Will smart phones bury PDAs?

SMH Icon end game smartphones bury PDAs

SMH Icon end game smartphones bury PDAs

This story originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Icon section on 2 April 2002.

Infofile

The potential smart-phone market is huge. Gartner’s Robin Simpson estimates that between 200,000 and 500,000 hand-held computers are being used in Australia. He says the range is wide because many people own more than one device.

This compares with Phonechoice’s estimate of 11.1 million mobile phones in circulation. (These are 2002 numbers)

Will you still love your personal organiser if your mobile does more? Bill Bennett contemplates a techno-death.

Those shiny new Palm Pilots and Pocket PCs sitting on store shelves may look like the last word in mobile computing. However, a new generation of smart phones is about to arrive that could leave them for dead.

Smart phones combine digital organiser or hand-held computer functions with normal voice telephony in a single compact package. You can manage your address book, organise appointments and record or write memos with them, just like you can with today’s hand-held computers. At the same time you’ll be able to surf the Web, read email and handle instant messaging.

Eventually smart phones will work with a whole range of Internet-delivered applications. Business people will be able to use their phones to send or receive information from company databases or use complex commercial applications. Consumer models will even allow you to download and listen to music or capture pictures and send digital snapshots to friends.

Smart phone hardware is already on the market overseas and selling fast. At the time of writing, a number of manufacturers are preparing models for the Australian market.

The German computer maker Siemens will launch its first Australian smart phone later this month. Siemens’ product manager, Tarquin Swift, says the SX45, which costs $2199, is essentially a Casio Pocket PC with a built-in phone. “We added extra phone functionality to the Pocket PC,” he says.

“For example, you can click on a name in your Outlook contact file and decide to send them an email, an SMS message or call them on the phone.”

Swift says combining a Casio Pocket PC with a phone was the fastest way to get a product to market. The product is not really aimed at home users, though some early adopters will buy it. He says, however: “There is a definite demand from corporate and business customers for this kind of product.”

While the SX45 is far from cheap, it is advanced. Swift says it has a colour screen and can receive streaming video or audio. The SX45 also has a number of built-in multimedia functions and works with multimedia messaging services (MMS) – an advanced version of the SMS found on conventional phones.

Another of the new breed of phones will be the Handspring Treo Communicator which, although based on Palm Pilot technology, looks nothing like the shirt pocket computer. The mono-screen version will sell for $1399 when it is released here next month.

Robin Simpson, research director with Gartner Australasia, says: “Treo brings a new level of usability to phone functions. Handspring has integrated the components very well. There’s a jog wheel and a keyboard for short messaging.” The Treo also has email and a Web browser – which he says is better than the browser on a Palm Pilot.

Simpson says that, strictly speaking, the Treo is not a smart phone – it is more of a mobile phone with a good user interface than a computer. It does point to the future, however.

He thinks it will be popular with SMS users: “People will use it as a messaging tool; SMS will really take off now someone has developed a decent user interface.”

But while the Treo has features that will attract consumers, Simpson says it will also strike a chord with business users. He says: “There’s a strong community of Palm developers in Australia. All of a sudden there’s this strong integrated platform. It is going to be a real boost for the developers and business use is going to spur the uptake of the technology.”

Microsoft is busy trying to sell an alternative smart phone technology. Previously known as Stinger, the device is now called the Windows Powered Smartphone 2002. Like the Pocket PC, it uses a cut-down version of the Windows operating system and links easily to desktop computers and their applications. It also has a colour screen.

Simpson says that, so far, few phone makers have opted to use the Microsoft technology because it requires an expensive software licence but offers few real advantages. Australian consumers may soon be offered a version of the phone, however. “British Telecom is selling a version in the UK that works and we could see something similar from Telstra,” he says.

Hand-held computers were always meant to be mobile communications devices. Almost a decade ago Apple’s marketing for the original Newton PDA showed young professionals sitting in cafes, wirelessly transmitting data to and from each other. The Newton came and went, however, long before that dream became a practical reality.

The problem is that connecting a hand-held computer to the phone network has always been a bit tricky. In general you need to carry a phone and a computer along with something to connect them. It is sometimes possible to use infrared links between the two devices, but an old-fashioned cable is generally more reliable.

