Requiem for the PDA

Once touted as a lifestyle-changing device, the vision behind a personal assistant has been replaced by the jack-of-all-trades "handheld." Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin says there may be hope in a ghost from the era of MS-DOS.

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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