Last October, ZDNet UK warned that the PDA was on the endangered list. Today another species, Clie sonyii, has gone extinct, dying off in its last island hold-out as Sony pulls the plug on domestic PDA products. Nobody is that surprised -- the company gave up on the rest of the world last year -- but the figures are dramatic nonetheless. In 2003, Sony was the Japanese market leader with over 30 percent of units shipped. In 2006, it will sell none.
What is equally dramatic is the rude health of the mobile technology industry as a whole. Devices with most of the attributes of PDAs are on everyone's want list -- Blackberries, feature phones, portable music players that just happen to have address books, even Sony's PSP hand-held gaming device, are all attracting attention for more than their core functionality. With the exception of the iPod and all its spawn, the common factor is communications -- and details of Apple's 'AirPod' wireless-enabled device are already being leaked.
This change in emphasis has consequences for the enterprise, the one place where PDAs have continuing value. The technology started as a conduit for limited portable computing power in vertical niches, and it has returned there. However, its time in retail has given the PDA the high performance and low costs of a commodity product, thanks to expensive research and development. As Sony has demonstrated, this has stopped being cost-effective: we can no longer assume that the market will provide cutting edge products at razor sharp prices. The PDA will become as rare as the portable word processing computer, and about as relevant.
Instead, companies considering a mobile data strategy based on pocket devices must look to those based on smartphones, and in particular those tuned to enterprise needs. These will not be cheap. Although they can share a lot of technology with their consumer versions and thus will continue to improve and see developer support, the fixed costs of keeping a differentiated line will have to be spread over a smaller market. Enterprise always costs more: how much more remains to be seen. So beware. The assumptions we've all made about cheap ubiquitous general purpose pocket computing will not hold true for much longer.