things like wireless networking, web-browsing, playing back MP3s while doing everything else, and so forth. Such was the pressure caused by this shakiness that Palm inc. has undergone a long series of personality crises in recent years. These days it is unclear if anyone is really at the helm of the Palm pilot empire anymore, but the fact remains: Palm was cool, and Palm was first. A lot of very cool applications got written for the Palm, and they’re still out there.

Enough history, I miss my point. The point is that this is all fixable. It would not take rocket science to build an ideal PDA today. Here’s how I believe it could be done:

1. Build a new PDA starting with the umpc idea as a template, i.e. use the existing i386-based architecture. Lots of stuff runs on that, and the problems of making it power-efficient like a PDA are already well understood, and largely solved.

2. Put linux on it. Why? Why not? It’s free, and it can be squeezed into embedded platforms just nicely. It has already been done.

3. Give it emulators. This is where I would concentrate the effort if I were a PDA-development firm today: Usefulness is a function of how many good apps there are for your platform. This too, is a wheel that does not require re-invention. If your PDA can run Palm apps, it has a vast library of free tools straight away. Your PDA can do this easily: Palms were slow beasties, and new hardware is very fast. Emulate the PocketPC while you’re at it. If this means embedding a Windows Mobile license, in that particular emulator, so be it. The Pocket PC is a hideous frankenstein’s monster, but the vast majority of modern commercial PDA-apps are being written for it.

4. Don’t be stupid. Right now, at the outset of 2007, the IT industry contains some of the finest minds and the most cunning strategists in the world. Computer hardware and software represent the leading edge in the science of marketing, so why are PDA manufacturers so stupid?

– You need a brand. Palm knew this of old: 95% of the people I know who have ever heard of a PDA refer to all PDAs as “Palms”. Your hardware needs to be in every business magazine on earth, on posters on the side of trams. It needs to have apple-style quirky marketing. It needs to be viral.

– You need a range. The HP/Compaq iPaq range of pocket-PCs might be an example of this, if they weren’t such a higgledy piggledy line-up of nameless one-offs. There is no sequentiality. There is no modularity. Palm today are far worse at this: Seriously guys, three models? One new model every six months or so? And what about back-support? How quickly did the Tungsten T5 become persona non-grata? Why? Oh, and Sharp, wake up and smell the coffee: PDAs do exist in the world outside Japan. If you or someone just siezed the reins, you could expand the existing PDA market by an order of magnitude, and it would all be yours.

– You need a roadmap. Does anyone know? What is the future of PDAs from HP? How about PDAs from Palm? Sharp? It’s not an all-fired mystery: the functionality of a good PDA hasn’t changed all that radically since the Palm 3. Add-ons are how you get your range of similar devices with modular extra features. PC manufacturers can do this in a cyclone with both hands tied behind their backs while whistling dixie. Don’t give me that crap about size being an issue: Mobile phone manufacturers seem to cope, and have you looked at Lenovo‘s line up of laptops lately?

This stuff never fails to astonish me. The PDA market is just so much vastly bigger than the laptop market: only people with desks need laptops. People without desks can still use a PDA just fine. People who have laptops already will spend mind boggling amounts of money to get smaller, lighter ones. Where is the capitalist feeding frenzy? Where is the supply rushing in to fill the demand? What kind of drugs are these people on? Aaaargh!
Manufacturers of the world take note: I am a prototypical english-speaking white male caucasian geek with a good income. My ideal PDA is as follows:

  • Fits in my pocket.
  • Uses a stylus.
  • Runs PalmOS apps.
  • Runs Pocket PC apps.
  • Talks bluetooth to my other gadgets.
  • Is stable as hell.
  • Will be properly supported by the manufacturer for the next three years.

That’s all. It’s not asking a lot, really. All that other stuff (massive storage, phone features, wifi, cameras, proper web browsers, mp3-playback, nice developer support, keyboards, barcode readers, ruggedness, etc.) would be nice, but I can live without it. I expect that if you have a brain, I should be able to buy these features from you as add-ons or upgrades, or even as more expensive models of the gadget I bought.

Why is it not already so?

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