A few days ago, T-Mobile Germany took the wraps off the MDA IV, a cellular-wireless Pocket PC with a clamshell design. It even has a VGA screen. This model won’t hit the market until sometime this summer, but I hope it is a sign of things to come.
I wish I could be more optimistic, but clamshell handhelds got a bad reputation a few years ago. A reputation they don’t deserve.
When Microsoft created its first operating system for handhelds, the devices that ran it used a clamshell design, with a landscape-oriented screen on one side and a keyboard on the other. Unfortunately, these handhelds were being made at a time when their makers’ dreams were exceeding their grasp. While these devices had a lot of potential, they also had short battery lives and poor performance. Combine this with high prices and they didn’t exactly take the world by storm.
So Microsoft went back to the drawing board and created Pocket PC, designed to run on tablet-shaped devices with no keyboards. While this created the handhelds that so many of us love today, handheld makers were too quick to abandon the clamshell shape.
It’s the Keyboard, Stupid
The tablet shape has some advantages. Handhelds with this design are generally smaller and cost less. However, they have one significant disadvantage: without some kind of keyboard, text input is slow. Graffiti, Calligrapher, whatever they use, they can’t begin to compare with a good keyboard.
For many years this didn’t matter. By and large, handhelds were mostly used as information retrieval devices, so the limited text input capabilities didn’t affect their usefulness that much.
But times have changed. Cellular-wireless networks have finally become fast enough — and service cheap enough — that handhelds are increasingly being used to write long emails and text messages. And the limited text input capabilities of tablet-shaped handhelds are starting to become significant.
Many companies have begun building small keyboards into their handhelds, but these are generally small and cramped. It’s demonstrably true that the bigger a keyboard is, the easier it is to use. Only a clamshell can give you a built-in keyboard that even begins to approach the usability of a full-sized one.
Of course you can use a full-size keyboard with a tablet, but that requires you to sit down somewhere to type, which isn’t always terribly practical. It isn’t anywhere near as convenient as just flipping open a clamshell and starting to type your email or SMS message.
More Options, Please
Before I go any farther, let me make it clear that I don’t think clamshell handhelds should replace tablet-shaped ones. What I’m suggesting is choice. Some users prefer a clamshell handheld and there should be a more options for them.
There are several clamshell devices on the market besides the MDA IV I already mentioned. Motorola announced the MPx last year, Sharp makes the Zaurus SL-C3000, and Nokia’s 9500 and 9300 are both clamshells.
But there needs to be more. Currently, there are no clamshell Palm OS models at all. The only Pocket PC ones are the MDA IV (which won’t be out for months and may or may not be released outside of Europe) and the MPx (which appears to be caught in limbo and may be fatally flawed).
Also, the big handheld makers need to get on board. Where’s the clamshell iPAQ, Tungsten, or Axim? With its reputation built on wireless email, RIM should definitly make a clamshell BlackBerry.
Just Consider It
However, it isn’t enough for companies to make new clamshell Pocket PCs; we consumers need to buy them.
I think too many people are caught in a handheld rut. They only device they’ll consider is a slightly improved version of the one they’ve always had: a tablet.
But consider some of the advantages I mentioned the next time you’re doing your handheld shopping. I think you might find that a clamshell fits your needs better than you realize.