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Friday, November 14, 2003  

Tech Talk

  • Do PDAs have a future?
  • Jeff Kirvin at Writing on Your Palm says: "I've seen several articles recently predicting the death of the PDA. Do PDAs have a future?" I've been asking the same question. I now have the PDA model I've written about wanting, the Palm Tungsten C. However, I am finding myself at a loss in regard to what to do with it. Kirvin has given the issue of 'whither the PDA?' some thought.

    Judging by the press handhelds get these days, you'd think the form factor was doomed. Toshiba talks about the failure of their Pocket PCs and how they might stop making them. The Economist reports that handhelds will never be a mass market. Sony, long the standard bearer for PalmOS, lays off thousands. Only HP, Dell and PalmOne seem strong and dedicated to the handheld market. New devices from those three companies are compelling, but are they enough, or has the "Palm Pilot" finally reached the end? According to the Economist article, "everyone who wants a PDA already has one."

    As my regular readers know, my day job is managing the Communications and Imaging department at one of the largest CompUSAs in America. I sell MP3 players, cell phones, digital cameras and yes, PDAs. I can tell you from first hand experience that I sell PDAs every day to people that have never owned one. If anything, the existence of inexpensive devices with bright color screens like the iPAQ 1945 and Palm Tungsten E is drawing new users like never before. While it's taking a back seat to the color Tungstens now, I expect the $99 Palm Zire 21 to sell like gangbusters for the holiday shopping season. People that already wanted PDAs might already have them, but there's a constantly growing number of people who are just now figuring out that they want them. While Franklin Covey is refocusing on selling paper planners, I'm selling PDAs to people that are fed up with paper and want a smaller, lighter and lower-maintenance way of dealing with their commitments.

    I've owned three personal digital assistants over a five or six-year period. They were a Handspring Visor Prism, a Palm m505 and the current Tungsten C. I used the first two devices often. Part of one of my books and some of my short stories were written on the Prism and m505. I also used them to write rough drafts of reviews. (I like to write my impressions down while they are fresh and a PDA is more convenient to take to a movie or a concert than a laptop.) My m505 fell into disuse as laptops became lighter and I began taking my TiBook with me more often than I had previous notebooks. The advent and availability of WiFi also played a role. My laptop had an Airport card,so it made sense to carry it instead of my PDA, which was not equipped for 802.11b. I could surf the Web using the free access points and the numerous Starbucks' Tmobile sites in Portland in Seattle.

    I thought I would switch back to relying on a PDA once I had the right PDA. (I received a Palm Zire 71 as a gift, but it did not fit in with gadgets I already have.) The Tungsten C has the latest version of the Palm operating system, OS 5, built-in WiFi and comes with a voice memo function. It has a full 64MB of memory instead of the former Palm standard 8MB. With the addition of a secure digital memory card the on-board memory can be increased easily.

    Alas! I haven't found the Tungsten C the fit I expected it to be. The WiFi connection works fine once one has connected, but is awkward to initiate. One must first access the WiFi program, then open a browser and sign in to the access provider. To synchronize Avantgo, the best of the web services for mobile devices, one must open it after those three steps. That's rather much after getting used to connecting automatically on my laptop. The voice memo, MP3 and movie viewing functions require the purchase of earphones that fit the Tungsten C's odd input port. So far, the only one I've located that works is a one-ear model that won't do for listening to music and watching videos. In addition, a user needs to purchase an MP3 program and a memory card to hold music and movies. Do I even need to say the sound quality is much less than my iPod's?

    I am still becoming acquainted with the Tungsten C. Perhaps it will grow on me. I am apt to learn things that will help as I work my way through the huge PDF that is its handbook. But, now, I am wondering if I will stick with the device.

    Kirvin believes the PDA's destiny is to become part of the PAN.

