Why old people still like their PDAs

Why old people still like their PDAs

Summary: This is a generational question. We prove it using data from the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control.


My mom's Tungsten E Palm device recently started to act up, causing a minor panic. She loves her Palm device and was worried what would happen if it died. Normally, we'd just go out and get her a new one, but now that Palm has been sold to HP and completely abandoned the venerable (and much-loved) Palm OS, my mom (and other Palm OS fans) are out of luck if they need a replacement.

Sure, there's always eBay, but as time goes on, even never-opened devices are going to have battery problems. There was just nothing like an actual new Palm OS device, back when it was just fresh off the factory floor.

But the real question is this: why the loyalty?

Why doesn't my mom just go out and by an iPhone, an iPod touch, a Droid, or some other smartphone? Why does she even need a PDA?

Would would anyone even need a PDA?


This is a generational question. I can prove it using data from the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control. Seriously.

I recently read Wireless Substitution: Early Release of Estimates From the National Health Interview Survey, a CDC study by Stephen J. Blumberg, Ph.D., and Julian V. Luke, Division of Health Interview Statistics, National Center for Health Statistics. It's an absolutely fascinating study, and I'll be coming back to it over the coming months. For now, though, the interesting element is this chart:

Basically, the CDC studied the question of how many people are substituting the old-school wired phones with cell phones -- and what the various health-related indications are based on that substitution.

The chart above shows people (by age) who only have a wireless phone (read: cell phone) in their homes. As you can see, there's a big spike among relatively young people, but as you top about 38 years old, more and more people have wired phone lines.

People over 38 are older people. That includes me (I'm almost 50) and my mom.

Older people don't have as much of an affinity for cell phones. My mom has a very simple one, and when I suggested I might replace it with something that could do double-duty as a PDA, she got quite upset. She's never really had a comfortable relationship with cell phones, eying them with the same level of distrust she did the summer I brought a cat home from college (true story).

The thing is, she doesn't really have much of a need for a cell phone. She does most of her talking on her wired line. She uses her Palm device constantly, but she's probably dialed her cell phone once in the past 12 months.

There's another issue: nothing replicates the Palm Desktop's integration with the PC desktop nearly as well as that ancient piece of software. It's simple and lets you easily edit your addresses, notes, calendar, etc. If she were to use, say, an iPhone, she'd somehow have to rely on the abortion that's iTunes for all her data entry.

I love my mom. I wouldn't ever want to do that to her.

"Well, what about Outlook?" some of you might say. My mom doesn't use Outlook, so we'd have to transition her over. An Android phone comes close, because there's moderately good integration into Gmail and Google calendar, but there's still not the easy desktop connectivity she's come to know with the Palm Desktop.

There is no doubt the PDA market has collapsed, eclipsed completely by the demand for the iPhone and similar devices. But there is still a market for simple PDAs, whether it's because us over-40 types don't rely solely on our mobiles or because a PDA still has some use in various business and industrial applications.

Something to think about for those trying to find new markets. Perhaps an old market might still have some legs.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Operating Systems, Software, Telcos


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • It's not an "old" person issue.

    Everyone like a comfy shoe.
    • RE: Why old people still like their PDAs

      @People <br><br>I agree. If it works, it works.<br><br>To the Article's Author:<br>Younger people don't have Palm Pilots for one simple and obvious reason: because they were too young to need one or buy one when they were offered for sale. All that proves is that technology and its associated product roadmaps change.<br><br>Younger people buy newer devices because the old devices are no longer available and because the newer devices are in color, can do more, etc. But here's the thing you're missing: Many of them will also keep the devices they find that work best for them, as long as they can. Why? Because it is a real pain to switch to something new, from something that works perfectly for its intended purpose, then find that while the new one "looks pretty," it's functionality constrained in 5 or 9 areas of operation, that were not a problem in one's former device.<br><br>I have a Kindle II. Many people I know, both young and old, will not buy one because they like the feel of a book and they want to own the book and have it physically available -on the shelf. I like the Kindle. I have 1700 classic books on that device and backed up on my computer, including the entire Western Canon of literature, philosophy and prose, which represents the evolution of Western thought. I also have hundreds of other books on that device. It would take walls and walls of bookshelves to keep all of those books in my house, yet I can carry all of them around in my hand, quite comfortably.<br><br>That being said however, some people will not buy the Kindle or any other E-Reader. This is not an age issue. The first Kindle I saw was owned by an older woman (probably in her late 60s). I think this empirical evidence calls your assessment into question and indicates you may want to find further research and try to contextualize that research better.<br><br>The same with "Old" people and cell phones. There is no "generational" issue here at all and the study you cite presents what may only be termed specious data in this context. I know many older people who use cell phones more than I do! I met an older gentleman (probably 65 - 68 yrs. old) in Peet's Coffee one day who showed me how to access "Internet TV" on my Palm Pre. I really did not think of it in the age terms you describe, nor did he. I simply did not buy the phone for any reason than use as a business tool (phone, calendaring, tasks, notes, etc) and I tend to use things heavily for the purposes I purchase them. I don't put games on my computer, either; it it a waste of my time because I also see my computer as a business tool.
      • RE: Why old people still like their PDAs

        Hmmmm....did you ever own a Rocketbook or reb 1100? I bought a kindle dx a year ago, and use it daily, but ergonomically it does not match these ancient devices. Rebs failed because their book pricing sucked; if ereaders become popular devices, it will be because of amazon's rational pricing policy.
      • RE: Why old people still like their PDAs


        young people nowadays will always want the latest gadgets. the Iphone is backwards feature wise compared to other phones, but kids nowadays, "Iphone4? Ditch the Iphone 3Gs now !!!"
    • Shoe thing!

