May 18, 2004

Thoughts on the next 'PDA'

PDAs have always been a niche market, being a Mac user with a PDA may possibly be the ultimate niche market. PDAs are very handy tools, there's no denying that. Ever since the Newton introduced the world to the concept of a PDA, many folks have enjoyed having a handy device for storing appointments, contact information, various diversions (games, etc), and even checking email or browsing the web. But, also since the beginning, there have been problems inherent in using such a scaled down device and integrating it into the user's workflow.

The latest generation of PDAs have more power and capabilities than ever before, Tablet PCs are even more powerful and capable, but also much more expensive, and again share the same fundamental flaws; limited functionality, hardware and OS restrictions, and of course, marketshare.

When I last reviewed what I wanted of a PDA, before settling for a PocketPC, I had a number of things that I desired; color screen, wireless capability, reasonably fast performance, integration with my desktop, and a decent selection of software. At the time, I felt that a PocketPC was a better choice than a Palm for my needs, but what I really wanted was something more, something more tightly integrated with my Mac.

I even looked at the Sharp Zaurus, a nice PDA that runs Linux, and though that would compliment the Mac pretty well, but there is almost no sync capability at this time for Mac users.

In the end, what I decided that I really needed was a very small Mac. The 12" iBook and PowerBooks were still too large, not something I could easily carry around in my hand, and certainly not clip to my belt. And I know that Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, has on a number of occasions said that Apple would not be doing another PDA, would never revive the Newton or anything along those lines, but the phrasing of what he said seemed to partially leave the door open for something else. And I know what I'd like that something else to be.

PDAs are basically peripherals, they are not meant to be a primary system for a computer user, just an extension. A PowerBook is meant to be a primary system, though many Mac users also use these as seconds machines. For that matter, some Windows users also use a PowerBook as a second machine, the PowerBook G4 became very popular with Windows users because of its capabilities, and worked very well for them as an extension of their normal workflow. So this got me thinking...

What Apple has never done to this point is designed a Mac that would truly be a secondary system. You don't run Photoshop on your Palm Zire, you don't edit DV video on your iPaq, a PDA doesn't need to be that capable. If you toss those things out the window, you can build a system much smaller and cheaper than a full featured system.

What I'm envisioning is a 6" PowerBook, similar in shape to the existing 12" PowerBook, just smaller and thinner. You won't need the CD drive, simply include FireWire and use it in Target Disk Mode to install software. You don't need a full size keyboard, it wouldn't be necessary to shrink the keys much to make them fit a 6" model. A touchpad could still fit, but the addition of a touchscreen like other PDAs would be a nice touch.

A smaller screen means smaller resolution, but you should still be able to run 640x480 (newer PDAs do on a smaller screen), even 800x600 should be possible, the current low end resolution for OS X. You wouldn't need a G4 processor, a G3 would really work quite well, and the graphics wouldn't have to be high end either, a lower power graphics chipset would suffice nicely. You wouldn't even need the 60Gb or larger drive you find in most portables, 10Gb or less would probably work nicely.

Almost every feature can be scaled back when you're not designing a unit to be a primary system, reducing heat, power, space, and cost. Obviously you'd still want to have built in Ethernet, USB, Firewire (1 port each), forget using a modem, but let AirPort be an option, if only 802.11b and not 802.11g, and definitely include Bluetooth. The only area that I can see now scaling back on would be the battery, PDAs get pretty good battery life, so stretching battery power to the max is a must, but with the lower power components used, I don't see a huge problem here.

Now, some of you are probably thinking that such a Mac would still cost a cunk of change, and I definitely agree. A low end iBook currently sells for $1099, I'd tend to say we could easily shave a few hundred off that price. And now you're saying that you can pick up a cheap Palm for 100 clams, and you're totally correct. But, being a Mac, this puppy wouldn't be shooting for the low end market, it'll take its place with the big boys in the PDA marketplace, the full featured units that have built in wireless and speed and all the other cool features that can go for $650 and up.

I remember how the PC magazines raved about the PoweBook G4 when it came out, and Windows users began snapping them up for their road machines. If such a small PowerBook could ship, and folks could dump their PDAs for something that would let them run full versions of MSOffice, incorporate a full featured browser and email client, and let you run a large percentage of all the Mac software out there, and if it were priced comparably to the high end PDAs on the market now, this machine would be as big a hit as the iPod Mini, they would absolutely not be able to keep them on the shelves.

And I'd probably be one of the first folks in line to buy one.

Posted by Jim at May 18, 2004 11:25 AM | TrackBack