The Death of Style

by Reads (61,025)

In late 2002, HP released the iPAQ h1910, a Pocket PC with a ground-breaking design. Experts fell over themselves pouring accolades on this model, and over the next year HP released several more handhelds based on the original.

From a handheld standpoint, that year was the best HP has ever had. In the first quarter of 2003, HP had 16 percent of the worldwide handheld market, while by the fourth quarter it had over 25 percent. Much of this dramatic increase can be credited to the popularity of handhelds based on the design that debuted with the h1900 series.

A few weeks ago, the designs for the 2004 iPAQs leaked out. Not a single one of these showed any sign of the h1900 design. To understand why this happened, you have to have some background.

A Trip Back in Time

iPAQ h1910 In 2002, designers at the Taiwanese company High Tech Computer (HTC) came up with the design for a cutting-edge Pocket PC. HTC designs and manufactures electronic devices for other companies; it never releases anything under its own name. Therefore, it began looking for a company interested in putting out the handheld it had created.

Rumor has it HTC first went to Dell with this design, but was turned down. So it kept looking.

The next candidate was HP. This company was already well along in the process of creating what would become the iPAQ h2215, but HP knew this wouldn’t debut before the middle of 2003. In contrast, HTC’s design could come out in time for the holiday shopping season of 2002. HP decided to license the design as a stop-gap measure, until the handheld it really wanted, the h2215, could come out. That’s how HTC’s design became the iPAQ h1910.

No one was more surprised than HP by the success of the h1910. HP’s pet design, the h2200 series, did OK, but never received as much praise as the Compal design.

This is why HP has never been truly committed to the h1900 form factor. HTC managed to create the first Pocket PC that truly deserved to be described as “sexy,” but HP itself hadn’t developed the design. Instead, it had been put together by an outside company. It isn’t at all unusual for companies to prefer designs created internally, rather than ones developed by outsiders, even when the in-house designs don’t do as well.

Moving into the Future

According to rumor, HP will release no less than seven new models before the end of this year. It is clear that HP’s engineers have designed all of these, as not one of them bears the slightest hint of the h1900.

Those of use who have owned an h1910 or a model based on its design are quick to bemoan this fact. I have both an iPAQ h1940 and an Axim X30. The X30 is superior to the iPAQ in almost every way: the processor is much faster, the Axim has built-in Wi-Fi, and the latest version of Windows Mobile allows me to easily switch the screen between portrait and landscape modes. Despite this, every now and then I find myself turning to the h1940. The only reason I can come up with is the truly elegant design of the iPAQ, while the Axim is boxy and not all that attractive.

It is only human nature to reject things other people have created in favor of ones we ourselves have come up with. That’s why I understand why HP’s engineers haven’t based the upcoming crop of iPAQs on the h1910. But I, and scads of other people, beg them to overcome this. The designs they have come up with are good, but the handhelds based on the h1900 model are some of the best ever created, and HP needs more of them.

I challenge HP’s engineers to not let the h1900 form factor die. Instead they must find ways to use this outstanding design in a new generation of iPAQs. I know this won’t be easy, but I believe it is necessary if HP wants to keep growing its worldwide market share.

Looks Matter

There are times when I think that convincing Pocket PC makers that looks are important is a lost cause. Market research firms have pointed out that a majority of these handhelds are bought by large companies, not individuals. That means that the purchasing decisions are made by IT managers, not the man on the street, and IT managers value lots of features, not esthetics.

But this doesn’t mean that looks don’t matter. The challenge is to create handhelds that offer plenty of features, plus outstanding looks. PC Week recently named the iPAQ h4150 as the best PDA available. This is one of the Pocket PCs based on the h1900 and I’m convinced that the reason for this award is this device offered an excellent combination of appearance and function.

IT managers might not put a premium on appearance, but individuals do. Creating the handheld with the most features will get you a certain segment of the market, but an uninspiring design can cost sales to individuals. When someone is standing in an electronics store trying to decide which handheld to buy, many are willing to forgo some features if one of the handhelds is significantly better looking.

Companies have to appeal to both groups, consumers AND the enterprise, in order for a handheld to be truly successful.

The best form factor ever created for a Pocket PC is the one developed for the h1900. HP would be short-sighted to give it up. This company needs to develop more handhelds using this basic design if it wants to keep growing its market share.

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