      In 4 words you have answered the article's obvious question.
      note to Mr. Gewirtz:
      Old? "Older" is a bit kinder to your readers over 25.
      Oh, YOU'RE over 25? Then you're "older" too. It's all relative, but who likes all their relatives?
  • Do you seriously not know?

    Life is a series of experiments. As you live day by day, you discover some things work, others don't. Then you move on to the next situation.

    Your mother found that the Palm did exactly what she needed. Fine; there is now absolutely no need to try other devices that involve a new learning curve. What's so hard to understand about that?

    The whole essence of youth is learning and experimentation. An older person has been through that painful process and is satisfied with the outcome.

    I'd try eBay.
    • RE: Why old people still like their PDAs

      @Dorkyman : +1
      You're absolutely right! I'm not "old" yet but I do recognize things like "progress for the sake of progress" and "full of un-needed features" and so on.
      Basically there are two reasons for them to upgrade: It will somehow save money, or, it will do a job they wish they could do. So offering instant ticketmaster access is a lost cause when the current product does everything they need and want it for.
      Even the toy-players, which is most of the market, don't really use these things long term; once they're not novel many are tossed aside and no longer used and a few might get upgraded to another latest & greatest toy. Fine; if that supports a market, go for it. But for the most part spammers and legit advertisers alike waste their time on me.
  • One word: Stylus

    The thing that made the Palms stand out from today's smart phones was the stylus pointer that was used to both select programs and to write rather than type in text. There was never any chance of selecting a wrong icon or key, and the writing short hand was extremely faster than texting type
    • Well, that and

      ... the bigger screen.<br><br>"Small" is just wonderful until it means using the damned thing requires you to not only put on readers but stronger-than-usual readers to boot.<br><br>I'd still be using my Tungsten if:<br>a) it had a decent RF section so I could use it as a phone, or<br>b) I regularly carried a purse everywhere I went so I had room for it <i>and</i> a phone.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
  • It's also a value issue

    Why would one give up a PDA that does everything they need (schedule, contacts, notes, syncing to pc, etc.) for free for a "smartphone" that costs about the same, has a less targeted interface (ie you have to learn a new way of doing things that may not even be as good as what you had) and costs you at least an extra $30 per month for a data plan? Where's the upgrade? Instead getting everything I need for years of service for a couple of hundred bucks, I must purchase a device for a couple of hundred and then pay a minimum of $360 per year on top of that for the privilege of using it. If I don't want to do social networking, use gps services, take pictures, or surf the web from my phone, why wouldn't I just want a simple PDA?
    • RE: Why old people still like their PDAs

      @kiz - AMEN!! If you could buy a smartphone (other than on Ebay) that would function without a data plan, LOTS of people would sign up. We aren't old - we're frugal. I hate getting cheated by my cell provider.
      • Even if you bought a smartphone on eBay

        you would still have to pay for a data plan even to use it as a cell phone. I know because I've checked into this. You cannot use a smartphone on either Verizon or Sprint without paying for the data plan, no matter where you get the phone.
        Beat a Dead Horse
      • RE: Why old people still like their PDAs

        @Beat a Dead Horse:

        ATT and T-Mobile will let you bring your own smartphone, and sign up for voice/text only, on either a prepaid, pay-as-you-go, or a monthly basis. I'm currently using a first-generation, unlocked iPhone with T-Mobile--I told them I was going to use an unlocked iPhone, and they had no problem with that. They sold me a T-Mobile SIM card for about $7, and I then activated it online, and started buying prepaid minutes. ATT's data-less plans are somewhat more expensive than T-Mobile.
        John Sawyer
      • RE: Why old people still like their PDAs

        @davesuff That requirement sounds a lot like an iPod touch or wifi only iPad to me. I wonder why we are yet to see an android device that is wifi only? Essentially a wifi pda that syncs with the cloud and no (in built) data plan
      • RE: Why old people still like their PDAs

        @davesuff frugal? when even until the end Palms represented an overpriced product? they finally moved into triple-digit processor speeds and more usefulness in the last 4-5 years of the product's life. I had a treo 680 that I still use occasionally, love it.. Wish I could find an unopened unlocked centro kicking around.. but it was $350 out of service. Even back 6 or so years ago. Nowadays if you don't want today's best you can get older model phones for not much, and lots of chinese knockoffs have many of the function of yesterday's PDAs for a nominal cost (around $100-150) That's about what palms should ever have cost. except for the lifedrive or perhaps another one.. they weren't all that.. I remember the first few Dell Axims cost most of $500 back in the day, but if you want to justify the purchase of an iPad, think about how much more useful the Axim is in Comparison: the same amount of applications, but with full two-way data transfer to actual media! still use of a keyboard if wanted (I love my thinkoutside keyboard. great unit!) BT and Wifi (Does the ipad have bluetooth?)

