Why the future belongs to the phone


I’ve tested dozens of PDAs over the years, but the only one I ever bought was the Rex Pro. This little marvel of 1998 technology packed screen and memory into a slim, light package that was actually a PC Card – one I was positive I’d carry everywhere without a second thought.

But a day or two after I stuck it into my wallet – a practice that I admit the instructions warned against – the crushed screen ended up as an ever-changing bluish example of abstract art. The replacement Rex was moderately useful for a time, but its synching software never worked quite right, and the unit eventually ended up in a drawer – a fate that I bet has befallen many other briefly beloved PDAs.

Eventually these devices will be remembered as amusing artifacts of an era when big, clunky cell phones could barely display a single line of capital letters. Today, new wireless phones have lots of memory, plenty of processing power, and highly readable screens. There should be no reason for you to carry two devices; PDA functions belong in your phone.

This is not to say that PDA makers won’t keep trying. Palm Inc., for instance, has slashed prices to US$99 for its stripped-down Zire and put Bluetooth in its wildly overpriced Tungsten T. But once your phone can sync with your calendar and your contact list, the Zire is just one more battery you have to manage. And spending extra for a Bluetooth phone so you can dial it with your Tungsten while performing a three-handed juggling act seems the height of techie ludicrousness. At least more and more PDAs this year will come with Wi-Fi built-in, which should keep them useful for people who use specialized applications and for road warriors who want a quick hit of e-mail with their lattes.

Phone-based or not, PDAs need better software. It’s ridiculous that Pocket PCs screw up formatting in Microsoft’s own Office files. (DataViz’s Palm-based Documents To Go lets you edit complex Office documents and preserve their original look.) Likewise, synchronization needs to improve. At the moment, if you use your Pocket PC to access a POP3 e-mail account, you can’t synch even your sent messages to the Outlook folders on your desktop. That’s just plain goofy.

And phone-based or not, PDAs need keyboards. This notion hasn’t caught fire yet – in part, I suspect, because of the patent rights that Research In Motion has asserted over its nice BlackBerry thumb keyboard. Interestingly, one company that gets it is Handspring. Every one of its high-end models sports a keyboard. This acknowledgment that block-printing recognition was only a stopgap comes from folks who invented Graffiti.

But whatever happens with software and input options, the march of the PDA to the phone is inexorable. Use T-Mobile’s Sidekick or a Handspring Treo for a week, and you’ll see. Somebody’s not in your contact list? Look ’em up on the Web. For data, you don’t need to rely on a page clipper that delivers content no fresher than the last time you synced with your PC. And your e-mail’s always current.

The biggest remaining limitations of phone-based PDAs are short-lived batteries and irritating holes in data networks. Manufacturers will address the first problem when they come to the shocked realization that any phone-based device should have a removable battery. And the second? Not even the latest phone/PDA combo can tell me that.

Manes, a contributing editor for PC World, has written about PCs for nearly two decades and can be reached at stephen_manes@pcworld.com.