December 04, 2003

Smartphones May Someday Threaten Laptops?

Well, at least Duncan Martell (via Reuters) thinks so. While snazzy combo devices like the Treo 600 keep raising the bar, I still think we're a long ways off from ditching laptops for a single handheld device for all our mobile needs.

Yes, laptops keep getting smaller and thinner, and convergent PDA's cram even faster chips and more features inside. Some high-end PDA's are sporting at least 400 MHz processor chips under the hood, with faster ones on the way.

However, as much as I use my PDA and encourage its use for mobile professionals, the interface and size factor doesn't cut it for higher end computing tasks. The clamshell PDA, the closest thing to a laptop replacement, has been tried over a number of times. There is even a lot one can do on a Treo 600, and the technolust sets in quickly, but it still can't run fat client programs.

Even as the market has been shifting to web-based apps, most PDA's still can't provide a comparable browsing experience. They're getting better, but active content and screen size and resolution are still limiting factors. As another example, try giving a full PowerPoint presentation from a PDA, including full PowerPoint features such as transitions, animations, and other embedded and active content, and having full editing capability. Sure, there are a number of solutions that let one project static slides from PDA's, and a few even boast some editing features. I even own one such device, the Presenter-to-Go from Margi Systems. It's not bad, and it's worked well for canned presentations prepared well in advance. But I'll take a laptop anytime for my mission critical presentations, working at client sites, and having a fuller range of tools at my disposal when necessary.

One market research analyst quoted in the above article thinks that we're only 18 months away from the point where road warriors can leave their laptops at home. I could've sworn I read that at least 18 months ago. In my opinion, the analysts conveniently forget the human part of the equation and instead focus on the purely technical accomplishments.

Yes, high-end PDA's are definitely closing the gap on low and mid-range laptop tasks, and are "usable" in place of laptops for less demanding applications, and for short durations like quick trips. However, as a proficient touch-typist, I am much more productive when typing on a laptop-sized keyboard, and my eyes welcome those nice crisp 14- and 15-inch laptop displays. Perhaps someday, PDA/cell phone combos with a redesigned interface just might replace laptops. I just don't think it's going to be anywhere as soon as the pundits are forecasting. As my esteemed friend and colleague Dennis Kennedy once pointed out to me, PDA's are best considered to be extensions of our PCs for the time being. To which I'll add that data synchronization is a very powerful tool when used properly.

Lest my readers think I've been replaced by the "pod people" (no, not iPods ;^) in this piece, rest assured that I'm still a heavy PDA user. That experience has taught me exactly where PDA's have helped to enable me, and exactly where they still need vast improvement to be an exclusive mobile tech and data solution.

[Update: Here's an interesting piece on I found just after posting the above: "'Connected' PDAs Will Outnumber 'Traditional' PDAs by the Year 2006 - Smartphones May be Left in the Dust". Both the article and the readers' comments are worth reading to see where the market will most likely be headed. I think smartphones will still be limited to the "elite" professionals for the foreseeable future, while the masses will continue migrating to other wireless technologies in their PDAs and laptops.]

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