The Return of the PDA

Marketing Computers, February, 1995

TWENTY YEARS AGO, Alan Kay, then at Xerox, now an Apple Fellow, dreamed of a portable hand-held computer called the Dynabook. Kay's vision eventually came into the world in August 1993 in the form of Apple's Newton. The public was led to believe that the Newton was Kay's vision sprung-to-life; the reality, as everyone now knows, was a flawed product, a major corporate retreat and a public relations fiasco. The grand promises of the "personal digital assistant" (or PDA) made by Apple were withdrawn, and consumer expectations returned to a more realistic level-one which does not justify spending several hundred dollars on what is essentially an electronic notepad. Apple sold just 80,000 Newtons that year, as opposed to the expected millions.

At the time, the Newton's fate prompted many observers to write off the PDA concept entirely But in the months since, it's become apparent that the Newton disaster was really just a setback, albeit an expensive one. Today, the lessons of the Newton are starting to pay off both for Apple and other PDA manufacturers. It appears that the digital assistant is already moving from troubled infancy to promising adolescence.

Some two years after the Newton's initial release, the PDA market has begun to take recognizable form, dividing into four general sectors. These are, in order of success: vertical market applications, personal information management, mobile communications, and, the latest manifestation, as gateway to the cybernetic marketplace. True, while PDA manufacturers appreciate the hard lessons they've learned, all still hunger for the Holy Grail of the general consumer. Each is still searching for the magic combination of price and functionality that will spur the breakthrough. But in the interim, these devices are being targeted primarily to whom marketers like to call "mobile professionals," a group made up of about 25 million people of which 17%, according to Sharp's research, already travel with laptop computers.

Of course, this demographic already has a set of very useful mobile tools in place-xellular phone, pager, paper date book, hotel fax, voice mail, and sometimes a human assistant back at the office. Convincing them to consider a PDA as more than a gadget or novelty has not been easy.

Part of the problem is that no one has a clear picture of what a PDA is, or ought to be. Every marketer will give a different answer to the same questions, as they jockey to differentiate their product from the rest of the pack. Devices with keyboards are not PDAs, say some. Handwriting recognition is essential, say others. In the process, they've accomplished little but create confusion for everyone else.

If you take a rigorous definition of the PDA as a device navigated with a pen which supports handwriting recognition, then total sales since the unveiling of Newton 18 months ago are in the 160,000 unit range, according to Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies in Santa Clara, Calif, and a close follower of the PDA market. For Bajarin, the key characteristics of a PDA-- principally pen support--are found in devices like the Newton and Sony's Magic Link. "Of those," he explains, "Apple sold 120,000."

Devices with built-in keyboards, such as the new Sharp Zaurus are what Bajarin prefers to cal