Emerging Trends In PDAs

From camera phones to fast wireless networks, emerging trends are changing the way people will use mobile technology, says analyst Carl Zetie.

Carl Zetie, Contributor

March 4, 2003

6 Min Read

There's a long-standing tradition for columnists to use their December columns to look ahead and make forecasts for the coming year, so I decided to get my forecasts in early. One reason is because I see a lot of interesting trends taking shape that I think are going to affect the mobile landscape well before the end of the year. These trends will impact consumers, enterprises, and vendors, too--especially the ones that try to swim against the tide.

Trend No. 1: The biggest trend in devices is that mobile and portable devices will become more diverse and specialized rather than all-in-one units. I've written before that the most successful small devices are the ones that are well designed for a specific rather than a generic purpose, so it seems natural that I'd believe that more devices would emerge to meet specific needs. Early signs of this trend include the announcement of games-centric platforms such as Nokia's NGage and the Tapwave handheld console based on PalmOS. These devices will have much greater playability than games played on phone handsets. Another example is MP3 players: Consumers consistently prefer dedicated players over MP3 functionality integrated into a PDA or phone. Microsoft's Spot initiative is another point on this trend line.

This trend is already causing fragmentation within the PDA market, and the term PDA itself is coming to describe only a subset of the PDA-like devices that people carry, which range from small smartphones running Java to communicators, and there's little agreement right now even about what the categories are. You'll start to hear terms like "high-end smartphone" without much agreement about what exactly the boundaries are. By next year, perhaps as early as after the next holiday gift-giving season, the categories will have shaken out and it will be clearer what the specific design points are. My expectation is that by then it will be widely accepted that converged voice/data devices, or smartphones, need to be more phone-like than PDA-like, and "communicators" the size of PDAs will be at best a small niche.

The other much-promoted convergent device today is the camera phone. The sheer convenience of being able to snap a picture and send it to another person justifies the integration today, despite the small viewfinder (inevitable in a handset-sized device?) and limited camera features. I expect that it's only a matter of time before somebody offers a camera-phone that is more cameralike than phonelike--in other words, a digital camera that happens to have a built-in wireless connection (either a modem of its own or a PAN connection to your mobile phone) and a multimedia messaging service-like messaging application to send pictures directly from the camera.

Ultimately, phones will offer more and more features, if only because they can cram more into the space of a current handset, but it will usually be at a basic level rather than a premium or state-of-the-art level. Users will continue to buy independent devices that do each job better and with higher quality.

Trend No. 2: Devices will keep getting smaller. This is an important contrast to the laptop market. Laptops reached a natural optimum size a few years ago, and although the smallest ones continue to get thinner and lighter, the principal dimensions of the laptop are limited by the desire for a full-size keyboard, which in turn sets the working distance, and thus the acceptable range of screen sizes. (Tablet PCs break the mold somewhat, and it remains to be seen whether tablets will start to get smaller than their immediate evolutionary forebears, which are essentially detached laptop screens). No such limit applies to phones, especially if voice control becomes highly reliable. Why does a phone need to be as big as the communicators in "Star Trek" rather than the size of the badge worn in "Star Trek: The Next Generation"? As memory becomes smaller and processors pack more power into a given size, many devices can get smaller while offering the same capabilities. While the trend in laptops has become "more capability in the same package", the trend in phones will become "the same capability in a smaller package". Imagine, for example, a wireless "RealPlayer-in-silicon" media player in a device the size of a credit card. The big technology challenge is power and the big design challenge is the user interface. For devices with a small set of functions and commands, voice may be one solution. Another may be to use a PAN-connected PDA as a control panel for a set of other devices, each of which is as small as technology allows. This trend will happen in parallel with the trend for more functions in devices the size of current handsets, further stretching the device landscape.

Trend No. 3: The rich will get richer (although the poor won't actually get poorer). I'm talking here about access to data bandwidth. Disparities already exist in access to 2.5G bandwidth: the farther you are from cities and major highways, the less likely you are to be within 2.5G coverage. In very remote areas satellite feeds may be your only option. Imminent developments will only exacerbate this "bandwidth gradient" from cities to remote areas. Hot spots are a largely urban and suburban phenomenon, while metropolitan area networks promise LAN-like access across city centers, and 3G will inevitably come to the rich and urban first.

Trend No. 4: Increasingly available high-speed networks and wireless devices will make data and processing ever more distributed, not less. Paradoxical as it seems, this is a natural consequence of the other trends. It's also consistent with what we already see among consumers today.

Personal video recorders such as ReplayTV and TiVo, in which content is downloaded over the air or cable to a large local storage device and then viewed using a powerful local processor, have been more successful than the model of video-on-demand delivered by a powerful central server over a fat pipe. Similarly, music fans show much more interest in downloading MP3s to a portable personal player than in streaming music over mobile phones. The emerging market for multiplayer broadband game-playing exploits powerful local processing and graphics in the hands of each player, sometimes in a serverless PAN, sometimes in conjunction with a central server. All of these are probably better models for the future than a continuously connected client that is passively dependent on a central server and the availability of a broadband connection.

The message is that people like to have control over their own experiences, whether that's listening to stored music at their leisure, using TiVo to skip the adverts, or accessing content when out of the coverage area. Technology users want the network to be a pipe, not a chain. Local memory and processing power give them that control, and for that reason these will increase, not decrease.

A lot of the examples I've given above are consumer-centric, but it's a fair bet that in this regard the consumer trends of today are a good indicator of the enterprise trends of tomorrow.

Carl Zetie is an analyst with Forrester Research.

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