November 23, 2003

Form Factors

Arnold Kling believes that the PDA is an abomination:

The Bottom Line: Form Factor of Failure?: I think that there are way too many companies chasing way too consumers in the market for pocket-sized thingies with tiny screens and tiny keyboards. I think that the total market for that form factor is less than 10 million people in the U.S., and it would take 100 million users to support all the companies offering products in that space.

I like a mobile phone. And I think I would like a small laptop, like the Sony TR1A or TR2B or whatever the heck it is. The in-between form factor does nothing for me. If you want a screen that I can put in my pocket, I think you had better make it in the form of goggles.

I agree. I like my mobile phone. But the only reason I *ever* take out my PDA is in situations where it is rude to take out my laptop and type on it. There are many such situations--but as soon as my laptop turns into a tablet, or as soon as social conventions shift, my PDA use will drop to zero.

So Arnold is right.

And let me put in a product-placement plug. I've never worn a Prada suit, but the 12" Apple Powerbook is the perfect external brain pack.

Posted by DeLong at November 23, 2003 03:52 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Rob Enderle of trade magazine eWeek agrees (or, rather, said the same thing some weeks ago).

http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,4149,1306408,00.asp">http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,4149,1306408,00.asp">http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,4149,1306408,00.asp

Others in the trade do differ. Myself, I think they have real uses, but not the one we are most familiar with at the moment (general consumer, phones and addresses).

I guess (and that's all it is) that they will play a bigger and bigger role in more specialized roles -- things like meter reading, inventory tracking, and other activities where *specialized* immediate information is needed and a small form factor is essential.

For examples, see http://www.ianywhere.com/success_stories/index.html">http://www.ianywhere.com/success_stories/index.html">http://www.ianywhere.com/success_stories/index.html">http://www.ianywhere.com/success_stories/index.html">http://www.ianywhere.com/success_stories/index.html">http://www.ianywhere.com/success_stories/index.html">http://www.ianywhere.com/success_stories/index.html (disclaimer-- I work for that company) -- building inspectors, hospital doctors, aircraft flight crews and so on all need access to up-to-date information at particular times in a non-networked environment, PDA's do the trick, together with the right software.

Posted by: Tom Slee on November 23, 2003 04:09 PM

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Sorry about the URLs. It seems that something odd happens to them when you preview a posting.

Posted by: Tom Slee on November 23, 2003 04:11 PM

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There is a lot of merit in Kling’s position on PDAs. I use a Palm V, but mainly for the address book and calendar features. But mostly, I write with a pen into a pocket paper notebook. If I had a cell phone that could connect to my desktop and had a good address book, I wouldn’t use the PDA at all. Another annoying thing about PDAs is their fragility. Bang it a little and you have to recalibrate the digitizer. If you drop it on a hard surface, you will very likely break it. Contrast this to cell phones, which can take a real beating. The worst idea, ever, for a PDA was Apple’s Newton. The Palm did a lot better, but I think Kling is right, the PDA will fade.

Posted by: A. Zarkov on November 23, 2003 04:38 PM

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I worked on an 8-1/2" compaq notebook for several years and then replaced it with an IBM 11" 240X which is brilliant for all functions and everyone admires for size, weight, portability. Wrote a long book on it, even.

Alas, IBM did one run of them and then decided mega-screens are what everyone wants (even though, it seems, the little 240X sold like hot dogs.). When I have to replace this one, I don't know what I'll do -- change to the little Mac?

Posted by: paulo on November 23, 2003 05:40 PM

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Well, you're all wrong. The optimal arrangement for me would be a luggable notebook with a decent keyboard (shame on Apple) and a biiig screen, to take whereever you can travel easily and don't need to walk far, and then to work with maximum efficiency there. A Palm-sized PDA with one of their miniature foldable keyboards for efficient text entry anywhere you can't carry the notebook, and without the keyboard for anywhere it's socially necessary. The PDA should itself be a mobile phone and the only visible sign of the phone would be a tiny son-of-Bluetooth headset, and which one would use voice commands to operate, or use the screen for more complex tasks.

(The problem with intermediate-sized notebooks is that they are really all that much less luggable than the big ones - you can't just slip them into a coat pocket, they need a specialised bag, they need a - heavy - power supply if you're to do any serious work, etc etc. The problem with mobile phone-sized organisers is that they are just too small to work with.)

