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Why Combined PDA/Mobile Devices Are Stupid

Why Combined PDA/Mobile Devices Are Stupid

While walking through London the other day, I noticed an advertisement for a mobile phone. Nothing unusual about that, except that the mundane practice of making phone calls seemed insulting to a device such as this. Its gamut of features included the ability to listen to music courtesy of a built-in MP3 player, take photographs with its camera, and even shoot (admittedly very short) movies! I was surprised to see it didn't offer tea-making facilities, but consoled myself with the thought that it was only a matter of time.

Obviously this packing of different features into a handheld device has more to do with market differentiation than with what people actually want. When every phone is the same, how can one manufacturer stand out? Not to mention that today's GSM handsets are not going to get much better at making phone calls, so the endless rounds of upgrades will have to be fueled by some other need.

I'm reminded of the early days of digital watches - not only did we all need one, but once we got used to having one, the manufacturers strained to add every feature possible to make their products different. The Science Museum in London has a wonderful example of a wrist-mounted vinyl record player (hold your hand steady now!), but we can all recall the digital watch/calculator, the digital watch/TV and the various diaries, address books, and even IR remote controls built for strapping to our wrists. These devices didn't vanish completely, they still occupy niche markets. But for the majority of us, a watch is for telling time and that function remains the primary reason for wearing one. Fashion took over from features in making us buy new watches, looking good became more important than knowing the time in Hong Kong.

There seems to be a consensus in the wireless industry that the mobile phone will inevitably be combined with the PDA, which will itself replace our Walkmans, maps, and notebooks. Now the phone has become ubiquitous - the time has come for it to start taking over our lives. A single device that does everything we want, always with us, running our lives, is the popular picture of the future. All we need to do is strap it to our wrist and the dream of the 1970s is complete. Several companies have already shown such a device and are trying to foist it onto an unwilling public.

There are many good reasons why such a thing is a terrible idea. Any good engineer knows that using a specialist tool is always preferential to working with a Swiss Army knife. By trying to do everything a device risks becoming mediocre at everything. A simple examination of the requirements of a mobile telephone and a PDA device shows them to be very different beasts, and beasts that are not going to be comfortable sharing the same shell.

A mobile telephone consumes a great deal of power, and while battery life has improved over time, measurements are still made in hours. Early adopters may be happy having to recharge their PDAs every day, but the majority of people don't spend their time sitting at desks with vacant power sockets. Palm has shown that the PDA can be sold outside the early adopter market, and their use of standard batteries has eased acceptance by users not tied to their desks all day. The constant search for power isn't acceptable in a device that's relied on, and battery life needs to be measured in days if not weeks, rather than hours. By combining a mobile telephone with a PDA, the battery load is combined, but such devices are rarely provided with additional capacity. Impressive demonstrations and prototypes end up useless in the field; fit my iPaq with a mobile phone card and watch the battery life dive to less than a couple of hours, making it pointless for all but the shortest product demonstrations.

Incremental improvements in battery technology aren't going to solve this. As more becomes available we'll want to do more with it. Getting more life out of a handheld device is going to require a major breakthrough, in fuel cell or similar technology, before we can start to get reasonable usage times from combined devices. While the major drain on a mobile phone is the radio, a PDA pours its electricity into its screen.

Some of the very early mobile phones didn't have screens; after all most fixed-line phones don't. The cost of misdialed numbers was a large influence on the addition of the now standard number display, and once it was there, the manufacturers started thinking about what else they could display to the user. Local time and network connectivity are obvious choices, and pictures held branding, though even the modern attempts to display graphics are really quite painful (and again, reminiscent of those digital watches). Screens consume large amounts of power, color and higher resolution, and lead only to decreased battery life. On PDA devices the use of touch screens is popular. Because input to such devices is a major issue, the addition of such functionality on a mobile telephone is of dubious value given how fragile it is. Scratches on touch screens are a major issue for PDA owners, enough to spawn an industry dedicated to ways of minimizing the risk of such a calamity happening. This brings us to the question of reliability.

My Nokia 6110 has had several trips down the motorway alone, having parted company from my bike through a phenomenon known as "pillions knee." It survived them all, until it got run over by a Range Rover. Though battered and scratched it never gave up until that final day. In contrast, my desk drawer contains eight PDAs in various states of nonoperation, my Palm V was beaten to death in my briefcase, and my iPaq got scratched through normal use. Mobile telephones are used on construction sites, factories and, most dangerous of all, school playgrounds. To get beyond the gadget-mad early adopters and the suited executives, they had to be designed to survive what "normal" life would throw at them, and have shown how high-tech can be made robust enough for the rest of us. PDAs are still in their closeted world of carefully cleaned screens and loving owners, treated gently and stored in special cases.

