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The PDA vs Mini PCs

OQOToday I'm deferring my post to my long time friend Andy Bauer, who had an interesting discussion with me the other evening about PDAs and miniaturized PCs for the masses. I thought his take was very thought provoking, so I've asked Andy permission to publish his argument here on my weblog.

— Mike

Andy: The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the future of PDAs / smart phones / whatever is none of the current devices but rather a PC (or Mac) in pocket form. (Whether this is already technically achievable today, is another issue.) But why?

1.) People are lazy. Apart from a few % of the population, no one wants to have to learn new things.

2.) People are used to one specific desktop OS (mostly Windows), and that's what they want to stick with.

3.) People invested in software for their desktop, they don't want to do this all over again.

4.) People invested in time to optimize their desktop PC environment and invested in time learning it, they don't want to invest this time all over again.

I think that all of today's 'super-duper mobile devices' have a core flaw: they use a different OS than the one users are used to from their desktop PCs. Whether that OS is Symbian, Palm Cobalt or Pocket PC doesn't matter. The mere fact that it is different collides head-on with ALL of the 4 points above.

The result IMHO is, that none of these devices will EVER reach more than those few % of the population as mentioned in point 1 above. And Palm is already seeing its PDA sales figures stagnate. And my prediction is that these smart phones a la Nokia 6600 or their new Communicator 9500 will suffer the very same fate, they will stagnate at the same % (appealing to the same % of the population). (Apart from maybe people who own these smart phones but never use them for anything but phone calls, i.e. don't use any of the smart features.)

Now imagine this:

a) Microsoft (or Apple hopefully) finally manages to make their desktop OS scalable, so it works on very small and very big screens.

b) Some hardware manufacturer (Apple hopefully) manages to create a device the size of the Tungsten T3 (or Nokia 6600) that incorporates a complete PC, at the same price (or lower) than the T3.

My prediction is that with the introduction of such a device, which fulfills points a) and b), the PDA market will finally shatter its barrier and reach a much bigger percentage of the population. I NO LONGER believe that any device like smart phones, communicators or PDAs a la T3 are the future. Not even as a niche product.

Of course it could happen that Microsoft (or Apple) fails at point a). Only then do I see a chance for today's devices. But not because they are so great, but because Microsoft or Apple are so bad. And as long as b) is not happening (and we're not just there yet) today's devices also have a reason to exist. But ultimately I believe they are doomed, doomed because their concept bears an inherent core flaw, which can never be resolved: they run against the 4 points above. And most people are lazy and reluctant to learn new things. That's human and that won't change any time soon.

But there are promising first steps towards pocket sized PCs: The PC Core, The Vulcan and the OQO.

And once the problems of a scalable OS, data entry / handwriting recognition and price are solved, I don't see any future for handheld OSs - with the exception of embedded applications perhaps for 'one-feature-devices' like iPods.

In a way it's funny that Microsoft almost got it. They long ago realized that users want a PC in their pocket, that they want to use a OS they know. Which is why they invented the Pocket PC platform. But they did it all wrong. They didn't realize that it needed to be the VERY SAME operating system able to run the VARY SAME applications - not an OS that just feels somewhat similar (although that helps). But I suppose the technology wasn't there yet to do that.

But they also made a second mistake, they did not realize that ultimately their desktop OS would have to become the 'Pocket OS' and hence did not invest in making their desktop OS more scalable. They missed that boat and even went the other way making it less scalable. That is the one slot where I think Apple has a BIG chance. If they manage to create a handheld device that runs a full OS X, they can perhaps persuade more people to switch their desktop OS too, because I feel that if people are going to have to learn a new OS they'd rather learn Mac OS and with that get a fully integrated desktop-mobile solution than learn Symbian or Palm Cobalt and get a less than optimal desktop-mobile integration.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that this is my conclusive opinion on the subject. I honestly NO LONGER see a future for any of the handheld OSs, unless Microsoft, Apple (or Linux even) screw up. Just think about it: without any of the languages and printer drivers OS X can easily be installed in 1GB. With the iPod mini's 4GB Microdrive, a low-low-power G4 at 800MHz-1GHz and one special integrated chip combining all the other motherboard functions, how small could such a device be? I bet it could be the size of a Tungsten T3. And with the T3's 480x320 screen and Apple's Newton handwriting recognition, how can you lose? How can this device not be a billion times more useful and easier to sync than any Palm OS ever will be?

