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3/6/2003
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Communicators, Smartphones, And The Shape Of Things To Come

Communicators--integrated devices that are both PDA and phone--appeal, but the compromises in size, weight, and battery life often disappoint, says Carl Zetie.

If there's one topic in the world of wireless and mobile technology that generates more muddled thinking than any other, it's the question of communicators and smartphones. Many observers seem convinced that each and every latest, greatest communicator--an integrated device that is both PDA and phone--is going to dominate the PDA segment. Meanwhile, the reality is that the most successful communicators to date have sold in quantities measured in hundreds of thousands while the most successful PDAs sell in quantities of millions to tens of millions. Sales figures show that the simplest Palm Zire is flying off shelves and expensive communicators are languishing, and I don't expect that picture to change dramatically anytime soon.

Before I explain why, it's important to stop and define some terminology. In fact, this is critical because a lot of the confusion about communicators is caused by loose definitions. I use the term communicator to refer to a device that is a fully functional PDA in its own right, as well as a mobile phone. Examples include the Handspring Treo, Palm-powered phones from Samsung and Kyocera, PocketPC Phone Edition, and Symbian devices such as the Nokia 9210. Any one of these, with its radio turned off, could be a direct substitute for your favorite PDA.

However, I view devices like Mobile Information Device Profile (MIDP) phones, Microsoft Smartphone 2002, and Nokia Series 60 phones as a class apart: they typically have a smaller display, may lack a keyboard or stylus (relying on keypad input) and, crucially, have a form factor that closely resembles a conventional mobile phone. (Some MIDP phones in particular, such as Motorola's V60i, are every bit as compact as the most popular conventional phones). I reserve the term smartphone for these phone-like devices, although many commentators use the term indiscriminately to describe both communicators and smartphones--and I can't help thinking that this is one of the causes of confused thinking. I'm much more optimistic about smartphones than communicators because the former are first and foremost very good phones, with the data capabilities as a bonus that may make them more attractive than less-capable phones, but even then I see them as adjuncts to PDAs, not replacements.

There are a lot of strikes against communicators. As phones, they are big and heavy, and many communicators have poor ergonomics when used as phones: the owner constantly has to clean the screen after pressing it to their face. They typically have a relatively short battery life and worse, you may run the battery down playing games on a long flight, and find yourself unable to make a crucial call at the other end. They're also relatively expensive as phones, and even with carrier subsidies may be expensive as PDAs, too. Communicators are also often less than state of the art as PDAs: because of the complexity of integration, FCC certification, and carrier adoption, a good rule of thumb is that a communicator is generally one release behind the equivalent standalone PDA. There's also the downside of integration: when it comes time to upgrade your PDA or switch your phone service to a different wireless carrier, you have to replace the whole expensive integrated unit.

So why does the optimism around communicators persist? I think there are a number of reasons. First, integrated devices are very impressive technical achievements in their own right and many are very attractive designs, too, from an objective point of view. They have neat integrated features such as capturing the caller ID of an incoming call as a new address-book entry. PDA-sized communicators also are much better for E-mail or browsing than phone-sized smartphones. This all adds up to a package that's very impressive in the short term, and likely to garner positive reviews. Unfortunately, many of the shortcomings of communicators mentioned above only become apparent with extended use and so don't show up in reviews.

This is closely related to the second reason that people remain optimistic. When you ask people to describe in the abstract what they would like from a wireless device, they'll tell you that they want something a lot like a communicator: they will say that they're tired of carrying multiple devices and want a fully functional PDA and a phone in one unit. However, when they see the reality of the compromises necessary--size, weight, battery life--the response is disappointment. What many people really wanted was a device that is simultaneously as small and light as the best phone (to hold in the hand or clip to the belt) yet as big as a PDA (to read the screen easily and to write on with a stylus). Resolving that paradox is the core conflict in designing successful communicators.

The third reason is the one that irritates me the most, because it's simply faulty reasoning. The oft-repeated argument goes something like this: phones outsell PDAs by 20 to 1. A communicator is a kind of phone. Therefore, communicators will outsell PDAs. Of course, there are huge holes in this logic, even setting aside the drawbacks of communicators mentioned above. The main one is that not all phones are created equal: the majority of the 400 million unit mobile-phone market are the smallest, simplest phones that sell in large volumes at low prices. There's no good reason to believe that $300 and $400 communicators will sell in remotely similar volumes just because they include a phone's functionality!

As long as a communicator has to be as big as a PDA to serve that role well, it's inherently going to be a poor substitute for a phone. Communicators will still appeal to people for whom one integrated device is the single most important factor, but even that motivation will erode over time. In the future it will become easier to have a virtual integrated device by connecting a state-of-the-art PDA to a slim, lightweight phone over Bluetooth, or to use a Bluetooth headset via a wireless PDA, or simply to have two wireless devices, PDA and phone, each good at its own role yet wirelessly integrated where its useful to do so. Useful integration doesn't have to mean physically connected: I think that in the future we'll look back on that idea as an artifact of limited technology.

Carl Zetie is VP of research for Giga Information Group, a Forrester company.

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