Does size really matter?

by Reads (6,295)

When Jeff Hawkins began his quest to develop the first commercially successful PDA-one that millions of people would use to help manage their increasingly hectic lives-he was convinced that ergonomics was the key. He felt at the time that Apple had made a critical mistake by compromising on form, and it would ultimately lead to the Newton’s demise. So he whittled a block of wood into something that fit comfortably in his hand and he toted it around for several weeks (despite the odd glances of friends and coworkers). In the evenings, he shaped and refined it into its legendary Palm Pilot design.

The rest is history.

Palm has sold more than 15 million handheld computers and Hawkins has moved on to co-found Handspring, where he continues to revolutionize the industry that he jump-started, as well as sell millions more PDAs. And he still adheres to the design philosophy that made him famous.

When Microsoft came along a couple of years later with its Palm-size PC, it had a slightly different viewpoint than Hawkins. It believed that, yes, size was important, but not at the expense of functionality. So it packed things like voice recording and stereo sound capabilities into its Palm-size PC specifications, and required electronics manufacturers such as Hewlett Packard and Casio to include them when designing its devices. Microsoft was convinced that consumers would flock to its feature-filled devices, despite the fact that they were larger and heavier.

Again, the rest is history.

Palm-size PCs struggled to achieve market share, and even its successors, the highly touted Pocket PCs, have barely made a dent-except, that is, for the Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC.

Compaq took an enormous gamble, foregoing built-in expansion and opting instead for a proprietary "expansion technology", akin to Handspring’s SpringBoard. Most industry analysts saw this was a tragic mistake and privately claimed that Compaq’s new PDA was doomed for failure. However, what they failed to realize was that by eliminating the ubiquitous CompactFlash slot, Compaq could create a Pocket PC that was near Palm-like in its size and weight (that is, until you wanted to expand it).

Once again, the rest is history.

Compaq has sold more than one million of its highly profitable iPAQs and seems to have the handheld world in the palm of its hand. But as most followers of the Handheld Industry know, it’s a volatile world and your time at the top is a tenuous affair. Earlier this year Palm and Sony raised the bar by introducing ultra-slim color handhelds with both built-in expansion and excellent battery life, something that Compaq couldn’t claim with its iPAQ. And both Palm OS devices appear to be selling well, even at nearly $500.

Still, with all of this "history" behind us, many people-from Pocket PC enthusiasts to device manufacturers to Microsoft itself-continue to downplay the incredibly important role that size plays in the scheme of "all things PDA."

And there’s a reason why.

Most of us have grown up in a world of PCs-desktop behemoths that do everything, immune to the worries of batteries and wireless communications. And no one in their right mind would attempt to carry a desktop computer around with them-except to relocate it to a new office down the hall.

But handheld computers are different.

Size really matters with handhelds, as does battery life and simplicity. Still, these factors loom as a dangerous blind spot to many mainstream computer users who have been fed a constant diet of bigger, better software and expensive hardware upgrades. But the millions of average consumers that long for something as simple and elegant as Jeff Hawkins’ block of wood-they understand.

Earlier this year I convinced several friends and relatives to buy Compaq iPAQ Pocket PCs. For a while it seemed that everyone was thrilled with his or her device. They infectiously showed others how they could play music, watch videos and even control their TV set. I’m sure hundreds of iPAQs were sold through this incredible Ponzi-like web of handheld demonstrations.

But for most of them the honeymoon only lasted about two months. When the newness of their gadgets wore off and they returned to the day-to-day demands of their lives, they found that their iPAQs simply did not provide enough battery life and were too bulky to carry around in their pocket. (Clearly, the name Pocket PC remains a stretch.) Now they ask me how much I think they can get for their iPAQs on eBay. Some have switched to thinner, lighter devices that easily slip into a jacket pocket, while others have returned to their DayTimers and Franklin Planners.

But maybe that’s all changing. Earlier this year Toshiba and NEC showed prototypes of its upcoming Pocket PCs and it looks like they’ve succeeded in taking things a notch smaller…at least in the Pocket PC world. (Palm, Sony and Handspring owners have been enjoying slimness for a while now.)

Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Like most handheld lovers, I long for the day when a slim, lightweight handheld computer with gobs of memory, an incredible color screen (reflective, of course), built-in wireless, and full multimedia capability arrives. Until then it seems I’ll have to compromise between size and functionality.

For me that’s not a tough decision.

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