Is the PDA Dead?

By Wayne L. Myers

My father first introduced me to handheld computing when he bought a Palm Pilot shortly after it was introduced in 1996—the first successful handheld personal digital assistant (PDA). The term PDA is attributed to John Sculley, then the CEO of Apple, who used it in 1992 to refer to the Apple Newton. The Newton never was successful, largely owing to its cost, size, short battery life, and problems with its handwriting recognition system (which became the butt of jokes in the Doonesbury comic strip and The Simpsons animated TV series). It was discontinued in 1998. Like the Newton, the AT&T EO Personal Communicator (a PDA with wireless communications capability) was unsuccessful; the company (EO, Inc.) shut down after barely more than a year of operations. The Palm Pilot, with its smaller, thinner shape, lower cost, excellent PC synchronization, and more robust Graffiti handwriting recognition system—which originally had been made available as a software package for the Newton—managed to restore the viability of the PDA market after the Newton’s commercial failure.

Originally built as a better platform for Palm Computing’s Graffiti handwriting recognition software, the original Pilot had no backlight, no infrared communications capability, and only 128 KB of onboard memory. Synchronization was done using a serial-port connection to the Pilot’s cradle. My father upgraded his Pilot to a Pilot II (512 KB) by installing the upgrade chip as soon as that was available. He then proceeded to acquire a succession of ever more powerful devices.

In the meantime, after Pilot Pen Corporation sued for trademark infringement, Palm discontinued use of the “Pilot” name and started calling its devices Palm Connected Organizers, or more commonly, “Palms.” Nonetheless, the original name stuck, and “PalmPilot” has entered the vernacular as a generic term for all PDAs.

As chip and display technology improved, so did the capabilities of PDAs. The original PalmPilot could store 750 addresses, one year of appointments, 100 to do items, and 100 memos, or any combination thereof. The Pilot II supported five times as much data. Palm later offered a 1 MB memory upgrade card that again doubled the amount of data the device could support. The Palm IIIc introduced a color display. With the Palm V, the batteries became rechargeable. The Palm VII added wireless communication, allowing access to e-mail and some other Internet services in the United States. The first BlackBerry, offering the first “one mailbox” solution, was introduced in 1999.

Just six years ago, PDAs were a hot item in the marketplace. There were new Palm OS devices from Palm (m105, m500, m505), the Visor Edge from Handspring (a company established by Palm’s founders after Palm was acquired by 3Com and the first licensee of the Palm OS), Sony’s CLIÉ PEG-N700C, the HandEra 330, and the Visor Deluxe to name a few. I owned a succession of Sony CLIÉs myself; I found them more elegant and powerful than Palm’s devices. Even then, however, converged devices were beginning to make inroads into the PDA market. Such devices offered telephony in addition to traditional PDA services. Early examples were the Kyocera QCP 6035 and the RIM 5810 (BlackBerry) smart phones, and competing devices from vendors such as Motorola were poised on the edge of the market. The sheer simplicity of having just one device to carry and synchronize was incredibly enticing.

Today, devices from Handspring and HandEra are long gone, as is the CLIÉ, and the market continues to shrink. The extent of the shrinkage in the traditional PDA market is masked by corporate reporting practices, which tend to aggregate all handheld computing devices—PDAs, smart phones, and travel companion products such as global positioning system (GPS) devices and portable translators. Even so, HP’s net revenue from handheld computing devices was down 41.39 percent in 2007 when compared to 2005. Palm’s revenue from PDAs for the three months ending November 30, 2007, was down 39 percent when compared to the same period a year earlier. As Palm reported in its Form 10-Q for the quarter ending December 31, 2007:

Over the last few years, we have seen year-over-year declines in the volume of handheld computer devices while demand for smart phone devices has increased. Although we are the leading provider of handheld computer products, we have shifted our investment to smart phone products in response to forecasted market demand trends. We expect that the rate of declines in the volume of handheld computer device units will continue.

That expectation is validated, among other things, by the 75 percent increase in the BlackBerry subscriber base (from approximately 8 million subscribers to approximately 14 million) during the 12 months ending March 1, 2008.

