Column: the future of the PDA

Loose Wire: The Future’s in Your Handheld
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff , 6 December 2001 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Okay, so my track record as tech visionary isn’t flawless, but bear with me. After all, I’m the guy who thought fold-out keyboards for personal digital assistants, or PDAs, wouldn’t catch on. (In its first year of shipping, United States-based Think Outside Inc. sold more than one million of its Stowaway keyboards, offering 24 different versions and making it the most successful new product for handheld computing ever.)

I’m also the guy who last February described the credit-cardsized Rex personal organizer as “the future.” Its latest owner, Intel Corp., stopped producing them in August. Oh, and I thought installing Windows XP, the latest version of Microsoft’s ubiquitous operating system, was a good idea; I removed it earlier this month when it slowed my programs to a crawl, was fickle in connecting to the Internet and — although I have no concrete proof of this, I’m convinced — invited aliens to take over my PC.

But I’m sure I’ll be proved right on this next prediction: that the PDA represents the future of computing as we know it. These gadgets represent our best chance to make computing an activity that isn’t wed to the environment — from hunting for a power outlet or phone socket to being stuck in the office next to the guy who coughs up fur balls all day. PDAs offer us the chance of being always on, always connected, always updated and, at least in theory, always on time for meetings.

PDAs, however, aren’t quite ready for us yet. Wireless connectivity is still only available to the lucky few. Only a handful of manufacturers have combined the PDA with the handphone and most of those are still operating at the laughably slow speeds provided by the popular Global System for Mobile, or GSM. But this will change — more slowly than we’d like, but it will. New handphones hitting the streets in coming months will make use of 2.5G and GPRS — a halfway house between what you’re used to — GSM — and what you were promised — 3G, or Third Generation wireless telecommunications — which will speed things up.

This will help make the PDA much more than just a toy. If you are able get a decent connection to the company network or the Internet, you won’t just be able to check e-mail and surf. You can synchronize company spreadsheets, contact databases, and update inventories, price lists and orders.

Right now there’s a mismatch between what people want from these things and what they can actually do — and this undermines our faith in them. I packed up my Hewlett-Packard Jornada and its keyboard and headed outside last week to write a column, only to find I couldn’t read the colour screen in bright sunlight. And, unless you’re vaguely techie-ish, chances are you don’t back up all that often, either to your PC or to a flash-memory card, raising the likelihood that you lose all your data on the road to a crash, or you drop it in a nearby swamp.

Still, what really matters is getting software that’s tailored to your needs, however specific. One very useful tool, for example, is a program developed by U.S.-based Firepad Inc. (www.firepad.com) which converts most PC or Mac formats of image and video files to something that can easily be downloaded or viewed on a Palm. This is great for professionals, from engineers to estate agents, who don’t want to lug diagrams, technical manuals, catalogues or blue prints around with them.

There are other reasons PDAs might be about to take off. Screens are getting better — the Palm m505 has an excellent colour screen — while peripherals are getting more useful, from plug-in cameras to GPS tracking devices. Battery life is improving, too: the Compaq iPAQ 3870 is supposed to run for 12 hours or more. Handwriting recognition is also getting better: Microsoft’s Transcribe software comes preloaded on the latest Pocket PCs, allowing users to write longhand on the screen and their scribblings to be interpreted into digital text on the fly.

This isn’t going to happen tomorrow. And because it’s me predicting it, it may well not happen at all. But if we can get our heads around it, we may find that the humble PDA may end up being more productive than our desktop PC by doing what we want it to do, when we want it to. Especially if you have to abandon your desktop PC to aliens.

01. December 2001 by jeremy
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