Tech talk: Come in Palm, or your time is up

As new mobile phones arrive, we will see the death of the standalone, mass-market PDA.

As new mobile phones arrive, we will see the death of the standalone, mass-market PDA.

There is at least one case where men brag that "mine's smaller than yours": when they are comparing mobile phones. But over the next six months many of us will be thinking seriously about getting a bigger one.

So far, most mobiles have been dumb, with a few noble exceptions such as Nokia's brick-like Communicator and Sagem's WA3050. This has led to a "two-device model" - users carrying both a mobile phone and a PDA (personal digital assistant) such as a Palm, Psion or Compaq iPaq.

Unfortunately, the two-device model is expensive and does nothing to remove the phone's stupidity. You may have more than 1,000 phone numbers in your PDA, but you pack a phone that can store only 10 or 20 and has no practical way of entering them.

I have been pointing out for longer than I care to remember that this will change as the mobile phone industry changes to adopt computer industry software. Think Symbian, think Palm OS, think PocketPC.

And it is starting to happen. You should soon have a decent choice of PDA-phones with colour screens: the Handspring Treo (Palm-based, out now), the Nokia 7650 camera-phone (Symbian-based, launched last week by T-Mobile), and a Sendo that should be available soon (PocketPC-based, due last Christmas).

All these are real phones, not just PDAs with added GSM capability. And while not exactly cheap, they provide most users with a convenient one-handed, one-pocket device that can be synchronised with a PC.

This does not mean the death of the PDA. There are lots of reasons why some people will still want to carry some type of pocket computer. For example, the iPaq's handwriting recognition software, Transcriber, works brilliantly; you can add voice-recognition software, PDSay; it provides handy access to local street maps for major cities; it works as a Wi-Fi wireless network client; with a memory card, it doubles as a portable MP3 music and video player. And so on. Yes, it plays games, too.

But I think it means the death of the idea of the standalone, mass-market PDA. The cherished notion that everybody who carries a diary or Filofax will one day carry a Palm/Psion/iPaq must finally be abandoned. It is never going to happen. More than enough functionality can now be packed into a usable mobile phone.

Psion, Handspring and Microsoft saw this coming and started switching tracks more than two years ago. Palm? Come in Palm, or your time is up.

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