Once thought of as expensive executive toys, personal digital assistants (PDAs) are starting to have an enormous impact on today's highly mobile world. The modern PDA has evolved from the bulky, simple devices of the early 1980s into a highly sophisticated and versatile business tool.
Since its humble beginnings, the role of the PDA has changed beyond recognition, so much so that it is becoming much more widely accepted. John Bycroft, managing director of Noblestar, an IT consultancy which specialises in evaluating and facilitating ebusiness solutions, says PDAs are becoming essential to businesses.
"Until now, businesses have viewed mobile computing as an add-on to their existing networked computer system, rather than as an integrated part of it," says Bycroft.
"PDAs have often been seen as little more than glorified Filofaxes and were bought on an individual basis. With serious business applications now being developed, the market for handhelds will explode, with companies buying in bulk and having the systems co-ordinated with their other communications and data tools," he adds.
Over the past few years, nearly every single aspect of PDAs has undergone radical changes, including the introduction of new low-power consumption processors, higher-capacity memory, clearer displays, the provision of greater data storage, and not least the ability to communicate.
The latter has become particularly important with the widespread use of the internet for business communications and ecommerce. However, despite advances in design and usability, there is still a fair way to go before the PDA is as widely accepted as the ubiquitous mobile phone.
Power in your palm
In general, processing power and memory are not major issues when it comes to PDAs. These devices are not intended to fully replicate traditional PC applications and functionality.
The operating systems used by PDAs, such as Palm OS and Symbian, are generally compact and efficient, and require fairly modest processing resources. As a result, devices with 10Mhz to 20Mhz processors and 4Mb Ram are usually sufficient for running typical diaries, to-do lists, small databases, basic word processing and simple spreadsheet applications, even where Windows CE is the operating system in use.
Nevertheless, many PDA manufacturers are enhancing the specification of their products to accommodate more demanding applications such as web browsing, voice recognition and audio or video processing.
The newly introduced Psion Revo Plus has 16Mb Ram and the Casio Cassiopeia E-115 features a custom-built VR-4121 processor running at 131Mhz and comes with 32Mb Ram as standard. However, such enhancements come at a price and the E-115 has only a six-hour battery life (see box below, Beyond the battery).
Just as the early PCs and notebook computers started off with mono displays and then gradually moved towards high-resolution colour, so PDAs have undergone the same evolution.
According to Andrew Kelly, general manager for peripherals at Computer 2000, the big growth area comes from full-colour palm-sized PDAs. "While monochrome devices currently dominate the market, the latest products all feature colour screens, and demand for these is extremely high," says Kelly.
Unfortunately, adding colour to a PDA increases the price rather dramatically and has the knock-on effect of reducing battery life. However, in future this is likely to change as a result of work being done by Cambridge Display Technology (CDT) on a new display system based on light emitting polymers (LEPs).
In conjunction with Seiko-Epson, CDT has developed a full-colour display using LEP technology, which incorporates red, green and blue polymer materials and an industry-first inkjet printing process that significantly reduces the cost of manufacturing colour displays.
The inkjet technique allows the LEP material to be printed from a liquid solution. It has more advantages than existing and emerging display manufacturing processes because it eliminates the need for backlights, colour filters and polarisers used in LCD displays, and complex multi-shadowing techniques for depositing small molecules.
The prototype colour display measures 2.5in, has a resolution of 200 x 150 pixels, with 16 grey scaling at system level and will be targeted at initial market entry points for LEP display products, such as mobile phones and PDAs.
"CDT is very excited about the market opportunity for a full-colour light-emitting polymer display," says Dr Daniel McCaughan, chief operating officer at CDT.
"The market needs a video-capable display for emerging mobile applications that is light-emissive, colour and low-power. CDT and Seiko-Epson are working towards the commercial availability of a product with precisely these characteristics. We expect this technology eventually to penetrate all other display markets."
Take storage in hand
Traditionally Flash memory has been practically the only choice when it comes to providing removable storage on PDAs and Palm computers. but this is likely to change, according to David Ruxton, director of product marketing at Calluna Technology.
"As removable 1.8in PC card manufacturers, we are watching closely to monitor the amount of data storage capacity required by the next generation of PDAs. Storage needs are certain to increase to manage the sheer volume of data, images, sound, video and email as well as the OS and application software. This data storage must be low-cost, low-power, lightweight, small and transportable between the PDA and the PC. Two storage technologies will compete for this: solid-state Flash and magnetic recording," says Ruxton.
