Sunday, April 04, 2010

Multifunction mobile devices (MMD, not to be confused with WMD?)

The recent iPad hype in the news and this flowchart got me thinking about multifunction mobile devices. I saw a TV news story that questioned the need for an iPad when one already has a laptop, mobile phone, digital camera, mp3 player, etc. That's a lot of devices to carry around, but a smartphone combines several of those, lightening the load significantly. I am a recent smartphone supporter, both in concept and device.

I consider myself a selective early adopter, as in, I'm selective in what I will adopt early, rather than adopting whatever new thing releases, just to be on the bleeding edge.

I am a long time user of PDAs before they were called such, going back to the Casio BOSS (Business Organizer Scheduling System) and Sharp Wizard in the early 1990s. Prior to that, I used various no-name, keyboard based, PDAs to carry my data with me.

When USRobotics released their first Palm Pilot line, it came in two versions, 256 kB and 512 kB. It was a major paradigm shift away from the foldover keyboard PDAs or the handwriting recognizing Apple Newton. On the Pilot, you needed to learn its input method, Graffiti. I never owned a Newton because the few times I played with one, the recognition was mediocre and the cost put it out of reach.

I promptly ordered the Pilot 512 and was quickly downloading apps. This was an example of my early adaptation of an as-yet unproven device format. The Pilot was innovative in letting the user community write apps, making PC sync a breeze, and having a pseudo handwriting recognition system that actually worked. Where the Casio BOSS made it cumbersome to sync data to a PC, the Pilot made sync'ing a breeze with its one-button cradle. Where the Newton had difficulty because of everyone's unique handwriting, the Pilot required you to learn its input script, which I was able to pick up pretty quickly.

USR kept innovating, and released a few more devices before I upgraded to a Palm3. More RAM (1 MB I think), a sleeker case, and a backlight! I forget what happened, but at the time, my Palm3 had a 3Com tag. My next upgrade was to a Handspring Visor Deluxe with a whopping 8 MB. Handspring continued to innovate the platform, adding Springboard, a cartridge slot for swapping functionality. I acquired the Backup Module, but I recall there being a phone module, a GPS module, maybe some foreign language modules.

I think around the late 1990s is when Handspring released the first Treo, an integrated phone-PDA, an early smartphone. At the time, I already had a mobile phone and was still happily using the Visor. I did not follow the smartphone's development because if I wanted to upgrade the PDA part, I did not want to be forced to upgrade the phone as well. Perhaps my many years of tinkering with PCs taught me that modularity trumps integration. I can easily swap in new components without needing to ditch the entire machine.

Smartphones continued to develop, finally integrating such functions as a camera, mp3 player, voice recorder, GPS, web browser, others. I thought such devices had gone overboard. Upgrading any one of the separate functions would require a whole new device. How wasteful. The mobile internet was still underdeveloped at the time and I found browsing on an early Treo very cumbersome. I already had a laptop and a tetherable mobile, which gave me a full keyboard and screen. It was more cumbersome browsing on the PDA than it was lugging around the laptop. I already had a digital camera that was more compact than the PDA and took better quality pictures. I was shopping for an mp3 player, used my mobile's SMS to send myself short notes instead of using a voice recorder, and already had a standalone GPS that I thought worked better than the in-phone GPSs I'd seen.

For the longest time I eschewed anything smartphone. When Handspring discontinued their Visor line, I bought a model identical to my current one on eBay as a future replacement when mine failed. The new Treos also added a physical keyboard and got smaller in overall size. Having a keyboard take up so much of the device form factor meant ever-shrinking screens, making the browsing experience additionally cumbersome. I felt the keyboard was a step backward from Graffiti. For a long time now, I had replaced Graffiti on my Visor with an alternate input method, Thumbscript, which allowed for much faster text input. The physical keyboard made me want smartphones even less.

I was happily using my Visor and non-smart (dumb?) phone when finally my phone died. Up until now, I had been able to obtain the identical model in replacement, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to locate any in sufficient condition. At around this time I had the opportunity to demo a Palm Pre and an HTC Hero. The details of the comparison will be in a later blog entry. I decided I liked the Hero more and ended up keeping it, much to my surprise, being a long time and still current PalmOS user. It's taking me much longer than I thought to migrate my data from the Visor to the Hero.

Having used the Pre and Hero, I am now a smartphone convert. I was previously concerned about a lack of modularity, but with today's apps, one could upgrade their smartphone's functionality relatively easily. This still doesn't let one upgrade the hardware. If one wanted a higher megapixel camera, one would need an entirely new phone. If one wanted to change mobile carriers, likewise. What I want to see is a more modular phone. Let the user swap out the camera component, or the radio. The browser experience is also much nicer on the Pre and Hero and often I will do a moderate amount of browsing on the Hero without wanting to go to my laptop. The Hero's compactness also makes it much more convenient when I'm out.

Where do I think the iPad fits in all this? I think the form factor makes the iPad a bit more cumbersome. It's too large to fit in a pocket like a smartphone, but it looks more compact than a netbook and definitely more compact than a laptop (mine, at least). The iPad's functionality isn't up to par with a laptop. I still lug around my laptop because for some tasks, a netbook still won't do. The flowchart mentioned in the intro directs one to buy a laptop. For lighter weight tasks, my smartphone is plenty sufficient for now. Ask me again in a year or so, if / when the iPad has time to develop more functionality and / or netbooks become more advanced. Maybe I'll trade my laptop for a netbook before the iPad will develop into something I can use.

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