Extinction beckons for the PDA

Declining sales threaten the PDA - but there's one untapped market that might save this tiny species

The world of palaeontology is in uproar this week over the discovery of a completely unexpected species of prehistoric humans. Three feet high and with a tiny brain, Homo floresiensis lived on an isolated Indonesian island and is thought to have evolved from full-size humans who landed there nearly a million years ago. Islands do that to species – genetic isolation lets the size of the animals there drift up or down in their own little bubble of an ecosystem.

Meanwhile, another dwarf species is on the endangered list. According to IDC, shipments of PDAs are shrinking with no reversal in sight. That matches our own observations, with manufacturers withdrawing from the market and the rate of innovation slowing dramatically.

To put it bluntly, the PDA is a living fossil. The only things it does well are personal data management – address book, phone numbers, scheduling – and Palm got most of that nailed down perfectly with the Pilot back in the last century. None of the innovations since then – with one exception – have added a jot of usability: colour screens, fast processors, multimedia capabilities just drain batteries to no good effect. More fun, perhaps. More useful, certainly not.

That one exception is wireless communication. Add that to a PDA and you've got a whole new world. Emails, phone calls, remote data access, Google on the move – all tasty enough by themselves. They also add some justification for big colourful screens and multimedia. The PDA's problem here is that it becomes a smartphone – the evolutionary niche that beckons is already well-stocked with predators.

How about extra storage? A PDA with a few gigabytes of hard disk would have many new uses, it's true. But even that bolthole has its own bestiary: the iPod has a vestigial contact book and has just added image management, for example. Still, this may be the only path left – a media player with a general purpose operating system tacked on would be a very intriguing animal. Would it sell? Probably not.

What PDAs need most is a good input system. The Blackberry's thumbpad is one of the best, but even that's only good for short messages. There's nothing that matches the PDA's wish to be a general purpose mobile computer, and after many decades of research there's no sign that anything will arrive soon. We are looking at the final stages of the PDA's evolution – there is no stable bubble of an ecosystem that will support it.

However, never despair. Homo floresiensis might have had a brain the size of a grapefruit, but they were tool-users. And there's still a small but intriguing chance that the species may not be extinct. Even sober, reputable scientists are taking the possibility seriously that a few stragglers may be holed up deep in the unexplored jungle. With their tiny fingers and acute hunters' eyesight, they may yet prove to be the natural market for PDA technology that Homo sapiens so annoyingly refuses to become. If PalmOne starts to equip for an expedition to the Indonesian archipelago, we'll be the first to let you know.