Some good commentary this week from Russell in The PDA is Dead, Long Live the Smartphone.
Latest from Gartner is that Smartphone sales are soaring, eagle-like, into the ether, with an increase in sales of 75%. During the same period, PDA sales barely rose 5%, with Palm not even bothering to launch a new model in 2006 at all. Their renewed focus on the Treo sends out its own message that it really is Game Over for this sector. The smartphone sector is now 4 times as big as PDAs and this trend will now accelerate to the extinction of PDAs as a category.
Certainly, if you live in the US (or certainly Canada,) you could be excused for thinking that Blackberrys and Treos are the only PDAs around. But when you speak to educators, follow educational technology trends or visit certain other parts of the worldâ€”it’s a different story. (I only know South East Asia. I’d love to hear about PDA use in BRIC nations, Africa and the Middle East if anyone has some data handy.) Walking around Bangkok, I see lots of people everyday sitting in public places using PDAs. And by ‘using’ I mean everything from making voice calls to doing homework with friends, having meetings with colleagues or or surfing on a bench in front of a known wi-fi hotspot. There’s also lots of choice here. I bought a lower-end HP last week but there are also Dopods, O2s, iMates, Lenovos, Asus, Gigabytes (from Taiwanâ€”very interesting product line) Samsungs, Fujitsu-Siemens, the odd smaller regional brand as well as the obligatory hybrid devices like the Treo, Blackberry, Sony Ericsson’s P990i and Nokia E series. Last time I was in Malaysia and Singapore, it was about the same. Lots of models, lots of usage on the street.
Stillâ€”call it a smartphone, PDA, Ultra Mobile PC, hybrid or something elseâ€”what we really need is a device that fills the space the PDA occupied (assuming you agree it is at risk of extinction.) The educational community continues to buy PDAs by the thousands all over the world because they’re super flexible and therefore make the most sense in a learning context. Andâ€”whether you believe education is a viable market segment or notâ€”it’s that very combination of features that educators and students find useful that make me wonder if the PDA is going anywhere at allâ€”or if bigger, better smartphones are really the alternative.
The average PDA feature list can be daunting compared to the average smartphone: (especially in my opinion the first 3)
- Hackable O/S: By this I simply mean that there is the ability to create and distribute applications for the device without affiliation with the OEM or an operator. Huge advantage when compared to the overall smartphone category at the moment.
- Less Fragmentation: Whether you care for Microsoft or not, the fact that many PDAs now use the Pocket PC platform is a huge plus. (Pocket PC had about 52% market share in 2006 followed by 22% for RIM and 13% for the soon to be Linux PalmSource/Access OS.) Screen sizes are also pretty consistent as are input mechanisms.
- Application EcoSystem: I’m always amazed at the sheer number and variety of applications available for the PDA. Some are ‘mom and pop’, others more sophisticated but you have so much choice compared to smartphone applications.
- Large and/or VGA screen, touch screen and stylus: Making usage much easier and providing more options for developers when creating UI and interaction widgets. Also makes the device more usable in certain accessibility scenarios (though potentially less usable if manual dexterity is an issue.)
- Navi-Pad: All the PDAs i’ve seen lately have one of these too which allows for backup stylus-less interaction when needed and can be useful when playing games.
- Off the rack memory card: Never mind all the reduced-reduced sized MMC cards and ever changing formats. Most PDAs still seem to take SD cards.
- Bluetooth: Now fairly common.
- Wi-fi and browser: I have the pre-installed Windows browser and also downloaded Opera. The wi-fi is easy to connect to and also allows for use of IM and VOIP clients.
- Media Players: Not an expert here but most PDAs can play video, audio (often also record audio) and some flavour of Flash content. There’s also SVG support in some browsers.
- Common Document Support: Multiple versions of Office document readers, PowerPoint viewers, Acrobat PDF, Piscel, E-Book readers. Some are proprietary but the ability to transfer and make meaningful use of documents is quite high.
- Keyboard and Text Input: On screen QWERTY equivalents, dockable or Bluetooth keyboard. Also ‘graffiti’ style handwriting recognition on many devices.
