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So Long, Sony

Just saw at Brighthand and a few other places, that Sony is now exiting the US (and I assume European) market with their Clié line of PDAs.

While I was never sure how Sony actually made money on PDAs with releases of new models just about every 15 minutes, I'm not happy to see them depart the Palm OS market. Sony has always been good at shaking things up in both Palm OS and Pocket PC communities, which I think is critical to advancement of the Palm OS platform and PDAs in general.

I want to do more reading before I write more. Once I have fully grasped the details, I'll add to this post later today with my further reactions and thoughts on this news.

Well, after some reading and thinking, it seemed right to put some thoughts down on the Sony announcement.

First off, no matter how you slice this, it's not good news. Maybe in a very obtuse way, Sony's exit from the US and European markets for PDAs may open up markets for other Palm OS PDA sellers, but that is quite a stretch.

After much thought, my first impression seems strongest — Sony was always great at shaking up the market on both the Palm OS and Pocket PC sides of the fence. When the UX-50 came out, I can still remember the surprise of Pocket PC users, who realized there would never be a Pocket PC device anything like it.

Sony excelled at innovating, forcing their competitors to take notice. Sometimes the result was very good: 320x320 and 320x 480 pixel hi-res screens, removable media slots, and integrated MP3 players. Sometimes the result was very bad: styli the thickness of toothpicks, unuseably-thin buttons, and virtually useless thumboards, to name but a few.

Whether you loved or hated Sony Clié devices, you had to admit they pushed the platform ahead. Judging by how long it took Microsoft to add hi-res screens to the Pocket PC platform, I'd wager the average Palm OS device might still have a low-res color screen, if not for Sony.

This "burr in the saddle" Sony provided will be greatly missed. I hope another Palm OS device maker will take over (PalmOne?) rather than letting the platform grow stagnant.

PalmOne vs. Sony
I think part of the reason for Sony's decline is a rising PalmOne and their excellent new devices. I can still recall my decision to buy a new $200 level device, considering a Sony TJ vs. a Tungsten E. TJs were $20 more than the TE, with fewer features. Seemed like a no-brainer to me.

The Tungsten T3 particularly hit Sony hard. It had the hi-res+ screen, lots of RAM and a very fast processor — nothing Sony had at the time could touch this balance of features and price. Meanwhile, the Tungsten E pinched Sony at the low end of the spectrum.

Overall, PalmOne's PDA offerings had a nice balance of features and price compared to Sony, which I think heavily shifted the balance toward PalmOne. Sony got their shot at Palm, Inc, back during the bad old m505 days — PalmOne returned the favor in 2002 and 2003.

Future of the PDA
Finally, I can now see in Sony's announcement that the traditional non-wired PDA as we now know it is fading. It's not faded away yet, but I think the old-school PDA is headed toward a much smaller niche, if that. If there were growth potential in the PDA, I doubt Sony would be stepping aside.

From the high end, I can see mini-pc laptops (like OQO and VAIO mini-laptops) and fancy smartphones knocking off high end PDAs. Smartphones and semi-smart phones (with basic PIM features) will eat away the low end, especially once color screens, MP3 players, cameras and wireless radios are cheaper to include than exclude.

PDAs will most likely survive in vertical markets and specialized uses, or morph into consumer devices with very specific functions, such as A/V remotes or dedicated e-book readers. Maybe a small niche of traditional PDAs will remain, but I'm not sure how large or lucrative it will be.

What that means is, the market gets spilt into more diverse segments than ever before. Devices will be less multi purpose and more focused. The Apple iPod showed this strategy can work when done very well.

Sony's announcement was a bummer for me in two ways: it signaled the loss of a great innovator and competitor in the Palm OS community and brought my thoughts around to the probable future of the PDA. I like my traditional PDA, but after some discussion with my friend Andy and thinking it over, it seems to me the PDA glory days are over.

I do hope the remaining players in the Palm OS community will step up to the challenge and innovate. There is still quite an opportunity to do some great things with the OS — many of which we can't even imagine now.

Thank you Sony for your many years pushing the Palm OS community ahead. You will be greatly missed.

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