Happy Birthday,PDA - NuShield Dayvue and Anti-glare Screen Protectors Skip to Main Content

Happy Birthday,PDA

After a decade,hand-helds have yet to live up to their initial hype

Friday, August 16, 2002


In 1992, Apple Computer’s then- CEO John Sculley wowed the crowd at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago with a hand-held computer called the Newton.

It was the birth of the personal digital assistant.

Sculley coined the term. In his vision, the PDA wouldn’t be just a shrunken computer, but an intelligent, communications-equipped, pint-sized, portable device for relieving the drudgery of organizing modern life. Scribble a note — “Jane lunch at noon” — and the PDA would deduce that Jane is your wife, place the lunch date on your calendar and fax or e-mail her a reminder, based on information in an address book.

A decade later, we’re still waiting for PDAs to match the hype.

The $700 Newton MessagePad hit the market in 1993, with an address book, a calendar and a calculator. But the Newton’s handwriting recognition system attempted to match whole written words to a stored dictionary, with sometimes hilarious results. The translation problem was so much a part of the culture that it was lampooned in a Doonesbury cartoon.

Apple abandoned the line in 1998. Casio’s Zoomer and AT&T’s EO, also introduced in 1993, met similar fates.

Over the years, manufacturers tried solutions ranging from joysticks to 10-key punch pads that produced different characters depending on which corner of a key was pressed to one-handed, five- key devices that required users to simultaneously press a different key combination for each letter of the alphabet. Hardly the promised convenience.

And because some PDA makers saw the device as substituting for a computer, rather than supplementing one, the early models didn’t communicate very well with the box on the desktop.

A tiny company called Palm tackled both those problems and revived the PDA market along the way.

In 1997, Palm introduced the first Palm Pilot. Its software didn’t even try to read natural handwriting, but used an easily learned, simplified system of writing called Graffiti. It made a difference.

“When Newton screwed up, the user blamed the device,” said Steve Capps, a principal architect of the Newton. “When Graffiti screwed up, the user blamed herself.”

The Palm also came with built- in ability to back up data to a personal computer. “We looked at (the Palm Pilot) as an accessory to PC rather than a stand-alone device,” said Ed Colligan, a former Palm executive.

Palm licenses its software, the PalmOS, to other manufacturers, including Handspring and Sony. Hewlett-Packard’s Jordana and Compaq’s iPac, both non-Palm- based, are also big sellers.

Today’s PDAs are easier to use, smaller, lighter, faster, more capable and less expensive than the efforts of the early 1990s.

But they have yet to clear a major hurdle:

Without tightly integrated wireless data and voice capabilities, they’re little more than fancy organizers, said Todd Kort, principal analyst with Gartner Dataquest, an industry researcher in San Jose, Calif.

“People buy them for the calendar, address book, to-do list — basically personal information management,” Kort said. Such limited functions, in his view, make them “more fashion items than productivity tools.”

While early PDAs had at least some wireless capabilities, wireless networks, where they existed, were slow, expensive and didn’t have roaming agreements, so coverage could be spotty. What’s more, communications features weren’t so much integrated as thrown on top of the PDA. The Newton, for instance, allowed users to add analog cellular modems, but these operated at only half the speed of land- based modems of the day.

Today, PDA makers are tentatively dipping their toes back into the wireless pool.

The Palm Pilot i705 can access e-mail, the Web and instant messaging in 260 U.S. metropolitan areas with no extra hardware. The unit costs $399 with a $100 rebate for activating the $34.95 monthly Palm.Net wireless service, a data- only network operated by Cingular.

So-called 2.5 generation cell phone networks — which carry both higher-speed data feeds and voice communications — are also tempting PDA makers back into wireless.

Handspring’s Treo Communicator combines a PDA and cell phone in one unit with wireless Internet access for $500. Cingular and Sprint PCS, which resell the Treo for use on cell phone networks, offer varying rate structures.

Kort regards the Treo as an impressive and encouraging effort, but still basically a PDA with a cell phone added on.

Colligan, now chief operating officer at Handspring, called the Treo a significant start. “Treo is the Apple II of PDAs,” he said, comparing it with the company’s first commercially successful desktop computer.

Even so, he acknowledged, there are “at least five years of great innovation” before Treo and its counterparts become the device Sculley envisioned in 1992.

Kort estimates that 15 million PDAs are in use in the United States. Compare that to 175 million computers, according to the Computer Industry Almanac, and 138 million cell phones, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Information Association.

There are niches among tech enthusiasts and go-go professionals such as doctors and salespeople.

As many as a quarter of younger doctors carry PDAs, said Kenneth Zelnick, 29, a cardiology fellow at the University of Miami. Zelnick also owns MD PDA Design of Miami, which sells PDA software full of formulas, prescribing protocols and what he termed all the other “junk they now expect doctors to cram into our heads.”

For the average person, pen and paper remain more reliable, less expensive and easier to use.

Kris Koehler, 38, is one of those regular Joes. An employee at a San Francisco bank, Koehler abandoned his Palm Pilot IIIxe shortly after he bought it for about $200 around two years ago.

Not only did he keep losing all his important information when the batteries went dead — a matter of his own “pure laziness,” he said — but he never got the hang of Graffiti. He continued to write new appointments in his paper calendar, which he transferred to his laptop, which he used to update the PDA.

“I have enough to do already,” he said. “I need to simplify my life as much as possible.”