Who Killed the PDA? A DATArrrive Investigation

I remember, way back in 2004, going into a consumer electronics store looking to buy a PD. I had only started carrying a cell phone a few years earlier and I was still bothered a bit at the lost pocket space. I didn’t want to carry around yet another device and I knew that any PDA would be a complete waste if it wasn’t at hand constantly.  So I only had one requirement for my prospective PDA: it needed to also act as a cell phone. There were dozens of PDA’s to choose from, but I remember leaving the store disappointed.

A combined cellphone and PDA device, what we would today call a “smart phone”, was a rarity even just 5 years ago. The few products that were on the market were way overpriced, underpowered, and slow, slow, SLOW.

Flash forward to today: the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) as a term is hardly even used any more. Generally it is only used to refer to specific features of a smart phone or to legacy consumer products.  Simply put, the PDA as a standalone device is dead.

So who killed it?

5 years ago, the big names in PDA’s were:

  • Palm
  • HP iPAQ
  • Windows CE
  • Handspring Treo
  • Sony CLIÉ
  • Apple Newton

Now the CLIÉ and Newton are discontinued. Palm bought Treo before being purchased themselves by HP.  Windows CE evolved into Windows Mobile 6.5 which is itself on the road to obsolescence thanks to Windows Phone Series 7. Only the iPAQ remains an active brand, but even those are so dramatically changed so as to be almost unrecognizable as part of the same series.

The Suspects


The iPhone is certainly a game changer when it comes to consumer electronic devices. Few would doubt the effect that the device has had on the cell phone market. Some people would even credit the iPhone with brining the smart phone to the masses for the first time. But the iPhone didn’t kill the PDA. Despite creating a revolution, the iPhone is actually a relative latecomer to the smartphone ecosystem, only coming out in 2007. The PDA was already on life support by then. Verdict: Non guilty.

Research in Motion (RIM)

Today, while it doesn’t get the press of the iPhone or Android phones, RIM Blackberry phones are, by a very large margin, the most commonly used smart phones today. In a way, the Blackberry is the ultimate evolution of the PDA. While Android and iPhone devices tout multimedia features, installable applications, and fun and games, Blackberry devices have traditionally been marketed for their productivity advantages. RIM has been competing with PDAs since its inception, but didn’t reach even a fraction of its install base until just a few years ago. Verdict: Non guilty.

The Killer – 3G Cellular

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who was looking to combine a cell phone and PDA. This turned out to be THE feature that would drive all future PDA sales.  But simply adding on cell phone features to a PDA was not enough. To be truly productive a smart phone needed email access and a web browser. The second generation phone technologies could receive and transmit data, but only at old-style modem speeds. At a time when broadband was becoming the norm (particularly in the workplace) having a wireless data rate crawl at a snail’s pace was frustrating for the early smartphone users and the popularity of those devices flat-lined.

Then along comes 3G technologies, like Verizon and Sprint’s EV-DO and Cingular’s (now AT&T) Edge network. Once the major carriers began selling devices linked to third generation wireless technologies bandwidth speed jumped dramatically. Consumers and businesses could now make the case for buying smartphones.

Those manufacturers set up to support the new wireless protocols flourished. Now, rather than PDA and traditional PC companies, the PDA market was dominated by smart phone manufactures, such as Nokia, HTC, and Samsung and those PDA companies ready to make the leap into the smart phone market, like Apple and RIM.

Thanks to 3G cellular systems, the PDA, as it once was, is dead. It’s only vestiges the now ubiquitous email and calendar programs so many smart phone users take for granted.

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