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New life in portable technology

If the PDA is dead, does that make the O2 Xda Exec a zombie?

It's almost beyond cliché to pronounce the PDA dead. With Psion out of the market, ultralight notebooks pushing from one side and over-featured smartphones squeezing from the other, what's left for dedicated mobile devices? The stock answer is nothing. The right answer is everything. Devices like O2's Xda Execare nothing more than PDAs that are actually useful Just don't call them that.

The key technologies that make the difference include Bluetooth, which lets people mix and match the portable peripherals that match their tasks. Perhaps the Xda Exec is too bulky for use as a phone — so a Bluetooth headset lets you leave the big box in your bag. If a keyboard is too small for fast text input, then a foldable Bluetooth device keeps the fingers happy. Connectivity is another: with 3G, Wi-Fi and GPRS, there's not much you can't do on the road that you can in the office: without them you might as well be lugging a Filofax around.

Location awareness will complete the mix. Not just a matter of popping up maps, this lets you tag and find places and things as easily as if they were data. We are just at the start of learning what this can do, but the flexibility and portability of the platform formerly known as the PDA makes it the natural choice for the evolution of such ideas.

The common factor across all these essential components is wireless. It provides the necessary communication and awareness to make what was once a PDA into a proper, task-based device with the flexibility of a full computer and the portability of a phone.

Yet all the new ideas here are coming from the Far East. Those who should be most innovative in the West are not cutting the mustard — Apple, for example, is in a state of advanced ironic paralysis. It deliberately invented the PDA platform in the Newton, and saw it fail. It accidentally created one of the most popular personal platforms in the iPod, yet fears to let it communicate even as the rest of the world produces dongle after package after extension to help it break out into full utility.

Apple will have to get over that if it doesn't want to see the iPod go the way of the PDA in disconnected obsolescence. Meanwhile, we need to find a snappy way to describe the next generation of wireless task-based mobile devices and lay those three letters of initalismic doom finally to rest.