This was a post that I wrote many years ago that focused on my affinity for Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). It was cutting edge then–in an era before iPhones, Androids, iPads and Playbooks–and I had to laugh at how dated it is and where I left off in my journey toward technological nirvana. I'm still not quite there, but things are a lot better since those early days.
Here's a reprint of that post, thanks to the scary memory of the internet Way Back Machine:
Confessions of a PDA Technophile
September 2, 2002
I’m a handheld/PDA technophile. I had always messed around with early Apple computers in high school, but my PDA habit began long ago when I purchased my first programmable calculator. It was a Radio Shack model with an LCD display capable of showing alpha-numeric characters. I programmed simple guessing games using the random number generator and some of the trigonometry functions. I then moved to a larger screen graphing model and then to my first truly handheld computer—the TRS 80 PC 4, another Radio Shack product. That was around 1983. Around this same time, I playing with an HP programmable calculator. I liked the HP’s keystroke entry sequence for calculations, but the HP was not a computer.
For a while nothing else really gained my interest. I was never into the B.O.S.S. organizers or Wizard’s or any other calendar-calculator-databank type of device. Though I did find them intriguing but couldn’t justify the price (especially being a poor college student!). After graduating from college and beginning work, I attended a Franklin Planner Seminar. These seminars were really popular in the early nineties and everybody who was anybody carried a Franklin Planner. The planners were nice for keeping on top of your schedule and great for maintaining important information and meeting details but refills were expensive and constant changes to addresses and phone numbers could get messy and disorganized over time. I’m sure many of us have horror stories of losing our planners or having all the pages fall out after an inadvertent drop.
The revolution began in 1996 with the Pilot 1000 and Pilot 5000 organizers. Sure others had come before the Pilot—products from Psion and Apple among the most notable—but none took off like the Pilot. I was one of the first adopters and opted for the Pilot 1000 with its whopping 128K of memory. The Pilot 5000 had a humongous 512K but was more expensive. These specs are paltry compared to today’s 8 to 128MB standards and 1 GB expansion potential but were considered voluminous when compared to the existing competition.
As things took off and a huge developer following emerged, Palm continued to improve its product line. The original products were refined and beefed up and around 1998 I purchased a Palm IIIx model. The IIIx featured a better design, more sophisticated operating system and increased memory. I also purchased a memory upgrade that I added to the internal slot of the IIIx that doubled the onboard memory. I later purchased a Palm IIIe for my wife which was more of an entry level device that she quickly outgrew which was replaced by the sales record-breaking Palm Vx with its executive, slim-line design and smooth, all metal casing.
When I got bored with what I believed were constraints of the Palm operating system, I jumped ship and switched to a Psion device. Psion is a British electronics manufacture that has been in the handheld computer/organizer market longer than most American firms. Their EPOC operating system is more efficient than the Palm operating system and allows their devices to operate as stand-alone computers. The Psion 5 that I purchased was capable of word processing, spreadsheets, database functions, and everything else that the Palm could do with a patented keyboard and screen design that allowed touch-type typing. It was slightly bigger than the Palm and included a voice recorder and stylus based-input. It was a truly marvelous device whose only constraints were its monochrome screen (color was only beginning to make its entry in the PDA/organizer/handheld computer market but was becoming popular) and the lack of US based marketing efforts. Psion could easily have become the king of the handheld industry but never developed a large enough North American following. When the founders of Palm decided in 1998/99 to leave and form a new company—Handspring—with a new device technology that promised some of what I found lacking in Palm, I reconsidered a switching back to a Palm-based device.
My switch resulted in the purchase of a Handspring Visor Deluxe. The Visor Deluxe offered a clean design, good memory, an improved operating system and a proprietary springboard slots that allowed for plug and play accessories like MP3 players, digital cameras, memory modules, GPS modules, modems and an array of other toys in development. It offered the allure of being an organizer and anything else you wanted it to be. I still missed the computer functions offered by the Psion and Psion responded to many like me who wanted the smallness and simplicity of the Palm but the power and progressiveness of the Psion with the introduction of the Revo and its US counterpart, the Diamond Mako. Small, stylish and feature-rich, the Revo/Mako boasted more memory than most other devices on the market but still missed the mark but not being well-marketed, not being expandable, not being backlit, and not being without battery problems—fundamental issue that are the death knoll for any PDA no matter how excellent a device. With the exit of the Revo/Mako from the US market, Psion later closed shop on manufacturing any handheld device and has focused on the successful integration of its technology in cell phones. I became frustrated with my Mako and purchased a streamlined Handspring device, the Visor Edge, aimed at competing against Palm and their executive slimline models. Still, the Visor Edge was born monochrome in a world where PDA color models were becoming an accepted standard, especially with Microsoft handheld computers offering the functionality of Psion machines but at premium cost with questionable reliability. Consumers liked color even at the expense of battery life.
