April 27, 2004

Is the PDA Dead?

After reading The Dallas Morning News, one might think so. Naturally, PDA enthusiasts at PDABuzz and Brighthand recently discussed whether PDAs' usefulness is waning, in wake of the Dallas Morning News article. I'm inclined to perceive the issue is one of semantics.

After all, PDA stands for Personal Digital Assistant. From the most basic unconnected organizer to snazzier connected devices such as Blackberries and smartphones, the basic functions are still very similar, and I'd say that all of these devices qualify as PDAs. I think what the negative press is centering around is that people generally want more remote connectivity and overall integration, either via their laptops or cellphones. Smartphones like the Treo 600 blur the lines, being a bit of all the above. Wireless connectivity is driving the debate, whether it's Wi-Fi, cellular or other proprietary wireless networks such as Cingular's Mobitex.

On one hand, smartphones are beginning to gain more popularity, but they cost substantially more than the average person wants to spend. Interestingly, I posted recently how the top-selling PDAs were not high end, but instead were basic unconnected models. I know many attorneys who use their PDAs almost exclusively for two functions: calendaring and contacts. Some have found the benefits of having live remote e-mail access via Blackberries, Goodlink devices, and Treos, but I wouldn't say they represent the majority of PDA users in the legal market -- at least not yet.

So I'd say that the reports of the PDA's demise are greatly exaggerated. While smaller, lighter notebooks and tablets are probably eating into some of the PDA market, as well as beefed-up cell phones, I'm perceiving that PDAs are simply evolving. At TECHSHOW, I saw a record number of Treo 600s in one place, especially among the presenters, some of whom were also successful business executives. While it may be more desirable to surf the web and read e-mail and attachments on a laptop, I sure don't want to try stuffing one in my pocket or holding one to my ear. While much of the excitement over PDAs has waned in the press, I see this more as a stage of maturity. People have simply discovered what works for them, and are buying accordingly. About the only PDA that I consistently hear excitement about is the Treo 600, although I've also heard some good things about Goodlink's hybrid messaging devices and underlying platform.

PDAs as pure standalone tools are of limited utility. I strongly believe that one of the keys to having a successful PDA experience is integration with remote systems. It needs to be a seamless extension. How and how often one is able to synchronize and thus integrate the data with one's personal information management system makes a huge difference between being nominally useful and a vital tool. Another problem is that people don't want to carry around four or more gadgets. Thus the basic PDA works well for people who only need some basic information support, while smartphone PDAs are filling the need for more savvy users. Also, I don't think a PDA is for everyone. There are still those who prefer to work with analog tools such as paper, or whose work style just isn't a good fit. How many people still print their e-mails to read them (as opposed to archiving them in hardcopy form for backup)? In those cases, cramming a PDA into their daily routine is going to produce a negative result, and I wouldn't be surprised if their experiences were quite similar to the ones depicted in the news article.

There's definitely a need to have a small, portable device capable of accessing and sharing information such as calendaring, contacts, e-mail, and even web-based information. The instant-on capability is of great use while traveling, just as with a cell phone. With the explosion of spyware infestations, particularly keyloggers on public terminals, one needs to increasingly rely on having their own portable tools. I find it interesting that some of the articles mention that cellular carriers are pushing more advanced cell phones because they find those customers actually use more airtime and data services, which generates more revenue for the carriers. Well, if they're using more airtime and data services, one would think they're actually doing something useful or of interest. I definitely think the PDA market has changed in its dynamics from just a few years ago, but I'm much more likely to attribute it to evolution rather than disinterest. In particular, I believe that wireless connectivity and synchronization has played a huge role in that evolution. Our mobile needs have become more demanding, and we need tools that can keep up with that demand, in turn "enabling" us.

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