"Today, Flash dominates because the low capacity currently required [up to about 16Mb] can be supplied at a cost that meets the user's storage budget for this type of device [about £30]. As storage capacity requirements grow to 100Mb or more, the cost of Flash to the user exceeds £130. Magnetic recording technology then becomes a cheaper option, with capacities of up to 1Gb already available at these prices."
Ruxton adds that magnetic recording and Flash technology are both available in PC Card and CompactFlash packages. He says that the challenge for magnetic recording technology is to improve on power consumption and shock resistance where solid-state Flash currently has an advantage.
"Manufacturers will continue to provide the CompactFlash and PC Card sockets in the PDAs of the future. This will leave the choice of storage up to the user who can purchase the capacity required to meet their individual needs and at a cost which suits their budget," he says.
Mobile access to the internet is the major driving force for PDAs. Most manufacturers are starting to climb aboard the mobile commerce bandwagon.
Parthus Technology is an IP (intellectual property) design firm that floated in May this year. It designs platforms for a range of mobile internet devices and has a number of leading industry partners, such as Cirrus Logic, ST Microelectronics, ARM Holdings and Symbian.
Sean Mitchell, general manager of InfoMedia at Parthus, believes the revolution is just about to begin with the introduction of General Packet Radio Service (GPRS).
"In my opinion, GPRS connectivity is the biggest development. First, you now have a wireless connection to the internet and all the services and applications that this enables. Second, you have a high-bandwidth connection for data download. This enables download of significant amounts of content," Mitchell says.
"Finally, GPRS is a packet-switched protocol as opposed to a circuit-switched one. This means that you can have an 'always on' connection to the internet - you are only paying for the data traffic you are using, not for the time which you are connected."
He adds that this represents a complete shift of user behaviour and will enable a huge range of new services.
However, it is not just wide-area communications which will change the way in which PDAs will be used in the future. According to Mitchell, coupling technologies such as GPRS with Bluetooth opens up a lot of new mobile commerce application possibilities.
"The ability to use your PDA to execute transactions for cinema tickets, parking meters and shopping is a complete shift in user behaviour away from a true business user to a mass market," he says.
Bill Mackay, country manager for UK and Eire at Palm Europe, agrees that it is connectivity which will be at the heart of the future success for PDAs.
"Currently all Palm devices are capable of being connected to the internet while on the move, but unlike the Palm V11 in the US, there is a delay in connection of between a 12 and 18 seconds," says Mackay.
"However, in the US you are permanently connected. GPRS will therefore significantly improve the user experience in connectivity and speed of response."
Mackay recognises the threat from Wap phones, but believes that the combination of a mobile phone and a separate PDA brings significant advantages to the user.
"Palm will soon launch the Mobile Internet Kit designed to connect existing Palm owners to the internet. This will have a huge impact and many benefits for users. It will make it much easier to configure your Palm with your mobile phone to receive and send emails, send Short Message Service messages and transfer phone numbers between your Palm and phone."
Mackay adds that there is also a Wap browser, but the new experience users will appreciate most is Web Clipping. He says this will answer your questions within 10 seconds if you are connected.
"You will be able to find answers to queries such as, 'Where is the nearest cash machine? What is the latest stock price? and 'What are the times of the flights from Heathrow to Glasgow?' The list is endless," he says.
Mackay says unlike Wap, in Web Clipping, you make the queries offline and only go online once you have structured your question. The experience is better from a cost standpoint as well as speed of answer, because you are only connected for a few seconds to get the answer.
It takes one, baby
But not everyone agrees that separate products are the way to go. Anthony Garvey, PR manager at Psion, believes that users will not want to carry around two devices.
"We are on the cusp of finding the Holy Grail of palmtop computing: the fusion of palmtop and mobile phone into a single integrated device. For Vars this means they will be dealing with a market 35 times the size of the entire PDA market within 18 months," he says.
"Sales in the entire PDA market since it was created by Psion in 1984 have been 15 million units. That's the equivalent of a bad week in mobile phone sales. We are going to move to a market worth £350m annually."
So it is the ability to provide efficient internet access which should give the PDA a distinct advantage over Wap-enabled mobile phones.
However, the PDA and Palm computer resellers will not have things all their own way for long. More sophisticated 'smart' phones which incorporate many of the features of PDAs, soon will be vying for market share. The battle has commenced, and it should be interesting to see who will win the war.
|PDA OS marketshare forecast 1999-2004(%)|
|Year||EPOC||PALM||Win CE (PC companion)||Win CE (personal companion)||OTHER|
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