Getting a robust touch screen is possible, and industrial installations frequently make use of such technologies. But getting such reliability without increasing costs is very difficult. Handheld devices generally rely on a flexible sandwich laid on top of a glass screen. To be flexible the sandwich has to be soft, and as such, is easily scratched. Making a device slim also poses problems. Plastic just isn't strong enough to hold together the form popular for PDAs, and mobile phones have generally gone for a bulkier look to avoid using steel. The best looking (and most popular) PDAs have been forced to use expensive metals in their construction.

Not only do phones and PDAs have different physical requirements, they're also used in different ways. Making a phone call is generally a one-handed affair, with buttons conveniently placed for use by the thumb, bumps to aid location without looking, and every control within the span of one hand. Phones themselves are designed to sit comfortably in one hand, often curved to rest against the palm. Conversely, modern PDAs are designed to be used with two hands, one holding the device and the other handling the interfacing. While the superdexterous may be able to manage most tasks with a single hand, doing so while driving (or any other manual task) is beyond the reach of most of us (at least without crashing). Holding any PDA in one hand for a long period is less than comfortable, and with many models care must be taken not to grip too tightly for fear of snapping the case. The new combined devices seem to lean toward the PDA mode of operation, forgetting that many of us make phone calls while our off hand is otherwise engaged.

Voice control is one solution to this. Though much touted it is, realistically, barely usable at the moment, and many issues still need to be addressed. Solutions to ambient noise and echo cancellation tend to rely on more processing, resulting in greater cost and energy consumption, not to mention generating more heat. While compromises can be made through the use of less comfortable devices with smaller faces, we are back to designing a device that is rather bad at everything.

Probably the biggest problem with combining a mobile telephone with a PDA or other computing device is bandwidth. Today's mobile telephones squeak through narrow pipes, communicating with the rest of the world at embarrassingly slow speeds. Technologies such as GPRS and UMTS will, of course, open up massive amounts of bandwidth, but only at increased costs. Just looking at the amount paid for the 3G licenses and dividing by the number of mobile phone users shows how much the networks are going to have to charge for using that bandwidth just to recoup their investment, let alone recover the cost of actually building the networks.

The true insanity starts when I take my combined mobile telephone PDA into my office where, in common with most high-tech environments, my company has installed a leased-line connection to the Internet. Once there I continue to use my PDA, connecting to the Internet over its expensive wireless network, while the cost-effective leased line passes not 3 feet from my aerial. Not only that, but my PDA will be connected to the Internet from outside the company firewall, denying me access to internal company servers and resources. Printing to the printer on my desk could well involve my document spinning around the globe before being bounced by the firewall as an external risk!

There are ways of dealing with this issue, though they aren't pleasant. By incorporating wireless Ethernet or Bluetooth into our device we can use the mobile network when necessary, making use of the nodes on our LAN when available, and the phone network, when out of the office. But 802.11 is embarrassingly energy-consumptive, and has its own aerial and emissions requirements, making our device even more bulky and less usable. Bluetooth could provide this kind of connectivity, but once that's incorporated into our device, other options open up for us.

If our PDA has Bluetooth, or similar, we don't need to combine it with a mobile telephone. By reducing the phone to the size of a pager (or even the aforementioned digital watch) our PDA could make use of its connectivity when needed. Those without PDAs could use wireless headsets for making voice calls, while those of us with them would be able to rely on our devices to seek out the most cost-effective network availability within 10 meters. If in our office the device would use the LAN leased line, when traveling it could make use of our mobile telephone, at home it might even prefer the limited bandwidth of our modem to the expensive mobile network.

I'm not suggesting that there will never be mobile telephones with PDA functionality (there already are) but that even if we achieve the technological advances necessary to make them practical, they'll soon be condemned to the niche market occupied by devices such as the calculator watch. The only really successful combined technology device was the Teasmade (it combined an electronic clock with a kettle, and was pretty revolutionary at the time). Phones are for making phone calls and that will remain their primary function for the foreseeable future. Already the fashion-conscious own several handsets, switching their SIM to whatever suits their outfit, showing us how mobile phone design will be dictated by fashion as the technology grows up and stops trying to show off what it can do.

More Stories By Bill Ray

Bill Ray, former editor-in-chief (and continuing distinguished contributor to) Wireless Business & Technology magazine, has been developing wireless applications for over 20 ears on just about every platform available. Heavily involved in Java since its release, he developed some of the first cryptography applications for Java and was a founder of JCP Computer Services, a company later sold to Sun Microsystems. At Swisscom he was responsible for the first Java-capable DTV set-top box, and currently holds the position of head of Enabling Software at 02, a UK network operator.

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