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COMMUNICATIONS AND COMPUTERS MUST CONNECT FOR PDA REALITY

The fusion of wireless telecommunications and computer processing power into a device that fits your hand ought to be a slam-dunk proposition. It lets time-critical information go unobtrusively to where it can be most productive-in the field-rather than requiring the user to go where the information resides.

Yet both industries have been struggling to come together for three years since the advent of Apple Computer Inc.’s Newton MessagePad established the product category called “Personal Digital Assistants” in 1993.

“The concept of the PDA was created on the principle of it being a communications device,” noted Gerry Purdy, president of the Cupertino, Calif.-based consultancy Mobile Insights Inc.

And plans were announced to make the Newton wirelessly enabled even before its commercial launch.

Unfortunately, that launch failed due to Newton’s flawed handwriting recognition interface that was roundly ridiculed by everyone from industry luminaries to the The Simpsons cartoon series.

Since then, the industry has been grasping for elusive market success with a swirl of form factors, price points and connectivity options for the PDA.

Apple has continued to invest in the Newton while other vendors from both the computer and wireless industries have introduced similar products. The recently introduced Pilot PDA from the Palm Computing Division of U.S. Robotics achieved a breakthrough in terms of its shirt-pocket sized form factor, Graffiti handwriting recognition software and $300 price. It does not, however, have wireless connectivity.

Thus far, those vendors that have been the most successful with wireless-enabled PDAs have targeted vertical markets with rugged, tablet-sized devices.

These include Motorola Inc.’s Forte CommPad, Norand Corp.’s Pen*Key 6100 and Telxon Corp.’s PTC product line. All are wirelessly enabled.

For success, Purdy said, “It’s necessary for (PDA applications) to be useful and pervasive, and integrated with other information resources. This has come about in the vertical markets where the benefit of wireless connectivity has become very clear.”

Overall, market research firm Frost & Sullivan projects a 28 percent compound annual growth rate for the PDA market, faster than portable computers.

PDAs “will continue to have success in niche markets but improvements will have to be made before they become the trillion dollar industry prophesied at its inception. Communication has been dubbed the killer application for PDAs but the market has yet to meet expectations,” the firm said.

The wireless industry tried to reach out from its side of the divide with the introduction of the Simon communicator a few months after the Newton’s premiere.

Developed by BellSouth Cellular Corp. and IBM Corp., Simon was the first in a new product category closely related to PDAs-Smart Phones.

It combined cellular telephony, paging, facsimile and electronic mail capability with a calculator and organizer. For the user interface, Simon displayed the usual cellular phone keypad on a touch screen along with a predictive keypad for data entry and a pen-based scratchpad.

Unfortunately these features were combined in a brick-like form factor at a retail price of $900. As a first generation Smart Phone, the Simon was cheaper than the first generation PDAs but still not cheap enough.

In recent months, several initiatives have been taken to drive Smart Phone pricing down to the $500 threshold deemed necessary for market acceptance. These products offer some data connectivity for less money than the PDAs. They’re primarily limited to messaging and simple information retrieval functions as well as personal organizer features to make the user’s life easier. Some come complete with their own TCP/IP protocol stack for accessing the Internet.

With Smart Phones beginning to resemble Chinese Puzzle Boxes to accommodate all their new integrated features, ergonomics will continue to be an issue as they were with the Simon.

Included in the Smart Phone category are phones from Mitsubishi Wireless Communications Inc. (MobileAccess), Pacific Communication Sciences Inc. (Personal Access Link), Air Communications Inc. (AirCommunicator) and Nokia Mobile Phones (Nokia 9000). Similar products are reportedly being developed by Northern Telecom Inc., Sony Electronics Inc. and Ericsson Inc.

These devices are secondary to the wireless network that supports them. That is, they are communications-centric while PDAs are computer-centric. And PDA vendors are waiting for wireless carriers to make the connection between the two paradigms.

“The first job for the wireless network is to demonstrate that they can do it,” Purdy said. “The need is there but we have to make communications pervasive and manage it end-to-end.”

“Wireless communications is the key, but it absolutely requires an end-to-end solution and not leaving it to the user to figure out how to get benefit from it,” he said.

Although Purdy sees PDAs and Smart Phones as distinct product categories, he said both can be distributed through Value Added Resellers who can provide them as part of a total solution.

For the cellular carrier, the Smart Phone is “an incremental revenue opportunity that can also reduce churn by providing information access that users can’t live without,” he said.

Purdy believes that the emerging narrowband personal communications services networks have a great opportunity to provide wireless connectivity to PDAs.

“NPCS sounds like it could be very useful if you have to add only $100 or $200 to the cost of a device and a penny per message in service cost,” he said.

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