Posted by: Nasi Lemak on November 23, 2003 06:26 PM

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PDA's (the Sony Clie in particular with its scroll wheel and high resolution) make very nice ebook readers. I do prefer real books, but you can't beat ebooks for portability. I'm a fast reader - so being able to bring multiple books with me in my pocket is nice (when travelling, for example, and low weight/volume are virtues).

Posted by: ETC on November 23, 2003 07:06 PM

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Hmm...

I think Kling's way off base here. I used just a cell phone for years and then got a cheap Palm about 3 months ago and then replaced both with a Treo 600 on Friday. What do I use it for?

(1) contact list--the PDA is much better at that than any cell phone I've ever had.
(2) appointment book
(3) Instant messaging
(4) Low-cost, lightweight e-book.

IM is the killer reason to get a PDA with a keyboard rather than a stylus-based one (and why I went with the Treo 600 rather than the Samsung i500).

Sure, I have a laptop that I carry lots of places. It's old but compact (a Vaio 505 at < 3 lbs) but it's still much heavier than the PDA and harder to get out of my bag and start working on.

I think the mistake here is to think of the PDA as a small laptop. It's not. It's an electronic dayplanner. In the case of the Treo, a dayplanner attached to a phone.

Posted by: EKR on November 23, 2003 07:27 PM

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I like my PowerBook, but my son has an AlphaSmart, and if all I wanted was something to write with at the cafe, I'd get one of those for myself. It's primitive, just a keyboard and 4-line LCD display with an USB port to upload, and it holds about 100 pages of text, but the batteries (2xAA) last for 500 *hours* of use and it's designed to be used by grade schoolers so it's nearly indestructible and weighs much less than a laptop. It also has that X-coolness factor, since it looks kind of like a speak-and-spell.

Posted by: Peter MacLeod on November 23, 2003 08:08 PM

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Disagree,
being able to carry all my old email messages, get them on the fly, and check my calendar on a cell phone sized thingy (Handsrping treo ) just isn't replaceable by anything with a laptop sized screen. Yes people tell me about paper schedulers, they don't work with my brain, I can keep an electronic calendar not a paper one, and lots of people are like me I think.

Posted by: CalDem on November 23, 2003 09:34 PM

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Kling isn't offering any criticism that the PDA companies themselves didn't figure out two years ago. Palm saturated the marketplace and almost died because they sold a Palm III or V to, quite literally, every person in the world who wanted one and then realized to their horror that none of their customers were very interested in upgrading, their needs having been successfully satisfied. Meanwhile, the product known as "Windows CE" AKA "Pocket PC" would have been viewed as a catastrophic failure if Microsoft weren't entirely capable of swallowing a multibillion-dollar loss in the name of long-range R&D tinkering. And nobody outside the pocket-protector set ever bought a Psion.

Since then, the big three players in the PDA space (Palm, Microsoft and Psion/Symbian) have all realized exactly what you did: there are millions more cell phones out there than there will ever be PDAs, and the cellphone market is growing and looks to keep growing for a while. So all three OSes have been patched up and retuned as platforms for "smartphones": PalmOS powers the (extremely fab) Handspring Treo (along with some comparatively unsexy Kyocera and Samsung phones), "Pocket PC Phone Edition" is now Microsoft's #2 loss-leader behind the XBox, and Symbian is doing their damndest to stamp their OS onto the firmware of every last phone that ships in Europe.

And you know what? They're on to something. I never used my Handspring Visor as much as I expected to, and every interaction with my old Motorola StarTAC past simply dialing a number was an exercise in hair-ripping frustration. But my Treo 270 is a JOY, and I'm not the only one who feels that way: the seamless integration with my desktop, plus the zillions of third-party applications for it that "just work": Outlook addressbook syncing plus LDAP directory syncing plus Vindigo plus e-books plus lightweight web browsing == happy customer.

The PDA is dead; long live the PDA.

Posted by: Doctor Memory on November 23, 2003 10:12 PM

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I don't know that much about the PDA but if they are about the same size as a GPS maybe there would be some way to combine the two. No guy would have to be embarrassed by looking nerdy if the thing said something like "Magellan" or "Garmin". He could always say, I'm not working, I'm just updating my hunting and fishing spots, which would impress other guys.

