The Perfect PDA

I've been spending quite some time on the move lately, and as a result I've relied pretty heavily on my Pocket PC/iPAQ 2215. It is a great little machine, but the experience has made me rethink the whole PDA thing. I've been using PDAs ever since the Apple Newton came out (I played around with the first to land in Portugal), and even though the way I use them has changed radically over time, it irks me that after nearly eight years we still haven't got a really decent one.

Laptops are Useless

Despite the fact that laptops have become the de facto form factor for most corporate desktops these days (at least for knowledge workers), I've taken to leaving mine on my desk unless I have a presentation to deliver.

Why? Because it detracts from the actual process of meeting people. It's bulky, inconvenient, unreliable, and is only really useful when I'm working alone. My 12" iBook is quieter and far easier to tote around, but the fact that we have Wi-Fi or 3G everywhere these days remains an inadvertent distraction - it's all too easy to lose yourself in your mailbox or skip on preparing the meeting and just fetch documentation from a server on the fly.

Not to mention a bit of casual web surfing, chatting or doing other stuff not directly related to the meeting at hand.

So I've made it a point of not bringing in any distractions to meetings, which actually helps in shortening them - and yes, you can settle most matters in 30 minutes or so.

Syncing Doesn't Cut It Anymore

PDAs, on the other hand, are small, unobtrusive, and let you take along all your critical information - provided you know what you need in the first place and have the time to sync that information over, of course. But syncing takes time, and unless you bother to keep the cradle plugged in to your laptop and the PDA on it (which I don't - neither), you're not really likely to have your PDA in sync or bother to copy across the data you need.

However, the "classic" PDA mold (Calendar, Contacts and ToDos) has become the lesser part of the equation as e-mail progressively takes over our lives. You're most likely to have the latest sales figures on your inbox than anywhere else, and accessing that from your PDA anywhere is the real killer application.

Exchange ActiveSync has its ups and downs, but it's the closest thing yet. Using my Pocket PC and a GPRS or 3G connection through Bluetooth, I've been keeping in touch using a SonyEricsson/T610, a Nokia/7600 and a couple of other Bluetooth phones, and the user experience is great - very fast syncing (even over basic GPRS), good connection control for periodic resyncs, and I can view most common attachments (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF, anything but Visio so far).

As a nice bonus (and one of the reasons I got a Pocket PC in the first place) I can surf the web using a relatively decent browser (Pocket IE has quite a few shortcomings, but it's usable for intranet apps and a web-based RSS aggregator).

The only thing that even comes close are the Blackberry "push e-mail" services (which I've ranted about previously), but quite honestly, the Blackberry UI looks like an HP-48 calculator running mutt and needs a major overhaul.

MessagePad, Where Art Thou?

However, the Pocket PC has four very severe shortcomings:

  • The screen is too small, with a laughable resolution (240x320 is little improvement over the initial Palms)
  • The input methods are bad (I only use the block recognizer, which is a passable Graffiti clone) and it's impossible to use it to take notes in any sort of organized fashion.
  • The user interface is atrocious. Everything in it needs to be revised, from the "Start" menu to the hardware buttons, including every single configuration screen.
  • The battery is crap. Sure, mine lasts nearly a day since I stopped using Wi-Fi, but anything below a week with light use is ridiculous.

The Newton, for all its quirks, cost and lack of "normal" applications, got pretty much everything else right: a notepad-sized screen, an extremely intuitive interaction model (save handwriting recognition), and (for the time) decent expansion.

Palm is nearly catching up with it after all these years (and PalmWiki extended the life of my Palm V by several years), but despite Palm's success with the "pocket" PDA, I, for one, would rather have something different.

The Tablet Option

I've kept an eye on Microsoft's Tablet PC efforts, and I must say I was severely underwhelmed when I figured out it was just another flavor of Windows XP with a rehashed set of Pen Services. It's the third iteration so far, and it's still uselessly bloated, unstable, and overpriced. Not even the OneNote application (now part of Office 2003) can make it usable.

Tablet PCs have so far been successful only in combining all the worst features of laptops (size, weight and unreliable software) with those of PDAs (lousy pen input and tendency to run out of battery), and you can get a fully kitted-out PowerBook for the same amount of cash (which, by the way, is far more usable, reliable and performant).

The way I see it, Microsoft has a far better chance with Windows CE .NET and the Maui reference design. But more on that later (I'm not too keen on it myself, actually, but it's the closest thing to what I need).

The Minimum Requirements

People on the move (at least those that think like me) don't really want laptops or a PDA. They want an electronic notepad that lets them take notes easily and, most importantly of all, easily get at the information they need from anyplace (these days, most likely over a GPRS or 3G wireless connection to a Bluetooth-enabled phone).

A paper notepad has a number of desirable characteristics: it's thin, light, very readable under any sort of lighting and easy to interact with (you just open it and start to write on it, even if you have to look around for a blank page).

So why demand less of a PDA? Here's what I'm looking for (even if it isn't available yet):

  • Physical Characteristics
    • Notepad-size, less than 1.5cm thick
    • Black-and-white or grayscale touchscreen (480x640 or 600x800, rotatable) with perfect readability under all lighting conditions (color is useless - you don't carry around a box of Crayolas to write with, do you?)
    • Optional slide-out or plug-in keyboard
  • Software
    • Exchange ActiveSync or Blackberry client support. I don't honestly care if it's Windows, CE .NET, Palm or Linux, as long as it can do this (and yes, I know the odds).
    • E-mail client (with IMAP over SSL support)
    • A decent browser (Minimo, for instance)
    • Word processor (Ink support is also pretty useless, but some way to review text and input a few words with a Graffiti-like recognizer is essential). Something like PalmWiki would make this a killer app (a basic spreadsheet might be more useful to some people, but I'd pass).
    • Attachment viewers (Office formats and PDF at the very least)
    • The usual PDA fare (Contacts, Calendar, whatever), but with cellphone integration (send SMS/vCard/iCal, dial a number, etc.)
    • An MP3 player of some sort (I would never use it - the same way I never use Media Player - but everyone else would point out it's missing)
  • Connectivity
    • IrDA and Bluetooth (Wi-Fi if you must, but Bluetooth is better suited for this, and it makes a lot more sense to connect to a phone than have built-in GPRS)
    • A single USB port for syncing, copying stuff across to USB storage or connecting a full-size keyboard.
    • SDIO slot for storage and optional Wi-Fi
  • Usability

Chances For Getting It Right

Besides the Maui reference design (which so far embodies most of my requirements but preserves a lot of the Pocket PC's unsightly user interface and has a laughable keyboard), there are only two other relevant players: Palm's new OS can handle larger screens (and they already do 480x320 with rotation) and Psion is now revamping their Netbook range (which is what I'd probably buy right now if the pricing wasn't totally outrageous).

Sharp's Zaurus range has a few interesting features (like running Opie), but it failed to impress me in both usability and interoperability - besides having failed to leave a palpable impression in the PDA market.

However, the most likely things to surface are more bulky and relatively useless 480x640 Pocket PCs like the Pocket PC/Toshiba/e800 and a revamped Palm/Tungsten.

(This last one might be interesting enough, by the way. A very thin PalmV-like device with a 320x480 screen and integrated Bluetooth would probably make a killing, even if it had a worse screen and limited expandability. With PalmWiki loaded it would make a far better notepad than any other device I know of.)

Oh, and there's one more thing that we'll get for sure: More Apple PDA rumors. We seem to get them around twice a month, and so far March has been pretty quiet. They might be even now working on a reborn Newton that looks like what I described... Now that would be something.

But no, I don't think so. After all, fitting most of the above features in a sub-$1000 machine is doable, but not necessarily profitable.

Oh well.