Let’s see if this sounds familiar: 64 MB of RAM, 128 MB of flash memory, 200-300 MHz processor, QVGA screen, and a keyboard. Well, can you tell what device I’m referring to? Of course you can’t — because I just described three-quarters of the incredibly lackluster devices released by manufacturers in the last year.
It boggles my mind that some manufacturers actually wonder why they’re not picking up marketshare. Look, folks, the people who are standing on the sidelines not buying or upgrading aren’t standing around because they’re waiting for yet one more iteration of the 128 MB device with a keyboard. If the first ten models like that didn’t saturate that market, surely the second ten did, and the third group piled on just for good measure.
The smaller manufacturers are the worst offenders: while HTC might have found a winning formula with these kinds of devices, if you’re not the eight kiloton gorilla of the handheld space, you’ve got to be a little more creative.
My Dell Axim X51v is nearly 11 months old, and I have yet to see better hardware available on the market. Fastest processor, most memory, best screen, the list goes on. So why has nothing better been released?
Look, it’s not like I’m exactly complaining that I still have the most powerful device you can buy. But I can’t help notice the fact that the march of technology has turned into a casual hobble.
Some of the blame goes to first Intel, and now Marvell. The last new iteration of the XScale mobile processors came out in early 2004, two and a half years ago. In computer time, that’s like a geological epoch. Intel did demonstrate some acceptably zippy new processors, code-named Monahans, that were capable of a 25% performance boost over the existing XScales, but the chips have yet to show up in a shipping device.
Of course, it’s not like Samsung or Texas Instruments is leaping forward to fill the gap. Samsung’s ARM processors have nearly dropped off the face of the planet, while TI seems content to leave their ARMs running at a paltry 200 MHz, insufficient for VoIP, video, or a dozen other things.
Where Are the Gigabytes?
There’s no excuse at all when it comes to storage. With flash memory prices dropping like a rock strapped to a brick, most devices still only feature a tiny fraction of the memory that they could. 1 GB flash cards are often free after rebates, and 4 GB cards run under $60. 128 MB of flash, of which only about 60 MB is usually available, is a joke. A bad one, with a bungled punchline.
Not every device needs huge storage, of course, but could it hurt to at least up the ante a little? 256 MB? 512? A little more memory would go a long way.
No OLED Here
Advances in screen technology? Nope, no help there. Not only have manufacturers failed to make significant advancements like trying out OLED technology, but the number of devices with high resolution screens has actually diminished.
Dedicated video hardware? Not present on most models.
GPS integration has gotten a lot of traction in Europe, but few seem to want to make the effort over here besides the handful of dedicated models like Garmin’s, and HP’s vaporware Pocket PC phones.
From an aesthetic point of view, recent engineering has been no less disappointing. It seems that the only two designs in the world are now the sliding keyboard and the fixed keyboard. Clamshell devices, anyone? No no — that might be innovative and cool, and we can’t have that.
Nor can we have mini-laptops like the Netbook, twist-and-flip convertibles, and God forbid we get anything really new, like dual displays. We’d much rather see the 39th Blackberry wannabe this year.
It’s almost enough to make me nostalgic for the days of the Motorola MPx. Although it was grossly underpowered, the MPx had a unique dual-clamshell design that allowed you to flip it open either in portrait or landscape modes. Depending on what orientation you used it in, you were presented with either a thumb keyboard or a numeric keypad. Sure, it was big, and gawky, and the keys were rather oddly shaped, but it demonstrated a daring design ethic that’s rather lacking in today’s market.
The usual explanation for this lack of enthusiasm is that the handheld market is dying, so no one wants to put in the effort. While I don’t necessarily buy that, I am struck with the image of the collective of manufacturers, standing over the market’s bed with a big fluffy pillow and a malevolent expression. But this problem affects converged devices even more than regular handhelds, putting the lie to the idea that these lackluster designs are market-driven.
There’s an old phrase that is appropriate to this situation: adapt or die. Innovation moves product. It’s as simple as that. And manufacturers who keep trying to copy and recycle the same devices are dooming themselves to be marginalized once a more compelling solution arrives.