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

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
Issue 51

Technology charges ahead, but it's often hampered by turf wars, quests for needless convergence, ill advised changes in course due to temporary setbacks, and catering to silly fashions.
As Pen Computing Magazine approaches its 10th anniversary, we find ourselves witnessing a whole bunch of tug-of-wars and competing/conflicting directions in the mobile computing industry.

When we first started back in 1994, no one could quite agree on what exactly a PDA should be, what a mobile computer should look like, and whether pens and ink and handwriting recognition have a place in computing in the first place. In the ten years since then we've seen an awful lot of progress in processors and displays and disks and batteries, but the basic questions remain unanswered. Let's take a look at where things stand.

This year it's PDAs that seem to be in crisis mode. When I presented a keynote on the past and future of pen computing in Taipei in December of 2001, everyone was worried about flat PC and notebook sales and everyone was looking for the next big thing. PDAs were considered one of those big things. Dataquest predicted that global PDA sales may reach 33 million in 2004. Aberdeen saw PDA sales grow 30 percent a year through 2005, bringing total sales to 39 million. And Strategic Analytics boldly predicted 85 million PDAS sold worldwide by 2006.

The reality, sadly, turned out to be quite a bit different. 2003 global sales of PDAs were, according to IDC, just 10.4 million units, down from 12.6 million in 2002. So much for those glorious predictions. What happened? There are many answers. The general dotcom bust/911/terrorist/recession/tech sector malaise certainly didn't help the sale of small but relatively pricey electronic gadgets. And it didn't help that the old question "What, exactly, is a PDA?" still hasn't been answered (and perhaps never will be). What's the problem?

Apple championed the concept with the Newton MessagePad and painted a vague vision of a smart personal digital assistant to help you out in many areas of life, sort of like a little black box with all the answers. General Magic conjured up intelligent agents to help make PDAs even better, but that never worked. Then Palm swooped in and demoted the PDA to the status of a simple connected organizer. Seeing their success, Microsoft wanted part of the action and added their own workmanlike little mini PCs to the mix. Handspring split off to do great stuff, but then stopped making PDAs and was reabsorbed by Palm. Now Palm, still the undisputed leader in the PDA market announces it will "rebalance investment levels" away from PDAs and towards smartphones. "PalmOne's best hope is to seek out new pockets of demand in a dwindling pool of potential users. But telephony is the real engine of growth," comments IDC.

Rebalancing investment levels? Dwindling pool of potential users? With that sort of enthusiasm and endorsement, it's no wonder the PDA is in trouble. The real problem is that no one ever truly defined the PDA. The Palm was a nice connected organizer, but Palm held on to its minimalist user interface much too long, and when features were added by the likes of Sony, Palm lost control of the user interface. Pocket PCs have become remarkably able and powerful little devices, but they were never meant to be traditional PDAs. They are little computers that can do a lot of stuff, but whatever they do, a notebook or desktop does it better.

So what's going to happen now? Will all remaining PDAs sprout tiny little keyboards and turn into cellphones? Will the dream of a true PDA, a personal digital assistant that is unique and different from a phone, die and the PDA concept dissolve into nothing more than a bit of extra functionality on a phone? That would be sad. So let's hope Palm comes to its senses and reclaims control and leadership in the PDA realm. And that Microsoft will stop the neither-fish-nor-fowl "PC Companion" approach and give the Pocket PC enough resolution and power to finally run a real browser and real office apps. Such a machine would be very useful. And it's been available in other parts of the world for years (witness the Samsung Nexio).

