Why My New PDA Is Just an Interim Solution

palmYou know, I just don’t feel up to starting another war.

I did finally get a response from Palm (or “PalmOne,” as their hardware division is calling itself now) that came close to actually answering my question, and I just don’t feel like fighting anymore. No, they didn’t answer my questions about repair costs for a screen replacement, but they did at least let me know that yeah, I’d have to call in a service order, and yeah, I’d have to have it replaced, and no, there wasn’t going to be any discount for turning in the old unit. So I can spend an unknown amount on having the screen replaced (but at an absolute minimum, $25 for the — long-distance, incidentally — call even if I don’t decide to repair it), to get back a unit that’s already “obsolete.” No, I know it’s not really obsolete, but I find it tough to invest fully half the cost of the unit into a single repair, an amount I would be unlikely to recoup on resale.

So I bit the bullet and wend ahead and picked up a Tungsten T3. It’s certainly an improvement over its predecessor (if a tad bulkier), and though actually restoring my information to it is proving problematic, at least I’ve got most of my schedule, contacts and the like back on hand. Graffiti 2 is taking a bit of getting used to, but thankfully it still recognizes most of the letter-writing patterns of the original Graffiti. All in all, I’m starting to get back on track.

AppleFrankly, the main (mental) obstacle keeping me from just buying a new unit was the thought that one of these days, Apple has got to be coming out with a device of their own. There’s been scads of talk about the prospect in general, going back several years now, but to date, Apple has steadfastly refused to enter the arena — despite having pioneered the concept back with the original Newton. There’s a pretty good article and discussion over at Mike Davidson’s site (thanks to Geoff for the link) on the prospects of Apple venturing into the phone arena. But for me, an Apple-branded phone isn’t enough: I want a phone/iPod/PDA combination — a single unit. I’m sick of carrying around three different devices, when it’s certainly technologically feasible to combine them into one.

There’s a school of thought that holds that the iPod was so successful because of its simplicity: It only did one thing, and it did it well. And therefore, any kind of “all-inclusive” device would flop because of its inherent complexity. Add to that the fact that the markets for the devices are different (the younger crowd that makes up the core market for iPods versus the more business-oriented PDA users), and you’ve got a surefire disaster. While all of that may be true to a degree, I do not believe that it’s wholly accurate. First, as to the “simplicity” issue, anyone who’s seen a newer PDA can attest to the fact that the devices do their utmost to keep input and control as simple as possible — hell, the T3’s controller even looks like the iPod’s scroll wheel. There are more complex devices out there (anything from Blackberry, for instance), but they’re not the norm in the PDA market.

Second, I’ll concur that the markets for iPods, mobile phones and PDAs are different sets of people — though they certainly intersect in the “phone” area, which is why you see PDA/phone combos like the Treo, and now phone/iPod combos (or something closely approaching them) like those just announced. Still, I will concede that the set of consumers who want all three is likely substantially smaller than either the markets for the individual devices or the dual-use crossovers. So while I would kill for a three-in-one device, Apple has most likely decided that — from a strict business standpoint — the costs involved in developing such a device would be unlikely to be recouped. Particularly when you figure that the phone market is pretty well filled, and there’s already an existing market leader on the PDA side (and even they’re not doing so well).

Apple doesn’t want to come into an existing market as just one out of a slew of other competitors. Remember, Apple dominates the (legal) digital music market with the iPod and the iTunes Music Store. Hence the whole battle with RealNetworks over their “hack” of the iPod. No, Apple doesn’t make money from the iTMS — it’s just a vehicle to push sales of iPods. At first blush, it would appear that Apple would benefit from the iPod’s ability to play music from other sources. In the end, though, that ability actually undermines iPod sales. Right now, the iPod is the only way to play iTMS-downloaded songs. But if other services — services which can but do not have to use the iPod — start coming into being, not only does Apple lose out on licensing fees, but the viability of the iTMS (or, more accurately, its market dominance) is seriously threatened. No iTMS superiority, no iPod superiority. Is it a little bit Microsoft-esque? Yeah, probably, which is why I’d recommend they work out some sort of arrangement or risk some serious consumer backlash. But in the short term, Apple’s probably not likely to just give up without a serious fight.

So what would induce Apple to enter that device-crossover market? Simple: A new market altogether. Apple doesn’t just want to respond to consumer demand, they want to drive it. Before the Newton, people weren’t clamoring for a digital organizer. Before the iPod, portable music players were a novelty, not a necessity. But now, we’ve become comfortable with both of those. If they’re to throw their hat into the ring, it’ll be with something nobody else is doing. Otherwise, no matter how good their device is, they’ll be playing catch-up.

But in order for this to work, the world has got to be ready; the circumstances have to be right for Apple to step in and offer us something we haven’t needed before, but suddenly can’t live without. And for the most part, that’s out of their control. But the threshold event has just occurred, the indicator that the time is right around the corner.

McDonald’s has started accepting credit cards.

I can tell by the glazed look on your face that I’ve lost you. Bear with me for a second. The new “device” — or, rather, the function of a device — that will allow Apple to successfully come out with an all-in-one device is something the Japanese and Europeans are already using, and that we’ve gotten a taste of: A digital wallet.

Ever used a Speedpass? Picture that on a much larger scale: A digital smartcard tied to your handheld that allows you to make payments by simply waving it in front of a sensor. The early adopters are already using cell phones to pay for soda. But the key catalyst has to be the electronic linkage of large retailers who specialize in simple products: We’re all accustomed to using a credit card at conventional stores, but it’s when that usage extends down to our true convenience items — and you don’t get a much better example than fast food — that the potential has truly been realized.

Critics — myself included — didn’t think much of the Speedpass when it was first announced. After all, why have a specialized device when I can just as easily slide a credit card in and out of the gas pump? Well guess what? We were wrong. It is much more convenient, quicker, and simpler. I was genuinely pissed when my corner Mobil sold out to Sunoco, and my Speedpass was no longer an option. Sure, it seems silly to think about saving just a few seconds as a big deal, but over time, it gets to be more so.

Now, there are some admittedly huge obstacles to overcome, which is why it’ll still be some time before we see our “dream machine” — obstacles from privacy to reliability to security. But the Speedpass model has shown that it’s not only possible, but viable. So while I’ve gone ahead and bought my T3 this time around, when it comes time to replace it, I’ll be biting into an Apple.

(A special thanks to Bob Judd, formerly of American Race Fan and currently of Consignment RVs, for the original discussion that led to this entry.)


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home