Palm still hangs on to the shrinking PDA market with its Z22 (a simple PDA) and its T|X and Tungsten E2 (full-function PDAs with WiFi and Bluetooth). HP continues to offer the four models of the iPAQ (a line of PDAs acquired when HP bought Compaq). Sharp still offers two models of its Wizard, and Apple has introduced the iPod touch.

There still is a demand among litigators and trial lawyers for PDAs without camera or phone, owing to the restrictions in many courts prohibiting cameras and/or cell phones beyond the security checkpoint inside the courthouse door. Litigators and trial lawyers, however, represent only a tiny segment of the international market for handheld devices. That market clearly seems to be demanding smart phones in an infinite variety of user-centric models. Even Google is poised to enter the marketplace with its Android operating system for smart phones and its leadership of the Open Handset Alliance. Prototypes of Android-based devices were introduced at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, in early 2008. Likely implementers include Motorola, HTC, and Samsung, all of which are members of the Open Handset Alliance.

So what’s available for those who don’t want a smart phone or need something in addition to a smart phone?

Palm

All Palm PDAs ( www.palm.com/us) run on Palm OS 5.4 (Garnet), have a color touch screen, and offer personal information manager (PIM) organizer features (calendar, contacts, tasks, expenses, memos, and a world clock), a calculator, an eBook reader, games, the ability to manage and display photos, desktop synchronization, an infrared port, and a rechargeable battery. (Synchronization directly with Microsoft Outlook is available on Windows PCs.) Manual data input is via the on-screen keyboard or the Graffiti 2 handwriting application.

Palm Z22. At the entry level, Palm offers the Z22 ($99), running a 200 MHz Samsung processor with 32 MB of RAM (20 MB available to the user). It has a 160 x 160 pixel screen and weighs 3.4 ounces. Desktop synchronization is done via a mini-USB cable.

Palm Tungsten E2. This second-tier device ($199) runs a 200 MHz Intel Xscale processor with 32 MB of RAM (26 MB available to the user). It has a 320 x 320 pixel transflective TFT display with better color saturation than the Z22 and supporting more than 65,000 colors, uses a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, and weighs 4.7 ounces. Desktop synchronization is done via a USB cable multi-connector (allowing recharging through the USB port). In addition to the features of the Z22, the E2 has an expansion slot that accepts SD, SDIO, and MultiMediaCards for memory expansion, data backup and storage, and add-on peripherals; document reviewing and editing via Documents to Go and Acrobat Reader; the ability to play back MP3 and RealAudio music, audio, and video files (via stereo headphones, sold separately, and a download of QuickTime software); the ability to communicate wirelessly via Bluetooth; and the resulting capability to handle e-mail, web browsing, and short message service (SMS) messaging over its Bluetooth connection to a cell phone with data capabilities. The E2 also has a flip cover to protect the screen.

Palm T|X. This third-tier device ($299) runs a 300 MHz Intel ARM-based processor with 128 MB of RAM (100 MB available to the user). It has a 320 x 480 pixel transflective TFT display, running in either portrait or landscape modes, and weighs 5.25 ounces. In addition to the features of the E2, the T|X also offers WiFi connectivity (802.11b) for direct Internet access.

HP

The HP iPAQ ( www.hp.com) is offered in four models, all of which come with varying editions of WiFi and Bluetooth con-nectivity and use the Windows Mobile operating system. Any application available to run on Windows Mobile will run on the iPAQ, assuming there is sufficient RAM for the application and its associated data. Mobile versions of the Microsoft Office suite, Windows Media Player, and Internet Explorer are included. All models come with integrated microphone, speaker, and headphone jack and use transflective color touch-screen displays.

iPAQ 111 Classic. This model ($299.99) runs on a 624 MHz Marvell PXA310 processor, uses Windows Mobile 6 Classic, has a 3.5-inch (240 x 320 pixel) screen, and communicates via 802.11b/g WiFi with WPA2 and Bluetooth v. 2.0 with Enhanced Data Rate (EDR). It has 64 MB of SDRAM for running applications and 256 MB of flash ROM. Expansion is provided by an SDIO card slot. The lightest of the iPAQs, it weighs in at 3.68 ounces. Its rechargeable battery is rated at 1,200 mAh.