Then when he gets in his car he can slap that sucker on the dashboard, as long as there are no females inside to yell at him about it, and then he will know exactly where he is at all times, thanks to our wonderful federal government.

It would also have to include certain guy features such as the internet weather, so that guys could turn it on and watch the weather fronts moving, over and over again, for at least 15 min to 1/2 hour, like they do when they are goofing off at work and there's a snowstorm coming.

It may also have to include an enhanced astronomy function so that guys can look at NASA pictures and space-related stuff.

And I really don't know about those 12" powerbooks. Is there any way social conventions would shift so that, as an external brain pack, they would overcome the dorkiness factor?

Posted by: northernLights on November 23, 2003 11:27 PM

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northernLights: The Garmin iQue 3600 is just what you ordered (except for the weather part which reqires some additional funky gadgetry). It seems to be selling well enough too.

I like my PDA. I'm a teacher with a complex repeating schedule, so an electronic organizer is very useful. Every morning I use a little script to queue up my teaching notes and away I go. I read a lot of books, play silly games and listen to MP3s. I pine for networking, etc, but really I don't want to pay for it - my desktop does that stuff a lot better so why fuss around? A micronotebook would be sweet but is too pricey and bulky for my needs.

Posted by: Data Dawg on November 24, 2003 01:44 AM

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Was the comment about Prado suits and Macintoshes a reference to Gibson's book "Pattern Recognition"?

Posted by: Mitre on November 24, 2003 04:50 AM

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Was the comment about Prado suits and Macintoshes a reference to Gibson's book "Pattern Recognition"?

Posted by: Mitre on November 24, 2003 04:51 AM

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I don't know. I find I use my PDA less and less as time goes on. Nowadays, I often don't bother to take it with me. I haven't synchronized it for weeks. But I'm reluctant to project my experience onto the market as a whole.

One of my project managers says of his PDA: "my whole _life_ is on this thing." Another constantly takes notes on his. (Perhaps my disenchantment with my PDA is due to my poor graffiti skills; my pen and ink handwriting is also illegible.) I see blackberried colleagues sneak their blackberries out during meetings, read their email and thumb replies, often below table level. Much less obtrusive than taking a phone call.

The Enderle piece cited above doesn't actually agree there's only a niche market. He blames the vendors for poor marketing.

Given the popularity of texting in Europe and the much greater ease of thumbing over entering text through a keypad, one would think there's a reasonable chance of a wide market for something larger than a cell phone, but still pocketable.

So we don't know why the people who don't use one don't use one. And Arnold's estimate of the potential market isn't necessarily in the ballpark.

Posted by: jam on November 24, 2003 05:09 AM

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Jakob Nielsen once predicted that the telephone would disappear and melt into a function of the PDA. It seems to be happening, except that the resulting amalgam is called "a telephone". The telephone function is so important that everything else is a sidelight; "PDA" is too vague to mean much.

I don't have one of these nifty new phones, and I find my existing cell phone too irritating to carry around most of the time. But I do have an iPod that I use to listen to music at work, which, to my surprise, seems to have almost all of the features I'd want in a PDA. The only thing I can't do is enter data on the go; I'd like a way to at least dial in a phone number with the thumbwheel and enter the rest of the information later.

Of course it is also way more expensive than a low-end PDA, but the PDA features weren't the main reason to buy it. Which is what the iPod has in common with the smartphones: PDA features simply aren't vital enough that most people will pay significant money for them, except as adjuncts to something else.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin on November 24, 2003 05:44 AM

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I got really organized, but then I misplaced my PDA.

Posted by: Kosh on November 24, 2003 06:42 AM

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Peter MacLeod writes:
> I like my PowerBook, but my son has an AlphaSmart, and if
> all I wanted was something to write with at the cafe, I'd get
> one of those for myself. It's primitive, just a keyboard and
> 4-line LCD display with an USB port to upload, and it holds
> about 100 pages of text, but the batteries (2xAA) last for
> 500 *hours* of use and it's designed to be used by grade
> schoolers so it's nearly indestructible and weighs much less
> than a laptop.

