Requiem for the PDA

By eweek  |  Posted 2003-05-15

Requiem for the PDA

Does anyone remember the original idea behind the "PDA"; the device was to be a personal digital assistant — emphasis on that last word — as opposed to merely an organizer. Newtons showstopper was that it parsed natural language, so if you scribbled "lunch with Joe at noon," it would schedule it assuming the low likelihood your handwriting was recognized.

Since then, the "handheld" (the adjective to the unstated noun "computer") has followed a very PC-like trajectory. Faster processors have driven richer platforms, which have driven a cottage industry of third-party software. Too much of this bandwidth has been used toward the questionable goal of "media-enabling" the devices -- allowing them to show too-few pictures, play too-few MP3 songs, and show too-choppy video -- and some of it has been used to create increasingly ambitious Microsoft Office wannabes.

Not all handheld evolution has been a compromise, though. In some cases — such as in the niche electronics categories of GPS devices and touch-screen remotes — the economics and scale of handhelds are allowing them to compete very well against their standalone counterparts.

But the original vision for the PDA got lost somewhere; nowadays PIM features have become such second-class citizens that Danger, for example, provides no way of syncing contacts and calendars to its devices. Furthermore, it isnt that old story about a product turning into a feature. Third-party handheld PIMs — like those from iambic — have gotten more sophisticated but by and large are just doing things better instead of doing better things. Theyre not very assistive, and theyre not very personal except for working with your data and offering the standard kinds of preferences that many programs offer.

One reason Newton could never fulfill its promise was simply that it was not a networked device, and to really manage a persons world, you need better connectivity with it (that was the dream of General Magic and Telescript). With handhelds sprouting increasing storage and wireless links, the PDAs of the future should be able to, for example, calculate and update in near-realtime the driving time between appointments, or interface via Web services to almost plan a business trip for you instead of passively recording or syncing to the schedule. This is all theoretical, though, because even on beefy, connected desktops were far this level of seamlessness.

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Mitch Dad, Kapor Dad

Paradoxically, the savior of the PDA concept may ultimately prove not to be anyone at Microsoft or PalmSource or even Nintendo, but a smal development group spearheaded by Mitch Kapor. Kapor is best-known for founding Lotus (and less-known for also founding group-calendaring-turned-network-management company On Technology), but another of his great claims to fame was Agenda, an innovative idea management software product that Lotus traded for the eye candy of Lotus Organizer. Agenda had some of the intelligence that was also present in Newton.

Now, Kapor has teamed up with Mac legend Andy Hertzfeld to imbue the "spirit" of Agenda into a new open-source product called Chandler, the first development release of which occurred last month. Chandler may not be focused on artificial intelligence, but it has several key components - easy information sharing, an eye toward Web services, and a platform focus intended to enable people to create add-ons within a matter of days, not weeks.

Solutions built on Chandler could create applications that truly conform to your life rather than just the workaday brain supplements of tracking contacts and calendars. Its a longshot, though. Chandler will be available on Windows, Mac OS, and Linux; the team is still mum on how theyll even sync to todays PDAs, but hopes other developers will bring the product to other platforms (such as Windows CE?).

Palm defined the body of the modern PDA, but no company has developed its personality. Without an application that has a daily impact for the average consumer, the market potential for handhelds will be caught in the middle -- split between geeks who can appreciate the often abstract value of a versatile handheld computer and those who download their contacts and calendars to their cell phones.

Did the original mission of the PDA die with Newton? Is it waiting in the wings at Microsoft? Or will Chandler deliver it? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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