iPAQ 211 Enterprise. The 211 Enterprise model ($449.99), like the 111, runs on a 624 MHz Marvell PXA310 processor, uses Windows Mobile 6 Classic, and communicates via 802.11b/g WiFi with WPA2 and Bluetooth v. 2.0 with EDR. It has a 4-inch (480 x 640 pixel) VGA screen and 128 MB of SDRAM for running applications and 256 MB of flash ROM. Expansion is provided by Compact Flash (CF) and SDIO card slots. The heaviest of the iPAQs, it weighs in at 6.7 ounces. Its rechargeable lithium ion battery is rated at 2,200 mAh.

iPAQ hx2495 Pocket PC. This model ($399.99) runs on a 520 MHz Intel PXA270 processor, uses Windows Mobile 5.0 for Pocket PC Premium Edition, has a 3.5-inch (240 x 320 pixels) screen, and communicates via 802.11b/g WiFi with WPA2 and Bluetooth v. 2.0 with EDR. It has 64 MB of SDRAM for running applications, 256 MB of flash ROM, and up to 192 MB of persistent user-available storage memory. Expansion is provided by SDIO and CF card slots. It weighs in at 5.8 ounces. Its rechargeable battery is rated at 1,440 mAh.

iPAQ hx2795 Pocket PC. The hx2795 ($499.99) shares many of the same features as the hx2495. The differences are that it runs on a faster 624 MHz Intel PXA270 processor; it has 64 MB of SDRAM for running applications, 320 MB of flash ROM, and up to 256 MB of persistent user-available storage memory; and it has a biometric fingerprint reader for access control. Its rechargeable battery is rated at 1,400 mAh.

Apple

The slick and elegant iPod touch ( www.apple.com), using the same revolutionary interface as the iPhone, comes in 8 GB, 16 GB, and 32 GB models at $299, $399, and $499, respectively. Not only does it offer the usual PIM applications (calendar, contacts, notes, clock, and calculator) and extended PDA applications (web browsing using the Safari browser and e-mail, both over the built-in 802.11b/g WiFi network interface), but it adds stock tracking, weather, interactive Google Maps, direct access to YouTube and iTunes, as well as the movies, videos, and music you may have become accustomed to carrying on an older iPod. There is a touch-screen QWERTY keyboard for text entry.

Built to take full advantage of the large 3.5-inch (480 x 320 pixel) display, the Multi-Touch-screen interface lets you control everything using only your fingers. You can glide through albums with Cover Flow, flick through photos and enlarge them with a pinch, or zoom in and out on a section of a web page. The accelerometer senses when the device changes orientation from portrait to landscape and adjusts the display accordingly.

Although it won’t let you run a PowerPoint presentation from the palm of your hand, this 8-millimeter thick, 4.2-ounce device does just about everything else you would want a PDA to do. All you need is a computer with a USB 2.0 port and iTunes 7.6 or later; it works with either a Mac running OS X v10.4.10 or later or a PC running Windows Vista or Windows XP Home or Professional with Service Pack 2 or later.

Sharp

The Wizard OZ-590A ( www.sharpusa.com) is a basic PIM/organizer that reflects a shift in Sharp’s design philosophy from the original clamshell Wizard to a simple Palm-like touch-screen device with a flip cover. With only 8 MB of RAM and an 80 x 111 dot backlighted display, it is relatively primitive in comparison to the other devices, but it will synchronize with Microsoft Outlook. It offers as many as three phonebooks, translation of up to 24,000 words in English and Spanish, and a 12,000-word spell-checker. At $69.99, this entry-level device may do the job for someone needing a simple courthouse alternative to a smart phone.

Conclusion

The PDA may be dying, but the iPod touch and its more traditional relatives show that the format still has some life left in it. For lawyers who need a PDA without camera and phone to take to court, or who simply don’t want a converged device, these are practical alternatives to smart phones. 

Wayne L. Myers is the director of information systems and information technology for Hooper Lundy & Bookman, Inc., the largest full-service law practice in the country dedicated solely to the representation of health care providers. He may be reached at .

Copyright 2008

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