Handheld Evolution

Psion’s success prompted other companies to start looking at the PDA market. Notable amongst these was Apple Computer, whose launch of its first Newton MessagePad device in mid-1993 was heralded as a major milestone of the information age. Apple was soon joined by several other handheld communication devices from established electronics manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard Co., Motorola Inc., Sharp Electronics Corp. and Sony Electronics Inc.

Because of their size, entering data into a PDA requires either a tiny keyboard or some form of handwriting recognition system. The problem with the former is that they’re too small for touch-typing. The problem with the latter is the difficulty in making it work effectively. What differentiated Apple’s Newton technology from its competitors was its ambitious attempt to support data entry via touch-sensitive LCD screens and highly complex handwriting recognition software. In 1997 Apple launched the eMate, a new PDA that persisted with the Newton technology. Notwithstanding the fact that the Newton’s handwriting recognition technology had come on leaps and bounds in the years since its first appearance, it never became fast or reliable enough. In 1998 Apple announced its decision to discontinue development of the Newton operating system.

In 1995 Palm Computing was acquired by US Robotics and a year later the PDA market was transformed by the introduction of the company’s keyboardless Pilot products. Data entry with these devices was via a stylus and touch-sensitive screen, using the company’s proprietary Graffiti handwriting system. This relies on a touch-screen display and a simplified alphabet – which takes about 20 minutes to learn – for data entry. Typically, PDAs with the Graffiti system provide the option to write directly onto the display which translates the input into text, or to open up a dedicated writing space which also provides on-line examples and help.

Following a further change in ownership – US Robotics being subsumed into 3Com in mid-1997 – the Palm products became formidable players in the handheld computing arena and led to a burgeoning in the PDA market. Their success has also led to a segmentation of the market into users of the two major form factors; devices that have a keyboard, and stylus-based palm size devices that don’t. The former are increasingly viewed as companion devices for desktop PCs and often run cut-down versions of desktop applications. The palm-size form factor generally have less functionality, retaining their emphasis on the tradition Personal Information Manager (PIM) application set. The choice depends on personal preference and the level of functionality required.