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Laptops, Tablets, and  PDA gap is closing…
by Vipul Shah

PDA revolution started with Product called PalmPilot by US Robotic, which was then taken over by 3Com and then later on became Palm.later on Palm business was broken into two pieces Palm and Palmsource as need to keep PalmOS development separate from PALM hardware business. Till this separation happened Palm pda business was competing with its own PalmOS customer in retail  PDA market. Initially Handspring and later on Sony was stealing show from Palm.  Palm was still largest selling PDA and major force but its grip on market was slipping every day. Sony was selling Clié pda, an  improved PalmOS based products. It was able to offer many of PalmOS 5 feature during PalmOS 4 days, like 320x320 resolution. After separating PalmOS business from PDA business again Palm and PalmOS both are on growth path. Today PalmOS PDAs are made by Sony, Samsung, Garmin, Fossil, and of course Palm. Handspring decided to merge with Palm few weeks back. Combing all these companies, PalmOS offers rich and wide variety of products in form of Wrist watch pda of  FOSSIL to GPS navigator from Garmin and Treo range of PalmOS based mobile phones.

Somewhere in late 90s, Microsoft also realized importance of PDA business. It made smart move by not entering actual hardware business but it made and kept on improving Operating System which was WinCE, PocketPC , PocketPC 2002 and now Windows Mobile 2003. By not competing with its own hardware making customers, Microsoft attracted wider spectrum of manufacturers from Dell, HP/Compaq, Sony, Asus, View Sonic, Samsung. Some of early adapters like Phillips dropped out after dismal performance of its Velo and Nino units in 1998/99.  Today we have makers like Dell offering sub$300 entry level but fully functional Axim as well as HP offering top of line iPAQ 5455 model with all bells and  whistles like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and biometric finger print authentication.

Latest versions of PalmOS 5 and Windows Mobile 2003 are criticized for not having any major changes in their offerings. I feel this is a sign of product maturing and becoming worthy of mass usage. This happens when you don’t see major changes in user interface or functionality because it works well but you see tweaking under hood like better wireless capability or security and battery management. Ever since I remember Nokia phones had same screen interface and that makes changing to new Nokia phone models every few months child play as there is same kind of user interface on all phones. In next one year we will see huge gains in battery life and units will become half its weight thanks to introduction of OLED which will replace LCD which is bulky and needs backlight which is major source of drain on batteries.

Today, basic black and white units cost less then US$150, all sub US$200 pda are color pda. All sub US$250 can also play mp3 and  all costing more then US$300 sport some kind of wireless connectivity.

In last week of July Sony announced new UX series of Clié pda. It offers landscape 480x320 screen, full QWERTY keyboard, 0.3 mega pixel camera and wireless capability in form of Bluetooth an Wi-Fi, and custom chip capable of 30fps video, all this weighing just 170 gram. With this bar for rest of industry is raised and now customers also expect to have all laptop/tabletPC functionality in pdas. In many countries lugging around laptop weighing 3 to 6kg is more of hassle then status.  Airports all over world make you pass laptops thru X-Ray and then ask you to switch it on to make sure it is not exploding when powered. In this process every day hundreds of laptops are left forgotten in rush at airport X-Ray machines. In India most people travel by public transport like trains and taxis and it is extremely cumbersome to lug around laptops in crowded local trains.

So if you don’t need to do power point presentations, you may not actually need laptop or tablet PC as pda like Sony Clié UX-50 may be sufficient to check emails, write letters, work on spreadsheet or browse web. Apart from it being light weight, it just cost roughly one third or one forth of what laptops cost. Tablet PCs when being launched they were touted as something field executives, utility workers on road and doctors in hospital must have. But which doctor would like to carry such bulky units around for few hours every day? With this wireless pdas it would cost less to equip these workers, and since they have on road and in campus wireless capabilities like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, it will be enough to enter data and transmit it or retrieve data for particular job or patient. Best part is, it fits in pocket.

I was always a desktop person. I had to use laptops on few occasions in my life but it was never a satisfying experience. I always liked full big keyboard of desktop and its big bright screens where cursor is never lost. When Palm was launched I was early adapter as I saw it as good way to unshackle myself from Digital Diary which I kept loosing with data in it. Eventually I moved on from Palm III to Sony Clié and recently Dell Axim on few weeks loan for me to try out. For last 5 years I am spending more time on pda then my pc. Reason is I use PC only to send emails and chat. But I love to read 2 or 3 hours a day, and that happens on my pda. I use my pda’s 98% of time to use avantgo.com browser to read newspapers and publications from around world. Every major publication offers its content in pda friendly version of its site for avantgo users. Till last year only foreign publications were on it but now you can see even likes of Indian Express on it. I don’t need to sit in front of PC to do this. I do this while waiting for train or on train or when I am kept waiting before appointments. Almost every spare minute I have gets utilized this way and it keeps me from being irritated when train is late or someone is late to meet me.

Vipul Shah is Chartered Accountant, and can be reached at:

Copyright © 2003 Dr. Raj Mehta. All rights reserved.