October 09, 2003

The Premature Death of Handhelds?

I just read an interesting post on Fast Company's blog re: handhelds. There's some good comments attached to it that illustrate some handheld owners' malaise and disenchantment. The post sprang from this provocative eWeek article by Rob Enderle, "The Death of the Handheld Computer".

I agree with Rob's assessment of the three major mistakes. I've lost count of how many phone calls and e-mails I've received asking which model and syncing accessories people should buy. The lack of standards, particularly in the handhelds' connectivity ports, is a support nightmare. Having to buy a different Stowaway keyboard every time you switch handheld brands is expensive, and let's not even discuss the whole cell phone-to-handheld connectivity thing. For several years now, it's seemed that handheld manufacturers were just throwing on more and more features to compete, without asking us what we truly wanted.

As a result, and despite the fact that all of my dream handheld features are currently available on the market, no one device has incorporated them all. It's interesting that the one that comes closest, the Handspring Treo 600, is the only one Rob endorsed as coming closest to meeting the converged voice and data needs. But the price is quite high for a recovering economy. Handspring practically killed the company in bringing the Treos to market, and had to be bought up by PalmOne to survive.

In my conversations with people who are asking purchase advice, the first thing I ask is "What do you need it for?" The answer is almost uniformly, "For calendaring and contacts", and sometimes e-mail. Even to do's and note-taking are far down the list for most. It's hard to charge $500 or more (not to mention the enterprise server investments required for things like unified e-mail) for those simple needs and still keep customers satisfied.

Don't get me wrong: I think Palm has indeed reinvented itself over the past year. I also know that the handheld market is far from dead. It has definitely matured, and there's now a saturation challenge it needs to overcome. A number of handheld users are on anywhere between their second to fourth model, while others still use their first just for the basics.

As with the dot.com boom and bust, initially we've seen a number of varied manufacturers enter the market. A number of which have since left, and I suspect that cycle is not yet complete. There will be some continuing shakeout, and we'll be left with the survivors. But dead? No. And for one compelling reason that has nothing to do with pricing or perhaps even features: Size matters. As long as laptops and tablets can't fit in my pocket, I'll be carrying a handheld or smartphone. This market will continue to evolve and morph. Just look at the cell phone market. It's been around a lot longer, and there's definitely saturation issues, lack of standards (the U.S. has three different digital voice protocols) and decreasing sales volume, but it's still there.

As for handhelds, methinks the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard