This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: What's Wrong—What's Next: 2003 Technology Forecast & Review.
It's 2004, and you reach in your pocket for your incredible handheld device. It's slim, weighs negligible grams, and is not much bigger than the cellphone you just put aside forever. Is it a phone, a handheld PC, or a wireless PDA? You don't really care, because it does everything.
It has a large, bright backlit color screen. If you want to make a phone call or send an e-mail, there's a thumb keyboard. Just click on a phone number, and a phone connection is automatically made. You can read private or corporate e-mail, receive instant messages in several formats, surf the Web, or download music or films, all at broadband speeds. The processor is dazzlingly fast, and there's a gigabyte or more of storage. The power source is good for several days.
SPLASHPOWER AND MOBILEWISE. These two companies have developed systems to wirelessly charge portable devices by picking up power inductively. The systems may hit the streets in handhelds as early as this year
INTEL'S MANITOBA combined Xscale microprocessor, memory, and DSP chip promises to make a big difference for power consumption in smart phones
FINGERPRINT RECOGNITION in handhelds, laptop touchpads, mice, and even USB data storage keys will finally offer security for portable devices without inconvenience
New THUMB KEYBOARD technologies from Palm, Handspring, and others will make text messaging and Web surfing on handhelds much easier
The lack of widespread (and economical) Generation 2.5 and 3 wireless data connectivity is cramping the progress of SMART PHONES in the United States
The issue of battery life won't go away: consumers don't like constant recharging. Many are also critical of MICROSOFT'S PERSONAL PC operating system: it's not intuitive
There's also a touchpad area, which reads your handwriting, a digital tape recorder, and voice recognition software that actually works. Your handheld "talks" wirelessly with printers, video, and still cameras, and almost any other device. When you take it on the road, it connects seamlessly with data or phone services, everywhere you go, worldwide. The browser is secure enough for you to shop online worry-free with a credit card. No one else can use it, because it recognizes your fingerprint.
Best of all, it's a no-brainer. It requires almost no configuring or expert knowledge to set up. It's no harder to use than a CD player or portable radio, monthly operating costs are minimal, and it only costs you US $300. You'd never dream of leaving home without it....
Well, dream on.
While you can find some of these useful features in handheld devices on the market even today, it has proven extremely difficult to shoehorn all of them into such a small gadget. As a result, current devices embody many design compromises.
Sales of handhelds that go beyond functioning as simple PDAs have been lackluster: the simple ones make up 90 percent of sales. Only early adopters of technology are willing to brave the hassles of what's on the market right now. Add that to a slower post-dot-com economy over the past 18 months, and you can see why shipments of handheld devices have consistently failed to meet optimistic projections.
The way forward is dictated by the answers to two questions: what do people really want in a handheld? And how can designers meet those needs?
If there were a simple answer to what people really want in an enriched handheld, some savvy manufacturer surely would have built it by now. But different people want different things, which is why there are about 120 competing models on the market. Some want a smart phone that can double as a PDA. Some want a handheld PC that can make a phone call, but is best at wireless communication. Get away from the business user, and you find customers wanting to add Web browsing, streaming video, MP3s, games, [see "Games Keep Going and Going and Going."] connectivity with the global positioning system (GPS), and many other applications.
But do consumers really want one device that does it all, or might they feel more comfortable with two? Perhaps an ideal handheld would be a PDA with most of the fancy functions thrown in, but with phone applications and networking activities left to a better cellphone. When users wanted to be fully connected, they'd carry both—though they'd need them to be compact. And for local wireless access to other devices, both would have to be Bluetooth-enabled. If Joe were going to the beach, he'd just take the phone.
Palm Inc. (Milpitas, Calif.) has accepted this idea with its late-October launch of the Tungsten T PDA, although it's clearly intended for ordinary users. "We went back to the drawing board for the mobile professional," says product strategist Eric Klein. It uses a faster chip from ARM Ltd. (Cambridge, UK), and, as part of its claim to expandability in the sense that it can talk to cameras, printers, and so on, the wireless Bluetooth is built in.
Not all agree. "Over time, a single device is going to be more attractive, as we solve the design problems," insists Dennis Boyle, a studio leader at the design consultancy Ideo (Palo Alto, Calif.). Ideo was involved with the design of the Palm V and the Handspring line of PDAs.