The PDA, as we have known it since 1996, is slipping into a terminal crisis. The writing first appeared on the wall when Sony pulled its CLIÉ range from the market, and since then we have learned that PalmSource is bleeding money, with PDA shipments down 39 per cent year-on-year. Not only has PalmSource lost the OS royalty revenues from Sony, it is also been hit by the market flop of other Palm OS licensees such as Tapwave.


The ‘traditional’ Palm or Pocket PC PDA is being hacked to death from both sides, by smartphones and BlackBerry-style email devices on the left and disk-based iPods-on-steroids to the right. According to Gartner, maker RIM is now the leading PDA manufacturer: it increased shipments by 75 per cent in a single quarter to take a 21 per cent market share, ahead of both palmOne and HP.

It is not as if palmOne hadn’t seen this crisis coming, nor that it has not tried to do anything about it. The Treo 600 and 650 smartphones were one attempt to head it off, but they took too long to bring to market. Worse still, they do not appeal to ordinary mobile users, whose minds and fingers have been so warped by the dreadful user interface of the typical mobile phone they cannot now adapt to anything so nearly rational as Palm OS.

That’s a major part of the problem. PDAs have become tarred in popular culture as nerd toys, whereas the mobile phone with its ghastly sequential-button-stabbing interface is felt somehow more suitable for normal folks who would barely learned to program the VHS when DVD came along. PDAs are victims of their own growing power and flexibility – they now do too much, more than most people want, and hence require a degree of learning that most people aren’t prepared to apply.

In another way, though, PDAs are victims of their weaknesses. A growing percentage of handheld device buyers want them for wireless email (as witnessed by those RIM figures), but neither Palm OS nor Pocket PC ever made that application straightforward and out-of-the-box enough. In his column this month, Mark Needham reports seeing a banner at a recent show that said, ‘Why cannot a Windows PDA work like a BlackBerry?’ And that really says it all. This sort of user buys a BlackBerry because it just works.

As PDAs have become faster and more capacious, therefore capable of doing more things, this has worked to their disadvantage rather than advantage. Over the last decade, the market grudgingly accepted that personal computers have to be multipurpose devices, that you have to purchase extra products (application software) to make them do what you want, and that you have to learn a bit about them in order to do so. Every attempt to make the PC into a single-purpose appliance has ultimately failed.

But this logic appears not to work in the handheld arena: conditioned by the hugely successful model of the mobile telephone, people expect handhelds to do just one thing well. So you have people who just want a PIM/address book/calendar solution; people who want a phone; people who want push email; people who want to play videogames on the train. This leaves manufacturers with the hellish prospect of designing numerous models fitted to these different niches, a road that Sony had started to go down but lost its stomach for.

The $64 million question remains: is it still possible for a PDA manufacturer to hit on exactly the right mix of capabilities and ease of use that will find the public’s sweet spot and steer this market into a new growth phase instead of the bin? All I have to go on is my own experience.

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