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Commentary by Pen Computing Magazine's editor-in-chief

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
Issue 46

2002 hasn't been a good year for the technology sector. However, there are some interesting technological developments that may change mobile computing as we know it.
We're more than two thirds through this strange year of lingering after-effects from the 2001 terrorist attacks, a shaky economy, an alarming erosion of consumer confidence in technology, the financial markets and professions, and corporate America in general. As a print magazine, we experience the impact of all those woes as a precipitous drop in ad sales which are the lifeblood of any print publication. Life in the publishing industry is tough these days and several of our competitors have folded. On the other hand we're seeing some pretty spectacular developments and advances in mobile technology, and I want to address two of them.

First, there is renewed interest in what I call PDAphones--the merging of cell phones with PDAs. Second, there is Microsoft's tenacious, methodical advancement of the Tablet PC platform which we hope will provide the advantages of pen computing to a much larger audience and make it part of mainstream computing.

The merging of computing and telephony, of course, has been sort of a holy grail for decades. In the 1980s, AT&T tried to enter the PC market, with very little success. In the 1990s, there were several efforts to merge PDA and phone functionality into a single device, again with little success. One of the most notable projects (and failures) was the IBM/BellSouth Simon which looked like a large cellphone with an integrated display. The Simon could be used as a phone and also as a PDA. One of the reasons why the Simon failed was that people wanted to look up data or take notes while talking, something that wasn't possible with the display being part of the phone.

More recently, we saw Handspring's VisorPhone--basically an add-on module that connected to the Visor via its Springboard expansion slot. It was received favorably, but several rounds of price reductions (eventually down to free with service initiation) made it clear that the market may not accept a device that carries a premium price in addition to the cost of the service. Why did Handspring do it? I think the company realized it simply could not turn a profit by engaging in a price war in low-cost Palm OS devices. Even high sales volumes would not lead to profitability if the profit margin is too small. Handspring probably also realized that it cannot go head-to-head with Microsoft in the multi-media and complex application arena that the Pocket PC occupies. That niche once was supposed to be handled via third party Springboard modules. There were indeed some very interesting modules, but the concept essentially failed because such modules rely on a stable, non-changing form factor to succeed. The larger modules designed for the original Visor didn't mesh well with the sleeker Visor Edge. In a sense, modules are limited to a form factor, which is a disincentive to module developers. In Handspring's case, with the low price/high volume market a losing proposition and the high end likely going to Microsoft, the company therefore decided to branch out to premium-priced PDAphones with the Treo 180, 270, and 300. The simple, straightforward Palm OS interface lends itself well for phone operation, and a small number of high profit items may be a better deal than a high number of small profit items.

The Microsoft Pocket PC Phone Edition, likewise, is an effort to merge PDA and phone. I have somewhat mixed feelings about that project as well, as apparently do almost all of the Pocket PC OEMs. If that weren't so, we'd have seen Pocket PC phones from the traditional Windows CE players such as Casio, Compaq, or NEC. Instead, the first representative came not from a hardware company but a communications carrier, T-Mobile. I've used the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone Edition for several weeks and generally like it. It is a very attractive device that does a lot of things well. You need a phone? It is a phone. You want a Pocket PC? It is a full-function Pocket PC. But despite good integration between the phone and the PDA sides, the T-Mobile also raises many questions. For a detailed review, see page 70 of this issue.

While, in my opinion, the Pocket PC Phone Edition does a lot of things better than the Palm-based Treos, I remain unconvinced about the basic rationale for a PDAphone and see it more as an attempt to merge multiple, distinctly different functionalities into one item--an approach that has spectacularly failed in various markets more than once. Apart from the fact that phones and PDAs have different hardware and power requirements, there is another fundamental difference: you can take a PDA out of the box and use it without any further costs or requirements. A PDAphone, on the other hand, requires service activation, and there will be monthly bills, reports, late charges, credit card hassles, mixups and so on and so on. People who already have a cellphone will be reluctant to buy a PDAphone because that means credit checks, fine print, and a second monthly cellphone bill unless they give up their conventional cellphone. You could, of course, argue that millions of people buy and activate cellphones, so the hassle factor does not necessarily deter them. It is therefore possible that once PDAphones have matured people will buy them by the millions.

Me, I would consider buying and using one, but would prefer if the PDAphone industry offered a different kind of service, one where I would only be charged if I actually use the phone. That service would require an account and a credit card, but there would be no recurring monthly bill. If I never used the phone part of the PDAphone, there would never be a charge. If I use it, I get billed accordingly.

Another problem is the speed of the data service. While GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) data transfer service used in the T-Mobile theoretically can move data at the same speed as a 56kbps modem, in reality it operates much slower. At times, it hardly seems to move at all. That may not be a big deal when you use a simple smartphone, but it is a very big deal if you use a Pocket PC whose email client and browser are almost the same as those of a PC. Downloading even the headers of the 300 or so emails I get per day becomes impractical, as does browsing most webpages.

I don't know what the eventual answer is. PDAphones may merge/morph into something as successful as Japan's i-mode DoCoMo phones, or they simply may be an idea that doesn't work. In DoCoMo's case, interestingly, FOMA, the faster data transfer that I so badly want in my Pocket PC Phone, has been met with consumer disinterest and resistance. Apparently i-mode works well enough at the current data transfer rate and everyone is happy.

As for the Tablet PC initiative, we've been reporting on this massive Microsoft project pretty much from Day One, almost two years ago. Although not officially released, the Tablet PC will not only bring new form factors into the mainstream, but it will also popularize alternate input technologies such as inking, voice recognition, and handwriting recognition, something we here at Pen Computing Magazine have been writing about for almost ten years. Microsoft has been both very public about the Tablet PC, with numerous showings and presentations at major trade shows (and a highly visible champion in none other than Bill Gates himself), but also playing it close to the vest, so the actual impact of the Tablet PC platform is anyone's guess.

Hardware has certainly improved dramatically since the days of earlier pen computing efforts. Processors are now more than fast enough to keep up, display technology is light years more advanced, batteries are more powerful, and adequate disk space and solid state storage is simply no longer an issue. On the other hand, pen-specific software (inking, handwriting and voice recognition) and hardware (digitizers, pens) have advanced at a much slower rate, and we have yet to see a "killer app," the kind of must-have software application that will drive hardware sales.

To help you out a bit with making sense of the Tablet PC landscape and its potential impact, we have compiled a comprehensive Q&A feature that should answer most of your questions about the Tablet PC (see page 36).

In this issue you'll also find sort of a personal case-study I did on one of my favorite product lines, Panasonic's Toughbooks. Toughbooks are ruggedized notebook computers that fill the niche between conventional notebooks and heavy-duty specialized vertical market computers. I've always been intrigued by how a giant industrial conglomerate like Matsushita succeeded in both identifying a very narrowly defined market niche and then building the exact right products to fill that niche. A weeklong trip to Japan gave me a chance to see how they did it. It was a fascinating experience. Japan and the United States, two nations so different in lifestyle and general outlook on life, have this synergistic relationship that seems to fuel imagination and innovation. -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, a former corporate CIO, is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and Publication Director of Digital Camera Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at