Handheld Computing On Its Last Legs

It’s clear that the end of the PDA era is nigh.

PDA’s are those infamous little digital daytimers that have been ridiculed by everyone from Bart Simpson to David Letterman.

Really, it’s good riddance to bad rubbish. This is one piece of technology that was never quite properly executed and, as a result, has driven itself into a state of irrelevance. As laptop computers become the norm and cell phones carry ever more information and function, the Stone Age concept of a handheld digital calendar has had its day.

PDA stands for “Personal Digital Assistant”, which is sort of a
misnomer. They should be called EPR, for Expensive Paper Replacement.
Or FGT, for Flashy Geek Toy. Or maybe just LC, for Lost Cause.

Whatever you call them, it’s safe to say this was one dead end road off
the information superhighway. The first PDA, the Newton, was developed
by Apple Computer way back in the early 90’s. Many people still
consider it the best-executed attempt at a handheld computer, despite
the fact it never even had a colour screen.

Apple axed the Newton when Steve Jobs came back on board at the
company, a move that seemed insane. Time tells a different story,
however.

Companies like PalmOne, Dell, and HP have spent the last few years
continuing to throw good money after bad in a quest for the ultimate
handheld computer. The problem is, they’ve never gotten past the basic
idea of the PDA as a digital collection of dates and names (with all
sorts of other fluff crammed in by their marketing wonks).

It’s too bad, really, because Apple’s Newton was always designed around
a different idea. It was meant to be a replacement for the desktop
computer itself — and that idea had potential.

Unfortunately, every iteration of the device — from the Newton to the
PalmPilot to the PocketPC – was doomed to fail by one key irony: it’s
small. This means it has all sorts of intrinsic problems, from
technical limitations to usability gotchas. Like, small screens are
hard to read; and information is difficult to manipulate with a tiny
stylus. Plus the device can’t hold much data because miniature storage
is expensive.

Then, of course, there’s the kafuffle over handwriting recognition. I
can’t believe that, all these years after Apple’s Newton nearly got it
right, contemporary PDA’s still bite the big one in terms of
interpreting the human scrawl. Still today, whatever you input with the
stylus ends up reading like some strange dialect of Swahili.

How do I know this? Well, I have a dark secret.

As I was considering the lost potential of the PDA last week, I got it
in my head to buy one. It’s been a few years since I owned a PDA, and I
figured, heck, they must have gotten better. By now they must be the
perfect replacement for these damn paper notepads I carry around in my
pocket and keep losing.

So, like a passerby drawn to the scene of a train wreck I went out and bought one, a PalmOne Tungsten T5.

It’s sexy to behold and the marketing on it is very promising.
Unfortunately, once in use, it’s living proof of why we’re witnessing
the end of the handheld computing era.

As the last generation in a sordid inbred branch of the computer’s
family tree, the T5 is that freak Jed who lives out on the swampy back
road where cars full of teenagers keep driving to and running out of
gas, never to be seen again.

It tries so hard to be better than its parents (it even keeps stuffed
replicas of them in the attic). But, when all is said and done, it
suffers from the same failings as its ancestors; only they’re painfully
amplified by its era.

The handwriting recognition still sucks. It’s still not smart enough to
know about Daylight Savings Time (which, I agree with Bev Buckway,
should be scrapped). It can’t sync data with a computer in any
dependable fashion. And the fonts are still kludgy and look like
they’re from the last century (because they are).

In short, the PDA is an anachronism. In the face of modern handheld
communication devices, like the Blackberry, in which the PDA’s
traditional skills play second fiddle, the contemporary handheld
computer is nothing but a cow that needs to be put out to pasture.

Sony’s done it, having discontinued their entire line of PDA’s, and so
has Toshiba. It’s only a matter of time before all the other
manufacturers do the same. It won’t happen overnight, but you can be
sure that, unless it’s playing a supporting role to a mobile phone, the
handheld computer will be nothing but a memory in a few years.

Now to dig up my receipt and take this thing back to the store while I still can…

Copyright 2005 Andrew Robulack
Originally published in the Yukon News April 22, 2005