Yes, you have that right. The AlphaSmart is a pretty phenomenal little device, and I think it will point the way towards one kind of future. The *extremely* low power-draw of the thing is very important, as you point out. Another added feature is the nearly complete *absence* of anything you would call an operating system. This was very key to getting it in use in elementary schools. No hard drive an no huge LCD screen also means it is very light; the current 100-page limit on text is almost completely arbitrary since the thing runs on non-volatile RAM and they could do the 100,000 page version almost as easily. Actually, if you take the alphasmart, teach it about getting and sending email, bink up the number of files it allows, give it an 802.11b interface and maybe an 8 line screen, you have something that would be really incredibly useful, still indestructible, and probably still usable by an 8-year old. Email, the textual web, and light typing is a pretty attractive combination.

In the longer term, we will learn to like displays that project onto our glasses and type (maybe even one-handed) into our finger-gesture-reading gloves. Files will come and go to a server, and the computer you will carry with you will be about the same size and weight as an iPod. But, in the mean time, things that look a lot like the AlphaSmart will probably become very popular.

> It also has that X-coolness factor, since it looks kind of like
> a speak-and-spell.

I'm a geek. I wouldn't know X-coolness from regular coolness. :-)

Posted by: Jonathan King on November 24, 2003 08:10 AM

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I've never owned a cell phone or a PDA and have no wish to do so. So what? Nobody gives a damn.

But as for YOU! I've always known you were a clever fellow, and your 12" Apple PowerBook endorsement is the icing on that cake. You don't need my congratulations, but I love your choice of laptop and wish you many hours of blissful brainpackery.

What's good is good, by damn.

Posted by: John H. Farr on November 24, 2003 09:30 AM

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I've never owned a cell phone or a PDA and have no wish to do so. So what? Nobody gives a damn.

But as for YOU! I've always known you were a clever fellow, and your 12" Apple PowerBook endorsement is the icing on that cake. You don't need my congratulations, but I love your choice of laptop and wish you many hours of blissful brainpackery.

What's good is good, by damn.

Posted by: John H. Farr on November 24, 2003 09:35 AM

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I need a wearable brain, ideally something pocketable. That's why I use a PDA.

My PDA has databases, text documents, thousands of pieces of information. It's my ally against the daily degradation of my "wetware" (internal brain).

My iBook is nice, but it's not with me when I'm standing in line at the checkout counter. A slate doesn't work either.

With today's display and input technologies a backup brain has to fit in a standard pocket, or (shudder) fit on my belt.

Since I seem to be about one of 10 people in the US who really uses and needs a pocketable PDA, I am resigned to seeing them go away. I'm hoping though that I'll be able to switch to a Treo and replace my Samsung belt wart with a PDA/phone belt wart.

Posted by: John Faughnan on November 24, 2003 11:40 AM

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I think the problem with electronics is the fact that a usable UI requires giving up pocketability. I'd prefer carrying a tablet PC around to carrying a PDA simply because you can do so much more with a tablet PC. At a .25 mm dot pitch, you can fit a 1024 by 768 flatscreen monitor into about the area of a sheet of paper, with enough space around the edges to superimpose the touchscreen elements. It's big enough to read documents, and the newer M$ handwriting recognition software actually works, sort of. It's small enough to fit in a briefcase, and big enough that electronic documents are actually readable without having to zoom in at very high resolutions. I don't doubt that some people find the PDA to be useful, but I'm not one of them.

Posted by: psetzer on November 24, 2003 01:06 PM

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I'm looking forward to the convergence of PDA, cell phone, camera, and iPod. The ability to take a picture, voice annotate, and mail it to myself or add it to a blog like diary would be invaluable. I'm an experimental physicist, and this functionality could take the humble lab notebook to the next level. Since I have a lousy memory I'd probably also use it to manage various aspects of daily life, too. Voice to text conversion would be nice, but not mandatory. Throw in the iPod, with the the ability to download songs on the fly over the cell phone, and you have something I would never leave behind. Oh, also a full function scientific calculator, and some basic reference materials in memory (a stripped down CRC handbook, for example). It's coming...

Posted by: Andrew Case on November 24, 2003 05:29 PM

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