by October 7, 2000 0 comments

It was not long ago that the symbol of the successful executive was theleather-bound dairy, or to give it its full name–the Filofax. Also called theorganizer, it did just that, helped organize information appointments, calendar,quick lists of things to do, addresses and telephone numbers and small memosthat the executive needed when on the move. It was sort of replaced by thedigital dairy, but not quite. Although the digital dairy provided all thesefunctions, and in evencases some more, it could never acquire the class of theleather bound filofax. Perhaps, tapping away on a small keyboard didn’t havequite the same style as writing. And on the ability to understand text scribbledon a touch-sensitive LCD panel, hinged the success of the PDA or the PersonalDigital Assistant.

The PDA can trace its origin back to the Psion I, launched in1984 by UK-based Psion. Actually, it was more of an organizer than a computer,with a single-line LCD display. What really made it different was the optionalscience pack, with which you could even create your own programs. Since then thePDA has been a pocket-sized computing device with basic calendar, calculator,scheduler, memo, address book functions plus the ability to install and runother software.

PDAs are fast on the way of becoming fashion accessories. A major selling point for PDA vendors is a variety of snap-on colorful covers. Palm Computing has gone a step further and even introduced an exclusive “Claudia Schiffer” edition of the Palm PilotWhatreally marked the PDA as a device different from the digital organizer (and moreof a computer) was the Newton MessagePad that Apple launched in 1993. The mostinnovative feature of the Newton was that it didn’t have a keyboard andinstead used a stylus and relied on handwriting recognition for data input.Since then, this feature of using a stylus for input has defined the PDA againstthe sub notebook that uses a keyboard for data input.

The Newton used its own Newton OS, and itshandwriting-recognition capabilities were, at least initially, primitive. Butthe Newton was impressive by any count, offering internet connectivity ande-mail capabilities to both the PC and the Mac. And we are talking of a productthat shipped in 1997!

Fondly called Newts, over time the Newton acquired a strongfollowing and a strong suite of applications, ranging from astronomy throughchemistry to financial and even GPS applications. In fact the Newton even hadits own version of the Basic language called NS Basic.

In 1998, after his return to Apple, Steve jobs announced thediscontinuation of the Newts and the Newton OS. Perhaps because Apple’sfinances were in a bad shape and he wanted to concentrate on Apple’s flagshipproduct, the Mac. Or perhaps, the fact that the Newton was the creation of JohnScully, who was instrumental in Jobs leaving Apple. Whatever be the reason, theNewton is now part of history. About a year before the Newton was discontinued,Apple launched the eMate. Aimed at the school market, the eMate ran Newton OS2.1 and had an integrated keyboard. The iBook of today looks something like theeMates of old.

The SpringBoard on the Visor fits in like this and adds functionality to the basic PDA. Add-on modules range from more memory to now a device that makes the PDA into a cellphoneMeanwhilethe Psion had gone through many modifications and upgrades and had evolved intoa full-fledged PDA running its own operating system, the EPOC. EPOC has sincebeen renamed Symbian, and Psion’s software division has become a separatecompany, Symbian Ltd. Psion, in partnership with Erisccon, Nokia, and Motorolais developing Symbian as an operating system for mobile computing andcommunications devices.

But none of these devices provided the fillip to the PDAmarket that the Palm Pilot did. A keyboard-less device, the Palm Pilot, or thePalm as it’s fondly referred to, uses a stylus and handwriting for input. Butunlike the Newton that depended on handwriting recognition, the Palm uses itsown script to accept input. So, instead of teaching the PDA to recognize yourhandwriting, you learnt the Palm’s alphabet. The Palm’s writing software iscalled Graffiti. The fact that the symbols used are English-like and extremelyeasy to learn, made the Palm an instant success.

Other than the Stylus-based input, the Palm has two otherstrong points–the ability to synchronize data with applications running on aPC, and the ability to transfer data over infrared to infrared-enabled devices,including other Palm Pilots. Both of these make the Palm extremely simple touse. By 1993, the Psion Series 3a could do data synchronization with a PC. TheNewton could connect both to the PC and the Mac. But it was the Palm that wenton to become the market leader.

While the Palm Pilots have been extremely successful, itscompany, Palm computing, itself has had an interesting history. First, it wastaken over by US Robotics. US Robotics in turn was acquired by 3Com. And when3Com was going through hard times, Palm Computing was again spun off as aseparate company. Meanwhile Jeff Hawkins and Dona Dubinsky, the originalfounders of Palm Computing, left to form Handspring, licensed the PalmOS andlaunched a new PDA based on it, called the Visor. The biggest plus point of theVisor is perhaps the SpringBoard. The SpringBoard is an expansion slot on theVisor, something like a PCI slot on a PC or more like a PC card slot on anotebook, that can accept add-on modules that increase the functionality of theVisor.

What additional functionality could be added? What about aSpringBoard module that will convert the PDA to a cellphone? Such a module hasjust been announced.

Handspring is not the only company to license the Palm OS oreven the Palm Pilot itself. Companies like IBM, Sony, Symbol and TRG (TechnologyResearch Group) can be found in this list. In fact, the early IBM WorkPad wasnothing but the Palm Pilot in black color with the IBM logo!

The ultimate heaven for the gadget freak can well be the PDA and the cellphone rolled into oneThatbrings us to Microsoft and its PDA initiatives. While the others tried todevelop the operating system, the hardware and most of the basic software fortheir PDAs, Microsoft focused on what they are well known for–—the operatingsystem. And like with most other Microsoft products, here too success didn’tcome at first attempt. Microsoft’s first attempt in this space was Windows CE,launched in 1996, initially meant more for the sub notebook than the PDA.

Then came the Pocket PC operating system, introduced thisyear. A number of devices running Pocket PC have appeared in the market,including from Compaq.

As it evolves, will the PDA become more of a PC? Or will itlimit itself to being a smarter organizer? Are any other options that arepossible?

It seems that the primary function of a PDA will remain thatof a sophisticated and powerful organizer. But a variety of new applications areemerging, that can forever change computing itself. PDAs already support sound.Support for movies is just a small step away. PDAs that can be converted tocellphones are already available. From there, mobile Internet is just anothersmall step forward. Add to that mobile broadband, and you are opening upentirely new vistas for what really started off as leather-bound paper dairy!

Krishna Kumar


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