In those waning days of 2001 there was also much optimism about Tablet PCs as a way to boost faltering notebook sales. Microsoft predicted sales of as many as a million Tablet PCs in 2003. Informal industry insider estimates went as far as saying that half of 50 million notebooks sold in 2005 would use the XP Tablet PC Edition. So far the jury's out on the Tablet PC. The first full year of TPC sales had its ups and downs, but I think it's fair to say that some of the Tablet PC vendors expected more. Microsoft came under criticism for not doing enough to promote and market the platform, a situation that Microsoft is now trying to remedy with a flurry of advertising spreads in all sorts of magazines (except, sadly, in technology publications that actually cover the Tablet PC, such as Pen Computing Magazine). Overall, Microsoft is to be congratulated for its Tablet PC Edition work as is the growing number of manufacturers who make Tablet PC slates and convertibles. And we're starting to see some great new technologies, such as vastly improved LCDs with wide viewing angles.

Webpads are another once highly touted technology that has fallen flat on its face. They were supposed to be lightweight, inexpensive devices with long battery life to check email and browse the web, leaving the heavy lifting to regular PCs with their big hard disks and speedy processors. Unfortunately, most websites have became so large and complicated that they can't be viewed with anything but a "real" PC. And accessing the web is now so intertwined with all the other stuff we do with computers that it makes less and less sense to have a dedicated web access device that can do nothing else.

Along with the webpad, Microsoft's Mira concept, later named the Smart Display, died as well. Smart Displays were supposed to allow wireless access to the family PC and all of its capabilities within the range of a 802.11b wireless connection. Problem was that Smart Displays did not have access to all of the PC's abilities, and they were much too expensive. So Microsoft quietly killed the project, much to the chagrin of the likes of ViewSonic who actually went out on a limb and built Smart Display products.

The 2001 doom and gloom over notebook sales prospects turned out to be unfounded. People keep buying notebooks in record numbers. And with notebooks now sporting 15 and even 17-inch LCD displays, more and more people use them as their primary system. The continuing ascent of notebooks also fostered some other interesting developments. Thanks to visionary pioneers such as Panasonic and Itronics, a whole new class of tougher, more reliable notebooks is now available. Those machines are clad in magnesium, have shock-mounted hard disks and offer protection against the kind of everyday abuse a notebook on the job might encounter. And an increasing number of "durable" or "semi-rugged" businessclass notebooks now offer touchscreen options or even full Tablet PC functionality.

What about handwriting recognition, that much maligned human interface technology that some claim was singlehandedly responsible for the demise of earlier generations of pen computers? Not many changes there at all. You could safely argue that the state-of-the-art in handwriting recognition has advanced hardly at all during the last decade. With Graffiti (albeit a character recognizer rather than a handwriting recognizer) being killed in court, all that's left are the descendants of the same recognizers that were around when Pen Computing got started. I continue to take a lot of notes in Transcriber on my Pocket PC, but no one mentions handwriting recognition much anymore, not even on Tablet PCs. Those who know how well the Tablet PC recognizer works use it. Those who don't may not even know it's there and use ink instead.

So what about smartphones, those much heralded devices that seem to gain the upper hand in the decade-old fight for pocket supremacy? There's no doubt that features sell, and that's why there are more phones with digital cameras than stand-alone digital cameras. Phones also play games and have mini web browsers. And unless PDAs that can cost US$500 and more, the general expectation is that you get a phone, any phone, for free as long as you sign a service contract. I can take pictures with my Sony Ericsson T616 cellphone, check email, play games, and look up contacts, but it doesn't do any of this particularly well. Microsoft is trying to remedy that with the Smartphone, a device that merges existing phone technology, form factors, and services (such as AT&T's somewhat marginal mMode) with a Windows interface that's scaled down a notch even below the Pocket PC. Will it work? The jury's out. Taking on the likes of Nokia and Ericsson at their own game won't be easy even for Microsoft.

In the meantime, in this issue we bring you the usual Pen Computing Magazine blend of interesting hardware and software reviews of the latest and greatest mobile technology. If you're into Tablet PCs, there are six full reviews of new products plus a comprehensive comparison table of 25 Tablet PCs. We also cover the latest Palms and there's a feature on PDA security, an important but often overlooked subject. And if you want to know about outdoor-readable color displays, that's there as well. -

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