Scrambling For The Wireless Jewel

The convergence of PDAs and mobile phones is rapidly approaching a conclusion. The race between the two factions — the PDA makers and mobile handset manufacturers — however, is undecided. From which side will the new generation of portable information devices emerge?

The market for portable, pocket sized devices — such as the Palm and Compaq‘s iPaq — has been decidedly fickle. Before the outstanding rise to fame of the Palm, around $US1 billion in capital was invested in the ‘pen computing’ market — with the two most public failures being Apple and Kleiner Perkins backed Go.

Several incarnations of Apple’s Newton had to be scrapped on sluggish sales. With current offerings appearing remarkably similar to the Newton though, one questions if the reason for failure was simply time. Indeed, the environment in which the Newton failed lacked a crucial factor in today’s market — a thirst for information spawned by the commercial Internet.

The current adoption has been led by two things — information and integration. The degree of information that people use today is vastly greater than ten years ago. Principally this can be attributed to email. With both email correspondence and the storing of email addresses in contact databases of utter importance to professionals today, demand for PDA devices is now extremely strong.

The need for integration is a derivative of the information management demanded by today’s professionals. Palm and  iPaq devices have paid particular attention to this aspect, both synching with major desktop applications like Microsoft Outlook.

The second wave of demand is being driven by network access, which is in many ways similar to the resurgence of the PC market in the late nineties as people required access to the Internet.

Handspring, founded by the pioneers of Palm, has now included an expansion slot for a wireless modem in its Visor range of handhelds. Locally, DotWAP has released NEO1 — a wireless modem that connects to Palm V and IBM Workpads. The pricing is very much aimed at the early adopter market however, with plans starting from $49/month.

Another twist on the handheld market is Research In Motion‘s Blackberry device. Rather than being a device with a focus an ‘information management’, the Blackberry is a pure messaging application. Interesting, considering messaging – through email and then instant messaging and even SMS – has consistently proven to be the killer application of the networked world. Work is currently underway for a GPRS compatible version of the Blackberry, which would pave the way for an international rollout.

The developments and success of PDA manufacturers has not gone unnoticed by mobile phone handset behemoths — Motorola, Nokia and Ericsson. All have made significant investments in the area and we are now seeing the fruits of their labour. Ericsson, for instance, recently released the R380 model, which includes calendaring and contact management applications.

The failure of WAP to ready mobile phone networks for data applications has been disappointing. Of particular concern is the vision of the wireless Internet by handset manufacturers and telecommunications carriers. Four line text screens, archaic navigation systems and a one minute login process hardly bode well for the future.

The general lack of usability suggests that the software development community behind the PalmOS and even WindowsCE are better placed to execute and take advantage of the Wireless Internet.

However, there are several encouraging moves from the handset manufacturers. The big three, along with Panasonic and Psion, have formed Symbian — a joint venture aimed at competing head on with PalmOS and WindowsCE.

The number of mobile phone handsets absolutely dwarfs the number of PDA devices. However, the momentum PDA manufacturers have in terms of quality of product is unmistakable. This, in conjunction with the fact that the mobile phone market was created in only ten years is encouraging for PDA device makers.

In the end, however, speculation can only be answered by time.

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