    An emerging and often overlooked trend in mobile computing is the rise of Personal Area Networks, usually connected via Bluetooth. A PAN is a system of devices usually worn or carried by an individual that work together to share data and be greater than the sum of the parts. A typical PAN today might be a PDA, cell phone, Bluetooth headset and perhaps a Bluetooth GPS.

    PDAs have a future as part of a PAN, a handheld control console. For many, the PDA will be the most visible component of a personal area network, the only part you interact with directly. I'd for one love to see the actual phone merge with a Bluetooth headset like the Jabra Freespeak. All the circuitry needed for a GSM cell phone can now be found on a single board the size of a dime. How hard would it be to add that to a self-powered earpiece and microphone that could be voice-activated sans PDA or controlled via Bluetooth from a PDA? More than that, a PDA is the ideal interface to control a Bluetooth-equipped home theater, Windows Media Center, ebook server, etc. A touch screen handheld with a largish (yet pocketable) screen has so many uses that I'm sure the form factor is here to stay.

    Kirvin may be right.

    Another possible saviour of the PDA market may be convergence between cell phones and digital devices, which I described in a previous column.

    However, I believe the PDA manufacturers will have to hold on to experienced users in addition to attracting new people to the devices to succeed. Whether I remain a PDA owner will probably turn on finding legitimate uses for my Palm Tungsten C.

  • The Apple Store has arrived
  • An achievement that makes Apple CEO Steve Job's endless promotion of the company appear more than hyberbole has occurred: Apple's own stores are in the black.

    Apple posted its highest quarterly income for three years in its September earnings results announced today. Excluding two bonus windfalls, the company turned a profit for the quarter of $29 million on sales of $1.72 billion. Without the charges, it would have recorded $44 million net income.

    CFO Fred Anderson said that while CPU sales increased seven per cent year on year, revenue increased 19 per cent, which he largely attributed to peripheral sales. The iPod sold 336,000 units in the quarter, said Anderson, adding $121 million in revenue. Apple's US retail stores are finally in the black: the 63 stores open (on average) in the period added $193 million of revenue.

    I checked up on how the brick and mortar Apple Stores are doing after getting good news via email Monday.

    Apple Store, Washington Square
    10 a.m to 9 p.m., Saturday, November 15

    Drop in and help us celebrate the newest store in Portland. The whole day is full of festivities. See how Apple is changing the way people view technology. Check out all the new Apple products, including Mac OS X, version 10.3 -- Panther, the Power Mac G5, the ever-popular iPod, and iTunes?the world's best jukebox software that is now available for Mac and Windows. You can also test-drive the new eMac, our most affordable desktop ever, and the new iBook G4, our fast, affordable portable.

    The best place to discover. The perfect place to learn. More than just a place to shop, the Apple Store is the place to learn about and take part in today's digital revolution. Attend hands-on workshops and discover innovative business solutions from a Mac Business Specialist. It's the place to see, feel, and interact with everything Apple has to offer.

    Join us on November 15. This is one grand opening you won't want to miss.

    Yes! Puddletown is finally getting an Apple Store of its own. It will be the only Apple Store in Oregon.

    MacNN has statistical information about Apple Stores, including:

  • Apple will have 74 retail stores, including the new Tokyo location, by December 31.
  • This year Apple sold 187,000 computers in its stores, 87,000 of which were to first time Mac buyers.
  • 47 percent of buyers at Apple retail stores were new to the Mac platform.

  • Store traffic, volume, and sales are steadily increasing, while operating expense is going down.
  • On average six percent of those who visit a new Apple Store buy something. As a store gets older that percent increases to about 13, meaning people are returning.
  • I look forward to having a third concrete choice when shopping for Mac products. Currently, we are limited to two convenient options, The Mac Store (formerly The Computer Store) and CompUSA. Neither can be relied on for repairs, especially of laptops. The Apple stores have an average turnaround time of two days for repairs -- less time that it takes for Apple to send a box for its general repair service. My first purchase will likely be new iPod earphones to replace the ones I lost last week.

    5:26 PM