Opinion: Why the channel prefers cellphones over PDAs

Opinion: Why the channel prefers cellphones over PDAs

It’s not hard to understand why PDA sales keep falling.

Since handheld computers were first introduced, their most important applications have been calendars and address books. These functions are now standard fare in ordinary cellphones. Smartphones add web browsing and email. Third generation mobile networks add streaming media.

Nevertheless, voice communications remains the mobile killer application. Txting and email come second and third on the list. Many modern phones deliver all three, some PDAs scrape over the line as far as email is concerned but most fail to deliver any of these key applications.

Palm, with its PDAs and Treo line of smartphones, is having an each-way bet on future pocket technologies. Guess which ticket is going to deliver the biggest pay-out?

Recently, the company has given the PDA format another, possibly last, roll of the dice with its latest handheld products.

Last month Palm introduced the $199 Z22. It’s a no-frills colour screen pocket organiser with about 20Mb of flash memory. On paper the Z22 trumps cellphones with its ability to store a lot more data and sync smoothly with desktop computer applications like Microsoft Outlook.

Palm hopes it will win over people who currently use Filofaxes and similar paper-based organisers. Maybe it will. Maybe they already have cellphones.

Battery life is a disappointment – maybe a couple of hours full time computing between charges – phones run for days between charges. Despite these question marks the Z22 has been cleverly priced at the point where it could end up in a lot of stockings this Christmas.

Palm's $599 TX has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth. Wireless data networking changes the nature handheld computers, allowing web surfing and mobile email – but again, this is something smart phones can already do.

The TX is powered by a 312MHz Xscale processor – which is plenty for mobile applications. It comes with 100MB of Flash Ram, and extension card slot and the Microsoft Office compatible Documents to Go software.

In use the TX performs well by PDA standards, its main shortcomings are common to all handhelds. For example, the 85 by 55mm screen displays a gorgeous crisp-looking 320 by 480 pixels. That means photos look great, but the screen is still a tad small for reading large amounts of text. And, like the Z22, the TX’s battery life is nothing special, especially when the power draining WiFi is operating.

Earlier in the year Palm introduced the $800 Lifedrive, with a still faster 416MHz processor and, in PDA terms, a whopping 4GB built-in hard disk. It can act as a iPod replacement and as a super-USB memory key. There’s also a voice recording function. Like the TX it has built-in Bluetooth and WiFi.

Between them the three products broaden the scope of PDAs, filling in some of the gaps between smart phones and notebook computers. They are nicely engineered devices and just perfect for a number of specialist applications and vertical niche markets.

But for most users, the train has already left the PDA station. The US edition of PC World reports that Palm admits sales of the LifeDrive are not as high as it originally anticipated.

It’s not just users who think the PDA game is up. Last month Ingram Micro reported an overwhelming response to Vodafone’s entry into New Zealand’s IT channel. More than 300 potential partners had either signed or were in the process of signing. How many of those channel partners are queuing to get a slice of the PDA action?

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