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Designing For Purpose

Which will win in the PDA market, the move to design for a specific purpose or for versatility? The smaller the device, the clearer the answer, says Carl Zetie.

Just about the most frequent question I hear regarding the PDA market is which vendors and devices are most popular in the enterprise? Interestingly, most people don't really care what the precise answer is. What they're really asking isn't whether a given platform is No. 1, but whether it's viable. Nobody wants to be stuck supporting an obsolete platform, shorn of support and bereft of an upgrade path, with unwanted hardware rotting in inventory. Perhaps almost as important, nobody wants to be stuck with the stigma of having backed a loser.

Unfortunately, the PDA market is still far from mature and, consequently, highly unpredictable. We're still seeing major generational changes, like Palm's move to the ARM architecture, and vendors are still experimenting with a variety of ideas and formats from Microsoft's Smartphone 2002 to Sharp's newest Zaurus. The impact of such big changes is hard to predict.

For example, it's been repeatedly predicted that communicators (phone/PDA hybrids) would replace conventional PDAs any day now, and some vendors have suffered for perhaps putting too much faith in those predictions. In a still-rapidly evolving market, the best guide to the future is the few fundamental principles that have emerged.

One obvious principle is physical convenience: watch Research In Motion users holster their BlackBerrys on their belts, where they are in constant reach. Another is simplicity: many of Palm's features are designed to simplify the commonest tasks, and the PocketPC simplifies integration with common desktop tools. Increasingly, however, the most predictive principle seems to be this: Successful designs are those that fit a specific purpose rather than provide a generic platform.

One recent example is the Nokia Series 60, which is attracting a growing number of licensees. Before System 60 phones began appearing, the Symbian operating system had looked promising but had failed to live up to that promise. Despite attracting a great many handset makers either as shareholders or licensees, only a handful of Symbian devices have shipped, with relatively little market impact.

By contrast, devices running Series 60, which adds a "platform" including a specific user interface, a standard set of personal-information management applications, and other features on top of base Symbian, appear to be rapidly gathering momentum. The difference can probably be attributed to the fact that Series 60 targets a specific design point (namely, the mid-range smartphone, more powerful than a low-end phone but smaller and less cumbersome than a wireless PDA or communicator).

Targeting a specific design point translates into a number of benefits that, in turn, can lead to market success. First and most important, the device is more likely to be good at what it is intended for when it's designed with a specific purpose, user, or role than when it's a versatile (but generic) platform. Intriguingly, the latter model of general-purpose versatility has worked well for larger formats--for example, PCs and laptops--while purpose-specific designs in a large format--in other words, appliances--have largely been market failures.

By contrast, experience increasingly suggests that the smaller the device, the more important purpose-driven design is. The inherent fitness of the device for a given purpose can drive demand, which can lead to a "virtuous cycle" of growing developer attention, available applications, and user base.

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