Following a link from my well-connected Mac friend Andy, I read two long, detailed and very intriguing articles (part one, part two) by John Manzione at MacNETv2. The general gist of these posts is that PalmSource announced Mac OS Cobalt "non-support" slightly too soon for Apple, whom John suggests has a "Smart PDA" coming very soon (July '04).
Here's an interesting quote from part one:
"It will use an OS X-like OS, having full integration with iCal, Mail, Address Book, iSync, etc. It will be QuickTime driven, with support for the new codec’s, including Mpeg-4. The display will offer 65k colors and will be as large as the largest Sony Clie (there's that Clie thing again). The screen will be touch-sensitive, using Ink as the input software. Just imagine the latest Clie (!) with an Apple twist, meaning a whole new design concept, a flip screen, and a keyboard, FireWire, USB and Bluetooth. And it will be hard-drive based, using the same hard drive in that the new iPod mini uses, but I'm told the drive will be bigger. I have no idea what the cost will be, nor do I have any information about the processor, RAM, or anything else. However, it won’t matter if you have a Mac or PC, it supposedly works with both platforms through the introduction of iSync with Windows and an arrangement with Microsoft. (you don't think Apple advertised iLife '04 as being "Microsoft Office for the rest of your life" for nothing, did you?)"
and another about the reasons behind the long delay in part two:
"In the end, want Steve Jobs wants is what you get. He wants Wi-fi, Bluetooth, FireWire, Hard Drive, QuickTime, and OS X functionality. And he wants to be able to actually type an email, or an instant message, or input data quickly. You can’t do that today, no matter how nimble you are with a cell phone or PDA keypad (Although Sony’s Clies come pretty close). He wants to sync it easily with his Mac, and Dot Mac. He wants to watch video and listen to music, he wants to surf the web from anywhere, and he wants to get email anywhere. He wants something that will make him more productive and entertain him as well. He wants it all, and wouldn’t build a device until he could make it happen, on his terms."
Rumors like this have been floating around the Mac rumor mills a long time, so in some ways I'll take this with a grain of salt, but it would be great if such a product would appear. My guess is that should this Smart PDA from Apple surface, it's going to be high-end rather than low-end. Think the iPod of PDAs (in other words, not cheap).
The PDA vs. The Laptop
Now, relative to these two interesting articles was a chat I had with my colleague Matt Henderson recently about PDA usage. In a nutshell, Matt argued that there is not much that you can do with a PDA that cannot be done better or more comfortably on a Mac or PC laptop. Only those things which are truly useful for a majority of people when away from said laptop are truly practical to do on a PDA, such as checking your datebook, to-do list or addresses (PIM) and things like e-book reading and other remote-specific tasks (like retrieving data on a film you want to rent, showing photos, shopping lists, etc.).
Matt argued that while you can do many things with the current batch of PDAs out there, it's more or less "doing it with a PDA because you can" rather than "doing it with a PDA because it is better or easier". Web browsing is terrible, email is passable (but still limited and done by mainly über-geeks) and just about anything you can name as being "doable" on a PDA over a laptop is much more "make work" for the PDA than something a PDA can excel at and do better than a small, light, fast-waking, long-lasting wireless laptop (such as a 12" Powerbook, or what have you).
I argued the PDA side of things and yet Matt's responses seemed to undercut my defense. He asked me "how many business people do not travel with a laptop any more?" Not many to none I replied. Matt responded with something like "If so, why wouldn't a business person just check email or surf or whatever on their lightweight laptop rather than a Tungsten C or other PDA? Sure, you could use a Tungsten C, but would it be a better experience? And in reality, how many average business people would really do this? My sense is, only über-geeks would."
Hmmm. I think you've got a point there Matt.
We also talked about the question of true mass-market appeal of smartphones -- would these fall into the same category as PDAs? Will people be quite happy with semi-smart phones that maybe have some nice features (camera, MP3 player, minimal PIM info features)?
Yes, you can check your email on a Treo 600... but is it an imminently better experience than checking your email on the laptop right in front of you (or there in your bag)? How often are we really so far from a desktop computer that a Treo 600 would be that compelling for even checking email?
I'm not sure of my thoughts on Matt's questions, but I think he raises a very valid question in my mind: exactly what am I using my PDA for? Am I simply "making work" for it so that it feels more useful (and justified) or are there actions which are vastly superior when done on a PDA? Hmmm. Have to really ponder that one and not just give a knee-jerk reaction.
I'd love to hear your feedback on either the Apple Smart PDA rumors or this line of logic from Matt about PDAs vs. Laptops, as I'm, quite honestly, still brewing on both of them.