Powerful PDAs will sprint past lame mobile phones

Next week, I am hoping to get one of the precursors of the future - a Handspring Visorphone connected to the OmniSky wireless...

Next week, I am hoping to get one of the precursors of the future - a Handspring Visorphone connected to the OmniSky wireless data network

Jack Schofield

Opinion

- so I can check my e-mail in the back of a cab. I would also like to try a Trium, Sagem or Sendo phone based on Microsoft's PocketPC software, and whatever Psion announces today.

Like many of my ilk, I carry around at least two devices: a personal digital assistant (PDA) and a mobile phone. Unfortunately, one of these devices - the mobile phone - is lame.

The phone offers poor text entry facilities and a cramped monochrome screen. It is almost useless for data and can store only a tiny fraction of the contacts details in my Outlook address book.

The HP Jornada PocketPC, Compaq iPaq and similar handhelds offer a striking contrast. The Jornada has a terrific colour screen and can be used for e-mail (with attachments) and Web browsing, preferably with a pocket Ethernet card and a Targus Stowaway fold-up keyboard.

The Jornada syncronises with my desktop PC and automatically updates my contacts, appointments, to-do list, expenses and other data . It can also play music files, movies and games, although I would have to buy Compact Flash storage cards to make these practical.

The Jornada also has a microphone and a headphone socket. All it needs to become a phone is a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) card, although really I would prefer GSM and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and a Sim card slot to be built-in.

My point is that PDAs - PocketPCs; Palm OS handhelds, including the Handspring range; and Symbian Epoc-based, Psion-compatible, devices - are much closer to being phone replacements than mobile phones are to being PDA replacements.

And the mobile phone industry agrees. All the major players have signed deals to base their new smartphones on PDAs. The Ericsson R380 is an early example, but better things are on the way.

This does not mean the phone manufacturers are threatened with "death by convergence". Nobody plans to stop making entry-level phones, which will become smaller, cheaper, and more powerful, but the market is changing at the high end.

The main problem is cost. A PocketPC or Handspring organiser with all the add-ons costs more than a desktop PC. Buying this stuff involves many teeth-gritting moments, even if it is a justifiable business expense.

Today you can get a UKP400 phone for a nominal sum, or as a free upgrade, because the cost is recouped through eye-watering call charges. Using a similar approach with GSM/GPRS-equipped PDAs would encourage more people to try them. Network operators can do this but computer manufacturers can't.

Jack Schofield is computer editor of The Guardian

This was last published in February 2001

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