- Built-In Telephony: Not all PDAs have this of course but many do, and not having to be tied to an operator can sometimes be a good thing
- Camera/Video Capabilities: Here again, not available across the board.
- Data Synchronization: I find this a blessing and a curse but many people love it and it certainly can be useful in business and learning scenarios where the PDA is used during the dayâ€”in lieu of a laptopâ€”then synched up at night.
- Decent Battery: Ok, I know this is one of the criticisms but they have improved and i’m guessing some of the high end smartphones are no better when used for video and the like.
[FYI-Gartner defines a PDA as a "data-centric handheld computer weighing less than one pound that is primarily designed for use with both hands. These devices use an open market operating system supported by third-party applications that can be added into the device by end users. They offer instant on/off capability and synchronization of files with a PC. A PDA may offer WAN support for voice, but these are data-first, voice-second devices. Smartphones offer all the attributes of a PDA, except that smartphones are voice-centric and are designed for primarily a one-handed operation."]
So of course ‘hybrid’ and ‘convergence’ enthusiasts will proclaim that we can cram all this stuff into a smartphone and maybe we can (or already have)â€”but should we?
For every person who staunchly says “I only want one device” I still see lots of people still carrying a phone + a separate mp3 player, a PDA, a laptop, an Game Boyâ€”or yet another phone. Part of that choice is likely economics but the remainder is often a personal choice to use (and choose) a device that helps you do something you like to do, does this wellâ€”and makes you feel good doing it. Even hybrid devices, are still designed to fill some sort of consumer niche!
When you look at the some of the more sought after smartphones, it’s pretty clear that somewhere along the way, the OEM decided they were making a niche deviceâ€”be it media (N Series), business (E Series, Q,) fashion (Razr, L’Amour,) gaming (NGage) etc. Of course the telephony part is a given since it is after all a phone. But once you get past thatâ€”it’s probably lifestyle and productivity features (be they work or play) that actually sell the phone.
It’s about user wants & needs. They don’t have to carry all devices at all timesâ€”they can pick & choose, just as most of us do now. I make a decision about which of my 2 main phones, my PC, my iPod or my digital camera to carry. Sometimes I take one device, sometimes four or five. Sometimes none.
Plus you’re missing the core consumer argument that people like having more stuff.
In product markets, divergence is almost always more important than convergence. I bet most people have more electrical items in their kitchens now than 30 years ago, despite washers & driers “converging” in many cases. Convergence has occurred in basic enablers: common electricity & water supply, and scale economies in motors, controllers & other components. It hasn’t occurred at a product level – my microwave, dishwasher, and, yes, toaster again are not integrated. It’s possible, but there’s no demand. And this is despite the huge increase in house prices which should put a premium on compactness to fit appliances in a smaller kitchen. [Dean Bubley, via Forum Oxford on a well debated similar topic]
Plus, for every additional lifestyle feature you enable an effort to make a truly ‘all purpose device,’ (qwerty keyboard, gaming control, larger screen, high end video) the less useable or practical the phone may end up being for its primary purposeâ€”being a phone. (Remember the original NGage ‘taco’ phone By comparison, the PDA is already pretty good at what it’s trying to do. And with wireless connectivity one may argue that many PDAs don’t really need to be phones anyhow. (Certainly in the case of the educational communityâ€”having to activate hundreds of SIMs, negotiate group plans and keep track of data usage is a growing problem. Lots easier to get a slightly cheaper PDA, use the extra cash to buy more memory and peripherals, then take advantage of VOIP and wi-fi to communicate.)
In some ways, the PDA is at a turning point. It may evolve into a smartphone niche device or simply remain a PDA (one that sometimes includes telephony features.) What may likely tell the tale is the PDA users themselves. The same person who now chooses a PDA for what it does best will still wantâ€”and expectâ€”its smartphone successor to offer the same features and flexibilityâ€”some of which smartphones can’t currently offer! And as a niche smartphone device, will it really begin address the needs of some of its current sub-niche groups as certain PDAs do?
If not, I bet there will be a lot of people walking around grumbling about the ‘good old days’ of the PDA