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Switched On -- PDAs, a multiple murder mystery


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

The consensus diagnosis of the ailing PDA market is that smartphones have been responsible for the demise. Indeed, future smartphones and even lower-end feature phones will likely become the dominant mobile platforms with which we check the contacts and calendars that were the killer apps of the original Palm Pilot. Furthermore, smartphones are theoretically better PIMs than PDAs were because of their wireless connectivity. Smartphone users can take advantage of live remote synchronization or check off a to-do item by, for example, scheduling an appointment in the field or following up on something via a phone call.

But looking at the current crop of high-end smartphones hardly reveals a murderers' row off handheld punishers. While such devices continue to improve, handsets such as the Treo 650, Sony Ericsson P910, and HP iPaq h6315 are fraught with compromises and high prices even after carrier subsidy when compared to their closest competitors. As a result, their penetration is low. Many more moderately-priced phones have basic calendar and contact functions, but carriers do a miserable job of helping consumers synchronize those phones with the computers that manage them today.

A strong argument is that the PDA is dying of natural causes; there were only so many people with so many appointments that they wanted a PDA, at least at the cost of fiddling with a foreign script such as Graffiti. If that�s the perception, handheld makers haven�t done enough to expand their market. Sure, anyone can build a low-cost monochrome PDA, but what about one that a busy technophobe mom could use. Simply speaking �Next Thursday is Jimmy�s doctor�s appointment) would at least block out some time with a voice note. It�s mixing the default �foreign input� principle of Tablet PC ink-handling with some basic routing intelligence from the Newton or Lotus Agenda.

The PDA paradox is that, ignoring cell phones for a moment, consumers should be more willing to gravitate toward a multifunction portable device than a dedicated one due to the space constraints of mobility. But since the introduction of the original PDA, there�s been a mini-explosion of portable devices free from carrier oversight. But for a hard drive, PalmOne could have developed the iPod or Portable Media Center. Instead, we see companies such as Archos taking portable video players and co-opting PIM functionality.

tomtom GPS software companies such as TomTom and Pharos that have done well on Pocket PCs are breaking out into their own dedicated devices now. And companies ranging from tiny Magpix to giant Kodak are developing portable picture frames that can fit in a wallet or on a pendant for mobile photo display, a task that a PDA can handle easily,

Perhaps, beyond the PIM features, PDAs have simply suffered from the jack-of-all-trades problem. Take TapWave, for example, which produces the Palm OS-based Zodiac handheld showed initial promise. Its hardware�s aesthetics could pass for a PSP prototype. Its pure pixel-pushing power, though, while outstanding for a PDA, certainly won�t compare favorably to a PlayStation Portable that will retail for significantly less, Tapwave is now looking to reposition the device toward multimedia such as video applications.

But the PSP itself is quite adept at handling multiple kinds of media. If it succeeds in that role, PalmOne may wind up looking like Xerox � a company that pioneered but ultimately could not capitalize on its innovations.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at
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