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    The PDA is a nice idea, but nice ideas that work take a while to turn into reality

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #285  April 11, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Remember the PDA? Yet another computer acronym, this one standing for Personal Digital Assistant?

    In case you missed them, PDAs were announced a few years ago with plenty of high-tech fanfare by Apple's then-president, John Sculley, as the Next Big Thing-- handheld computers that would recognize your handwriting, go anywhere, do anything, yet cost less than $1,000.

    By July 1993, the first generation of PDAs was on the market. Apple had the Newton, Tandy/Casio the Zoomer, AT&TDoonesbury with a couple of weeks' worth of jokes. There wasn't much software available, and features were limited. the oddly named EO. Every company seemed to have one, but then a funny thing happened: after PDAs had their 15 minutes of fame, too many potential customers went elsewhere. The handwriting recognition didn't seem to work (certainly not for my handwriting). In fact, it provided

    AT&T's offering, in many ways the most powerful of the bunch, suffered badly. Its combination of a handheld computer with cellular technology gave it an odd appearance, highlighted by Mickey Mouse ears. While it had the most features, it was also significantly heavier and several times as pricey as the other PDAs. The result: EO went out of business.

    Since then, Micro-soft's WinPad software has been withdrawn and sent back to the drawing board for a complete rewrite, and John Sculley is out of Apple. The market has-- to put it gently --stagnated.

    But now Motorola and Sony are back with their joint entry, Magic Link, which sports a creative new look and features General Magic's Magic Cap software. To keep prices low, features have been limited. Magic Link has a modem, but only a 2400 bps modem, and no fax, either. With a single PC-Card slot, users are forced to choose between using it to upgrade the modem or the memory.

    The result is a classic downward spiral: limited features result in few buyers. Few buyers mean little software development, keeping the features limited. As well, with sub-notebooks weighing less than four pounds gaining in usability while dropping in price, buyers have a real alternative that offers a keyboard rather than the liability of the present state of handwriting recognition.

    But handheld computers more powerful than combination datebooks-and-calculators may still have a future. Handwriting recognition may never turn out to be of much use-- often I can't even read my own handwriting, so how can I expect a computer to do better? And the next generation will need to do a much better job at connecting to desktop computers, perhaps through
    the rapidly developing infra-red

    But it's not likely to happen this year, or even next year. We often think of technology as providing instant hits, neglecting to notice the long gestation periods most innovations require. For example, Microsoft sponsored the first conference on CD-ROMs in 1986. A mere seven years later, this technology finally became a serious way to sell software.

    Many companies tried to market computers for home use in the early '80s, but by 1985, most of them were out of business, and it wasn't until a year or two ago that the home market was once again viewed as big

    One day, we probably will find ourselves unable to imagine getting through the workday without a Personal Digital Assistant, but not before a generation or two of hardware and software innovation brings us a much more powerful product. Until then, $1,000 will buy you an awfully nice pen and a lot of paper.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan