PDAs: More to come

PDAs are becoming an increasing important part of personal and business technology--but what will 2002 bring?
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor
PDAs are becoming an increasing important part of personal and business technology--but what will 2002 bring?

The handheld computer industry has been hit this year by the economic slump just as much as the PC business has, but development can continued apace. New models are being launched all the time, and for early adopters, 2002 should deliver some of the wireless gadgets that have long been in the pipeline.

Palm continues to sell more PDAs than its competitors worldwide. For Palm, 2001 was all about expandability: newer handhelds such as the entry-level m125 and the pricey m505 have both an expansion slot that accepts Multimedia Cards (MMC) and Secure Digital (SD) cards, which are handy for adding more memory.

Palm says that there will eventually be hardware add-ons like a Bluetooth connector and a camera for the MMC/SD card slot, but so far none have appeared. As a stopgap measure for these, Palm this year introduced a standard connector across its line. This connector links the PDA to its cradle, but also means accessories built for it will work on any Palm model.

You can already buy several attachments for the new Palms:

• TDK's BlueM Bluetooth attachment uses the universal connector, while the Blue5 attaches to the older V-series handhelds.

• Kodak's PalmPix camera attaches to most Palm devices, including the V-series, with an adapter, although not the m125.

• Palm itself makes an own-brand folding keyboard that attaches to any of its models.

Palm's licensees continued to show innovation with the hardware platform, following in the steps of Handspring's Springboard expansion slot. Some new Sony models offer a high-resolution colour screen and MP3 playback, and the PDAs from Handera let you use both MMC and Compact Flash (CF) cards, as well as including high-end features like voice recording.

Palm's plans for 2002 have shifted to take the Pocket PC threat into account; it will move to a more powerful ARM processor, like the one that powers the Pocket PC, and add higher-resolution screens and other power-user features.

In the meantime, Microsoft and its OEMs standardized Pocket PC devices on ARM-based processors; this will mean that software written for a Pocket PC device from one manufacturer should work on any Pocket PC device, leading to a wider availability of software. The new Pocket PC 2002 operating system looks more like Windows XP, and adds a few minor tweaks, but otherwise lets the hardware do the talking.

Pocket PC devices are still pitched more at the laptop-replacement end of the market than the organiser end that Palm targets, and still tend to cost substantially more than Palm-based devices.

Cutting the wires
The big changes in 2001 have all involved wireless connections, enabling handheld devices to access the Internet without having to worry about the wiring.

A year ago you could connect your PDA to a mobile phone via infrared or a cable; today it's possible to get Bluetooth add-ons for many handhelds, including Palm and Pocket PC devices, making the process much easier. TDK makes the Blue5 and BlueM attachments for Palm devices. Socket Communications in September launched a WindowsCE/Pocket PC-compatible Bluetooth CompactFlash card.

You'll also need a Bluetooth phone, but several are now on the market from Nokia, Ericsson and others.

The Bluetooth trend will continue in force next year, according to Cambridge Silicon Radio, which designs Bluetooth chips for manufacturers. Bluetooth chipsets are already outselling those for wireless LAN--another popular way of connecting your PDA or laptop to the Net--and that means that next year the technology will appear in all sorts of products. "There will come a point at which users will assume everything can connect," says Alan Woolhouse, vice president of communications for CSR.

If you're looking for an even more direct connection, there are now several smartphones available, and the 9210 Communicator from Nokia is actually the best-selling PDA in Europe at the moment. It is a clamshell device with a keypad, colour screen, high-speed wireless dial-up Internet access and other nifty features.

Nokia is continuing its aggressive efforts to blur the boundaries between PDAs and mobile phone handsets with a few new phones, one of which, the 5510, has a keypad layout specifically designed for text messaging. It also gives you a radio, a digital music player and five games.

The 7650 is based on the same Symbian operating system as the 9210, but comes in a much more compact package and is mainly designed for taking and viewing digital pictures. It includes Bluetooth, high-speed circuit-switched data (HSCSD), GPRS for an always-on data connection, and 4MB of memory for adding new applications.

Another new form-factor is the Wrist PDA from Fossil, based in the US, which was announced this autumn but won't be available until the spring. Compatible with Palm or Pocket PC, it stores to-do lists, notes and contacts from your handheld computer for when you don't want to lug a gadget around.

Many industry observers say that manufacturers are likely to keep coming up with different types of gadgets for slightly different needs, as the market continues to evolve. "People will probably have lots of different devices," says analyst Tim Mui of IDC. "One will be more voice focused, one more data focused. There are no set boundaries."

Gazing into the crystal ball
In 2002, the usual evolutionary processes will mean that handheld devices continue to proliferate in a variety of forms, some of which will take off, some of which will inevitably be consigned to the dustbin of history, say experts.

Handset makers are extending mobile phones increasingly away from voice in their pursuit of the elusive goal of convergence. Swiss startup Telepong and its manufacturing partner Flextronics have come up with a handset design optimised for gaming and text messaging, along the same lines as Nokia's 5510, but with a colour screen and joystick. It will go into production in the first quarter of 2002.

The UK's Pogo looks even less like a mobile phone, and promises a colour HTML Web browser, MP3 player, a server-based organiser and access to news and information, as well as voice capabilities. Carphone Warehouse is to start distributing Pogo at the end of January.

Hutchison Telecommunications is planning to bring the DoCoMo service to the UK, and when it does, those nifty Japanese handsets from NEC--featuring colour screens and extras like Java support--will come with it. However, Hutchison has not set a firm launch date.

In 2002, handheld computer makers will also finally release devices with built-in wireless capabilities. While Handspring has had its mobile-phone attachment, VisorPhone, on the market for some time, it will finally release an honest-to-goodness wireless PDA in the form of the Treo sometime in "early 2002". The black-and-white version features the Palm OS in a stripped-down PDA with a built-in mobile phone and an optional built-in QWERTY keypad. A colour version is to follow mid-year.

Palm is said to have similar plans, but is keeping them close to its chest so far.

Microsoft's entry into the smartphone game is its Stinger operating system, a customised version of Windows CE for mobile phones. The first hardware to appear will likely be Sendo's Z100, which includes a colour screen, digital music player and MMC slot, and connects via USB, infrared and serial jack -- but not Bluetooth. (Sendo says it will make a Bluetooth add-on available shortly.)

Sendo is designing its phone for GPRS (general packet radio system) networks, and is therefore waiting until the infrastructure is mature enough to offer decent service. GPRS will mean always-on connectivity to corporate data, something already offered in mm02's hard-to-find BlackBerry, but it could also entail something of a wait.

"It will be interesting to see whether the infrastructure can cope with adding users," said Andy Brown, IDC's research manager for mobile computing. "They probably added the traffic as an afterthought... they are probably relying on there being a limited number of users initially."

Staff writer Matthew Broersma reported from the UK.

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