I’d always said that color was unnecessary in a PDA. The device was supposed to be used for data collection and access and since most data is text-based, who cares what colors the device displays. Besides, the existing color devices were too expensive and not worth the battery drain unless you wanted to carry a charger around everywhere you went. Then along came Sony and the whole game changed. Sony’s had an initially weak entry into the PDA scene, but studied the market, evaluated consumer preferences, perfected their technology and in 2002 alone, offered more new devices than any other manufacturer and more than some had ever offered. They took the same operating system and tweaked it to perfection offering performance and multimedia features that began to rival other operating systems like Windows CE which evolved to Pocket PC. I felt loyal to Palm and to Handspring but Sony blew them away using licensed Palm OS technology. Color devices still cost more than monochrome devices but Sony’s similarly priced color devices were a no-brainer choice when compared to Palm or Handspring. Sony devices in some cases had more memory, better screens with higher resolution, better sound, better multi-media software and more bang for the buck that made owning their devices a joy. I had everything that I looked for in prior Palm-based and Psion devices in my Sony. My first device (T615) didn't have a keyboard but Sony offered other an integrated keyboard devices with a integrated digital camera options. On the monochrome side, Sony produced a low-end device that featured all the enhancements of its color devices with even better monochrome screen displays than any of the monochrome competitors. Sony seemed positioned to conquer the handheld market and I wasn't eager for that outcome but Palm and Handspring weren't keeping up. Palm finally "got it" with the release of OS5 and the use of higher speed processors that offered the Sony functionality and feature set. Sony countered with OS5 devices of its own including the slimline, integrated keyboard, Bluetooth equipped TG50 and I had to get it. I thought innovation would continue be on Sony's side since it consistently worked wonders with Palm's technology introducing new products with better features almost monthly. I was very happy with the TG50 but began to tire of its flip cover and wanted a slimline device with greater screen resolution and knew it was just a matter of time before the ideal product emerged. I waited and waited but nothing really new came out of Sony. Then Palm struck back.
The Tunsten T3 was everything that we slimline Sony Clie users wanted and more. Greater screen resolution, the fasted processor, more memory, key operating system improvements–it was a dream device. Initial problems with corrupted SD cards (not my experience) and speed slowdowns were resolved in a ROM update and all seems well with world. I’ve got my fix for now and I’m comfortable that I’ll be OK for a while. Paper and pen still have their advantages (cost, breakage/repair) but you can’t beat the overall convenience and fun of a PDA for work and for play. I've read that Microsoft-based Pocket PC devices are expensive and too complicated for frequent every day use with limited battery life but today's Palm-based devices are more like Pocket PCs than ever before with some of the same limitations. Palm-based devices are criticized as too simple and not robust enough in their feature set, but that has changed with the latest operating system and continues to change so that you can use your device for as little or as much as you want. Price and functionality are becoming less of an issue on both Palm and Pocket PC platforms and the future battle will be based on developer support and corporate IS and IT adoption. I'm even considering getting one of the cheaper feature-rich devices offered by HP or Dell and doing a comparison study against the Palm-based devices.
Until the next, new, gotta-have-it device comes along, and, assuming my budget can stand the hit, I’ll have to work on recycling my old devices back into the market for PDA’s. There are plenty of folks who are still considering their first purchase and looking for an inexpensive way to test whether having a PDA is a practical choice. Seems like the perfect market for a multi-gadgeted technophile to unload his wares.
Since then, I recall having several HP iPAQ devices, a few Palm Treos, a Palm TX, and a Samsung Blackjack before getting my first iPhone. I then left the first iPhone for an HTC device–the Tilt, a phone and mini-computer kind of device that reminded me of my Psions of several years earlier. A few iPhones later and I'm back to HTC with the Evo which sports 4G network access, dual cameras and video calling, along with the ability to serve as a mobile hotspot for up to eight devices.
Who knows what's next? As long as the manufacturers keep them coming and the devices allow for greater and greater productivity and entertainment while on the go, I'll be there.