        @beat a dead horse that's one of many reasons I hate verizon. At least with at&t if you don't use the service you don't need to pay for it, unless it's a BB.
      • I bought a smartphone with a data plan

        and WITHOUT a calling plan because I wanted a super-PDA which I could tether my netbook to... so I carry both an aging Motorola phone for my prepaid provider and a Blackberry I'm using as a PDA. I could use my blackberry as a phone ... for 20 cents a minute over and above my data plan charges.

        My Blackberry is a FAR better PDA than my old Zire 31... it's easier to read as e-reader, it sounds better as an MP3 player, and I can watch videos on it, which is something my Zire 31 simply can't do. Though my netbook is a better multimedia platform... I'd hate to try attaching it to my belt.

        I just received a low-end google android tablet direct from a Chinese supplier for $133 including shipping. But it's not going to replace either my phone or PDA ... bought it as a development platform for my next project.

        BTW, I'm in my mid-50s.
      • RE: Why old people still like their PDAs

        @davesuff <br>I agree. According to the article, I'm old..... but I don't believe that has much to do with it. I have a great calling plan with Verizon that I've had for years (back when it was Centurytel, then Alltell, then Verizon). My wife and I both have phones with the minutes we need and texting that we need for about $30 a month total (both phones). I'm not about to give that plan up. <br><br>While I would love to have a smart phone so I could use my wi-fi at home and sync calendars, etc, it's not going to happen. Verizon won't sell me a smartphone without changing my plan to something that costs at least three times as much. No smartphone for me I guess.
    • RE: Why old people still like their PDAs

      The cost of a data plan, and the length of the two-year lock-in contract (with penalty for early cancellation) is the main thing that's intended to pay for the subsidized cost of a smartphone, so it's unlikely carriers would make a data plan optional for more expensive smartphones that you buy from them, without raising the cost of the phone service for such customers. But cheaper, "less smart" phones that have PDA capabilities might be available from some carriers without requiring a data contract (but still requiring a two-year contract to pay for subsidizing the cost of the phone)--I don't have time to check, but I think that may be the case. If not, it would be nice. I'm currently using a first-generation, unlocked iPhone, with T-Mobile's pay-as-you-go, bring-your-own-phone voice/text service, in which you buy cellphone minutes, which doesn't require a data plan. I could have gotten a per-month deal, but it was a little more expensive, but only by a few dollars. ATT has a couple similar bring-your-own-phone plans, but they're more expensive than T-Mobile's.

      For people not familiar with the subsidized cost of phones: A carrier (ATT, etc.) buys phones from the manufacturers for somewhat of a discount, but not a large discount from what I understand, meaning the carrier might be buying an iPhone, an HTC Evo, etc. from the manufacturer for roughly $500 (anyone with closer figures, chime in). The carrier then sells the phone to its customers for $100-$300. This means, depending on the retail cost of the phone, it may take between one and two year's worth of service for the customer to pay off the actual cost of the phone (the amount the carrier can put towards its own purchase of the smartphone is less than the data plan's $30 a month). Because of this, I think lock-in contracts should be for no longer than the actual length of time it takes to pay off the subsidized cost of the phone, rather than an automatic two-year contract even with cheaper PDA-like phones.

      One alternative for the customer, to avoid a two-year lock-in and a data contract, is to buy a phone outright, from the carrier, at retail price (which often also means you can buy it unlocked, so you can use it later with other carriers if you choose to or need to), and then sign up with the carrier for a pay-by-the-month voice/text only, or other plan. But for many people, depending on their usage, this still won't reduce their monthly bill by a huge amount (depending on what each person considers huge), and this is pretty much like pre-paying the penalty anyway for early contract cancellation. But you might still save some money over the course of a couple years.
      John Sawyer
    • RE: Why old people still like their PDAs

      @kiz My company gave me the use of a Blackberry and I laid aside my HP Ipaq. Now no job but I still have a life and a "dumbphone" pay as you go. I would like it if the phone would sync but it won't. Enter the Ipaq like a forgotten toy on Toy Story. Alas I can't find a means to have it relate to Windows 7. I agree with you as to why pay a monthly for technology that could work if a patch was in place? All that said, I did not miss having one more gadget in my pocket.
  • It's also about the money.

    I've been looking for a PDA as well. (I guess I'm in the group of "older people" as I'll be turning 50 this year.) The reason I want a PDA and not a cell phone is primarily cost.

    Back when I had my functioning Palm Pilot, the only cost was the initial purchase price. If I were to get one of these new "smart" phones, I'd have a rather hefty monthly connection fee for features I'd probably use but definitely can live without. My current voice only cell phone will cost me $100 for the entire year. I have friends with iPhones who are paying that per month.

    Keep us posted with what happens with your mother's search for a replacement.