Smart phones sidestep these problems by integrating phone and computer hardware. Connecting the devices, however, was only part of the problem. Until recently, most mobile phone networks in Australia could not reliably transfer data at speeds faster than 9.6Kbps. This might be fast enough for dealing with email but browsing the Web is painfully slow, even allowing for the cut-down Web pages used by today’s hand-held devices.

Mobile-connected computing won’t really take off until 3G networks are in place. Hutchinson, which owns the Orange mobile brand, is building Australia’s first 3G network. The service is expected to open for business at the end of the year or early 2003 in east coast metropolitan areas, with other cities to follow. At the time of writing, Telstra and Optus’s 3G plans were unclear.

In theory, 3G networks can run at 2Mbps, though few users will see anything like that. More realistically, users can expect to see a few hundred Kbps.

In the meantime there’s an interim technology known as general packet radio service (GPRS) that sits somewhere between today’s second-generation networks, GSM and 3G. The service has been live for a few months but has yet to be promoted. Like 3G, GPRS is always on, so there’s no waiting to connect to the network. But it is still pretty slow.

Australian carriers say their GPRS networks will operate at 10Kbps per channel. This sounds bad but phones can have multiple channels. In practice, most users will find the service works at about 30Kbps – that’s considerably slower than today’s desktop modems and roughly one-tenth of the practical speed available on 3G. In both cases you can expect to pay for the amount of data traffic rather than the time spent online.

While smart phones look set to replace conventional hand-held computers, they don’t pose much of a threat to mobile phones – especially in business and corporate markets.

Swift says that although you can use the Siemens SX45 as a phone, “most people probably won’t”. He says he expects it to sell as a connected PDA and that most users will probably keep a tiny, minimal-feature mobile for their voice calls. He says that devices such as the SX45 are more likely to replace laptops than anything else.

Simpson takes the argument further, saying that there is definitely a consumer market for converged devices: “The phone market is largely ruled by fashion. There’s a part of the consumer demographic that simply has to have the latest and flashiest phones.” Likewise he thinks the one-unit convenience will appeal to certain groups of people, but not everyone.

Simpson says that for lots of users the current wave of converged devices involve too many compromises to be practical. For example, they have poor battery life, small screens, cramped keyboards or are too big and clumsy. Some have limited functionality. Many of the first generation of devices are difficult to use for ordinary voice calls. But future smart phones may progress past these initial limits and, inevitably, become more affordable.

For the next five years at least, Simpson says, the majority of users will choose to buy a best-of-breed hand-held computer and a best-of-breed mobile phone. The glue that will stick the two devices together is Bluetooth. “That way you can carry a hand-held computer that doesn’t compromise on screen size and a practical phone handset,” he says.

There’s another advantage to this approach. Simpson says that the technology in hand-held computers and mobile phones is changing fast. By using separate devices you can upgrade one without having to upgrade everything.

Smart phones hit the streets

Already on sale in Australia, Kyocera’s QCP 6035 smart phone combines a CDMA phone with a Palm hand-held computer. The $1299 device runs all normal Palm applications and can be used to browse the Internet either through HTML Web pages or WAP. It also has a folding full-size keyboard add-on. Scheduled for Australian release towards the end of this year, Sony Ericsson’s P800 is a multimedia smart phone with a large colour screen, an Internet browser and a built-in digital camera. While the resolution of the camera will not be up to professional photography standards, it will enable you to take pictures while on the move and send them directly to other phones.
The P800 will also function as a pocket organiser and features Bluetooth wireless technology, making it easy to connect the phone to PCs or other devices without the need for cables. Sony Ericsson says that when it arrives, the P800 will probably be priced at the high end of the range.
Like the P800, Nokia’s 9210i Communicator uses the Symbian operating system. This is a development of the technology used in the Psion range of hand-held computers and enables the phones to work with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents as well as Adobe Acrobat. Organiser information can be synchronised with Microsoft Outlook files on desktop computers.

Priced at $1800, the 9210i Communicator looks like a doll-sized laptop with a tiny keyboard and a colour screen. The phone can handle streaming video and audio as well as Macromedia Flash animations. Nokia is aiming at business users: the phone can run a virtual private network so that people on the move can link to databases securely. The 9210i is expected to arrive in Australia by the middle of the year.