Where is the PDA market going?

Sony recently announced its “temporary” exit from the PDA market. The Register is now reporting that Toshiba is also leaving. PalmOne (formerly Palm, Handspring, 3Com, and US Robotics...) sales have been slumping in recent years. Some companies have successful PDA lines, like HP and Dell, but they’re in the minority. Many analysts have predicted the death of the PDA market.

Of course, analysts have predicted just about every possible event with dismal accuracy. This time, for once, I agree with them. Generally, “convergence” has failed in the home-electronics marketplace with often-amusing results. Nobody wants to combine their computers, televisions, washing machines, stereos, and toasters into one do-it-all device. Similar problems have plagued the portable market in the past. Phone-PDA combination devices have all been large, awkward, bulky, and over $500. Nobody wanted to hold a giant square up to their face and talk to it.

Then cellular phones got better. Even the cheapest phones now have color screens, “real” audio chips, and the ability to store your calendar and play games. So what role does a PDA fill?

  • Address book: More convenient to have it on your phone.
  • Calendar: Most phones can do this too. Even iPods can do it.
  • Games: Phones have them. They’re not as fancy, but they’ll keep you occupied while you wait for the bus. And personally, I’ve never been extremely impressed with PDA gaming. It’s great that my Axim can emulate a Super Nintendo, but the directional-pad, button layout, and feel of the buttons are horrendous for console gaming. Who thought this was a good idea?
  • Email: PDAs are still better at this. But most people don’t need to receive m.ortgage and v.i.a.g.r.a solicitations wherever they are. Phone calls or even text messages allow you to quickly contact a friend.
  • Web browsing: Phones and PDAs both suck equally. The internet is not designed for devices with small screens and no keyboards. There’s some good “mobile” content out there, but not nearly enough. WAP and Pocket Internet Explorer both need to be killed slowly.
  • Portable music: PDAs don’t offer enough space to store a useful amount of music. Even if you get a $150 memory card to add to your $300 PDA, you still only get about 15% of the capacity of the $250 iPod Mini in a device that’s twice as large. Plus, PDAs don’t have very good sound quality, even with headphones.
  • Portable video: I have yet to find a good justification for portable video. It’s the kind of thing that people do on PDAs because they can, not because it’s particularly enjoyable. I can’t say that it’s ever been a dream of mine to watch low-resolution video on a 3” screen with a miserable monaural speaker. Again, this activity requires an additional memory card, because no reasonable quantity of video would fit in the PDA’s memory.

As far as I can tell, if you have a cellular phone, there really isn’t much reason to have a PDA. If you really need both, new phone/PDA combo devices are getting smaller and better but at the same high prices, so they’ll always be a very small niche market. Yes, the PDA market is dead. Color screens gave it a bit more life. WiFi and Bluetooth are both fairly useless on PDAs. If you want music capability, an iPod gives you much more for much less.

It’s a good thing that Toshiba, Sony, HP, and Dell all make other products. Unfortunately, PalmOne is in trouble. They’ve come a long way since their roots at US Robotics, and they invented an entire market. But that market is now obsolete, and they haven’t found a way to advance their technology into a new market. Sorry, PalmOne. It was fun while it lasted.