What are PDAs for? They may be status symbols and fun gadgets to hack. But, what is their real purpose? What would convince consumers to invest hundreds of dollars in these electronic devices? Are they really just over-glorified, overpriced pieces of paper? Or can they be something more? These are questions Apple did not thoroughly think over before it releasing the Newton.

The original Newton was hyped as the ultimate mobile appliance with all the power of a standard computer shrunken down into a miniature form factor. Through add-on software, it could potentially become a word processor, a spreadsheet, a database, fax machine, or even an book. The Newton’s functions were virtually endless. But, when reality set in, the software and hardware support did not materialize. Apple wanted to accomplish too much with too little. It wanted to solve problems that did not even exist. These excessive expectations and unclear objectives of the Newton led to its downfall and nearly killed the PDA market.

Now, in 1996, PDAs are undergoing an identity crisis as developers struggle to avoid repeating the Newton’s mistake. The high price of PDAs prevent them from being impulse buys. Thus, careful thought must be used to determine what functions will attract the end user the most. There is much debate over what these functions are. And, from this controversy has arisen three schools of thought. One is simple, one is complex, and one is in the middle of the road.


PDAs are electronic organizers. And that is all.

They do not need to handle bloated spreadsheets, databases, or text documents. That work is best left to a desktop computer or laptop. Besides, how many users truly need to keep that much power in their pockets? Instead, PDAs simply assist in organizing users’ lives. After all, they are called "personal digital assistants" and not computers. Their main function is to make information highly accessible to users. This highly specified objective allows for small, fast, and cheap components without any bells or whistles. Their architecture can handle third-party software and hardware. But, these add-ons should not be overly complex. Mainstream PDAs must be kept simple and inexpensive. An example of a simple PDA is the U.S. Robotics Pilot.


For a PDA to be successful, it must be robust and powerful.

Many consumers already identify PDAs with notebook computers. Thus, these devices must raise their computing standards and compete in the lucrative laptop market. People will not be willing to pay several hundred dollars for only an organizer. To reach mass market status, PDAs should offer as much power, flexibility, and options as is technologically possible. Eventually, consumers will be attracted to PDAs because they have the same functionality as laptops but are much more portable and convenient. That is the ultimate purpose of PDAs- to replace notebook computers. A PDA which follows this philosophy the IBM PC110.


PDAs have the potential to be used for any and all purposes.

It is unreasonable to market PDAs against computers. It is common sense that the smaller the device, the less powerful it will be. However, PDAs should not simply capitulate and settle for the small role of a battery-powered day planner. They have the latent ability to do much more.

Therefore, PDAs should keep their options open. They should come with a fairly complete suite of productivity applications. In addition, they must have enough horsepower and openness to work with a wide range of software and hardware. Users can take advantage of this expandability to tailor PDAs to fit their exact needs. In this way, the devices can penetrate vertical markets. These niches will increase product awareness and drive PDAs into mainstream. The majority of PDAs in the current market are middle PDAs. Examples are the Apple Newtons and Casio Cassiopeia.


Over the next several years, each one of these three approaches will mature and prosper. The moderate focus of simple PDAs can be satisfied by low end hardware. As these components become cheaper, so will the PDAs. This low price was make the product reachable for a mass consumer base. These organizers will slowly transform into standard appliances and become as commonplace as pagers and cellular phones.

Complex PDAs will continue to add feature upon feature. Eventually, this quest for power will make them indistinguishable from laptops. Instead of looking at complex PDAs and identifying them as so, consumers will simply see it as small subnotebook. Rather than overtaking laptops, they will only become another version of these notebook computers.

Middle PDAs will thrive in vertical markets. Their customizability makes them enticing to corporate consumers who are looking for fleet of inexpensive mobile computing devices for a few specific tasks. However, it is unlikely that they will ever reach horizontal market success. Mainstream customers will most likely either opt a simple organizer or a robust minicomputer rather than a PDA with a somewhat ambiguous purpose.