Tech Industry

PDAs have come a long way, baby

The early 1990's seemed to mark the death of the handheld, but a decade later there can be little debate that these devices are back with a vengeance.

The early 1990's seemed to mark the death of the handheld.

The Newton was supposed to be the next great thing to save Apple from declining market share in personal computers. Unfortunately, like many great ideas, the Newton was ahead of its time. Instead of proving to be a great product, it proved to be a commercial failure.

A decade later, there can be little debate that handheld devices are back with a vengeance.

By all metrics, personal digital assistants (PDAs) are here to stay. We have all witnessed the success of the Palm Pilot, Handspring Visor and Research in Motion (RIM) Blackberry. I believe the handheld developers have learned from the Newton and developed devices with more consumer appeal and with applications that consumers want and will use every day.

According to IDC, the worldwide handheld market is projected to grow from 7.1 million devices shipped by year-end to 19.1 million devices shipped by the end of 2004, a growth of 28 percent. The total handheld market is forecast to grow from $3.1 billion by year-end to $6.6 billion at the end of 2004, a growth of almost 21 percent.

An increasingly mobile workforce is driving this growth for handheld devices. People need to stay in contact with the office, and the PDA is lightweight, powerful and economical. With an estimated 30 percent of the U.S. workforce (or 35.7 million people) out of the office traveling today, and forecasts for 37 percent of the total workforce (or 47.1 million workers) out by 2003, this is clearly a large market opportunity.

Any new platform needs a killer application to drive sales.

For the PC, this was productivity software. With the Internet, the killer application was initially email, then Web browsing and e-commerce. For the laser printer the killer app was desktop publishing.

Personal information management (PIM) software offered the killer applications that made the Palm platform popular. Palm OS is simple and fast by design while PIM software was easy to input, easy to back up, and easy to access, enabling a proliferation of software applications to make the platform useful and fun.

Email is emerging as the second killer application for handhelds. Specifically, the two-way always-on email service provided by Research in Motion's BlackBerry Wireless Solution is successful.

What will be tomorrow's killer applications?

I believe wireless voice will be the next major application to hit the market. I am not sure what form the dominating application will take, but I think it is clear that today's standard utility belt that carries a separate pager, cell phone and PDA will diminish, and these devices will blend together.

PDAs incorporating voice will not likely appear in the United States until the end of 2001 or beginning of 2002. RIM's two-way email is being adapted for the new GPRS (Global Packet Radio System) upgrades of existing GSM networks. By optimizing data-network capacity, GPRS can enable data speeds of up to 10-times faster than current PCS networks.

RIM begins GPRS trials in Europe this autumn in a partnership with BT Cellnet. Given the bandwidth improvement, voice as an Internet packet can be transported as easily as other forms of data. Expansion slots for the Handspring Visor and Palm's Secure Digital slot in upcoming platforms suggest that wireless modules will soon be available to enable wireless communication on these PDA platforms as well. The mobile phone suppliers also have their own plans to create devices that are more like PDAs.

Mobile e-commerce (MeCommerce) is already available in limited fashion. However, this technology clearly needs refinement before more people will shop on their mobile phones. I can imagine driving into a public parking lot, taking out a PDA, and automatically debiting money for the parking fee. An increasing number of software developers are trying to make this type of transaction a reality.

PDAs have come a long way since the Newton. I don't think we will see the market adopt a silver-bullet solution for a single type of dominant device, but there is ample room for a number of developers to pursue the various niches of consumer demand. I believe our future holds a variety of devices that embrace voice, mobile commerce and applications we have not even imagined yet.