The difficulty that I seem to have is to bring across that I am NOT saying that there is no room ever for any Palm, Symbian or Pocket PC OS device (or whichever handheld OS you use). Some keep claiming that these OSs were purpose-built for devices with little RAM, crash-proof, etc. something that desktop OSs never will be. But that was not my point. My point was that forcing these OSs to do all singing and dancing '�ber-PDAs', allowing them to open and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, PDFs, play movies (incl. Flash movies), etc. is a dead end route.

A mini handheld PC will by definition be a lot better suited to do all these things. And with the advent of SOC (System on a chip) PCs, 4GB Microdrives, hi-res low-power OLED screens I don't see why a PC cannot be shrunk into a device the size of a Tungsten T3. And if this device had a screen with a res of 640x960 it would be perfect. It could be used mostly in 2x2 pixel doubling mode (i.e. an effective resolution of 320x480) but for web pages, Word documents or PDFs the full res could be used - without penalty since these apps themselves allow zooming of the document view. With more pixels the text would just look a lot smoother as well as giving a better hi-res thumbnail preview.

Palm OS, Symbian or Pocket PC, these will always have a niche in 'single purpose devices' like e.g. a Zire 21 which does a few things and those well. Or I could imagine MP3 players using those OSs or GPS devices. But I just don't see any future for high-end devices. Those will be eaten in a few years by desktop OSs pushing downwards.

Most people will now argue that the Mac OS was not designed to be run on a screen that's 320x480. Well no. The Finder is just another application. I do not see why Apple couldn't design a 'Pocket Finder' which uses smaller icons and smaller text fonts suitable for a 320x480 screen. Yet the OS behind it would NOT be a 'Pocket Mac OS X', but rather the real deal, being able to run all the apps like on the desktop. Surely they would then need a higher resolution even, because Word doesn't run in 320x480, but clever schemes can be used to get by: like e.g. virtual resolutions where one can scroll around on a virtual 800x600 resolution, or a 320x480 screen allowing to switch to hires mode of 640x960, or even foldable displays or whatever the future comes up with. I'm positive this 'problem' can be solved.

Some argue that its better to have a purpose-built OS for a handheld device, because they don't crash as often. But that's not really a good argument either. If my purpose would be to edit Word documents on the go then NO operating system is better purpose built than OS X or Windows. And in regards to crashes I feel that OS X crashes a lot less than my Clie...

Another argument is that PDA functionality will end up in the mobile phone anyway. Well, if it is just PIM apps, perhaps. But not even there I'm sure. In times of group calendars I can vouch for the fact that not even today's Palm OS is able to sync with my office group calendar giving me all the dates of all my colleagues - something I do need to know. It's not good enough for me to just sync my own dates, I need to be able to see all dates from at least 10+ people. So I'd rather use a pocketable PC with the real deal PIM groupware application we use on OS X or Windows where I can do that, than a Palm OS device that only gives me a subset of the data that's useless to me.

And finally I believe that rather instead of having mobile phones becoming smarter and smarter to take over PDAs (as everyone today thinks the trend is), I feel that the opposite will happen: in 5 years from now PCs (or hopefully Macs) will be 'pocketable' and come with a built-in 3G or GPRS datacard (as well as WiFi and Bluetooth) to provide Voice over IP phone services. If the device is as small as a Tungsten T3 this could be used as a phone handset, or if the device is slightly bigger then a Bluetooth headset can be used with the device remains in a pocket or bag. And the device will switch seemlessly between WiFi hot-spot access or the 3G datacard.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that also the days for the 'smart phone' are numbered! These will be superseded by these pocketable PCs.

— Andy Bauer

Reader Comments (3)

I agree 100 %.Cheers
February 28, 2004 | Unregistered Commenterchinchorrero
I agree 100 %.Cheers
February 28, 2004 | Unregistered Commenterchinchorrero
Dude, Andy is a genius. Give him a raise.

February 28, 2004 | Unregistered Commentermacfixer

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