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The Name Game

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There has been much speculation in the last year about the future of PDAs. A widely held view is that they are on their last legs. I’m not so sure about that, and wonder if we aren’t seeing something a bit more interesting happening in the world of mobile computing than the slow demise of a handheld computing platform as more ‘fancy’ alternatives crowd it out.

One reason for the popularity of the view that the PDA’s days are numbered is the continual and as yet unabated rise of the smartphone and of connected devices in general. If you can carry a SIM toting mobile device, the logic goes, why would you want to carry a non SIM toting one instead?

Actually, not everyone needs or wants to be connected all the time, and as the whole PDA/smartphone area broadens out, and more people decide that they want a mobile device of some sort, I think it’s likely we’ll see a mix of SIM and SIM-less devices popping up.

A related issue is what this potential new range of devices could mean for operating system development and naming, and how the three key players at present, Microsoft, PalmOne and Symbian, are approaching that issue.

To explore this set of ideas, let’s start with taking a look at how devices are referred to, before moving on to look at operating systems.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to categorise smartphones and PDAs in more than very generic ways. Currently devices can be pushed into three broad categories – though some squeezing is necessary to achieve this.

The easiest category to apply is PDAs that stand alone or connect to networks via WiFi and/or other devices (including those with SIMs) via Bluetooth. There are any number of Pocket PC and Palm devices in this category.

Category two comprises devices that could fit into the PDAs group but which also have room for a SIM card, thereby accommodating voice and data calls, and allowing for over the air data exchange. Some of these devices are more PDA than phone – a classic example would be O2’s XDA II with its very familiar PDA-ish look and feel and large screen suitable for a ‘data-centric’ device. Others, such as SonyEricsson’s P900 and 910i, look a lot more like standard mobile phones but incorporate plenty of PDA functionality too.

The third category, by default, must be for smartphones, and its scope is the most difficult to pin down. Some would include the SonyEricsson P900/910i here rather than in the second catagory, along with devices like the Treo 600 and 650. Others would lean more towards a tighter scope centred on traditional candybar or clamshell style phone-like looks. Built-in data synhcronisation for calendar and contacts, and support for third party software would be high on the list of defining characteristics, but devices would probably also be characterised by relatively unsophisticated processor power, memory allocations, available screen space and user input methods.

If you think this set of categories is currently quite fluid, you are right, and the way the market is going indicates that it will become more so.

This matters a lot as far as operating systems are concerned. Developers need to be able to both give the market what it wants now, and be in a position to show the market what it could have in the future. Part of this is about developing operating systems that are malleable enough to be tweaked rather than restarted from scratch whenever a slightly different type of device is required. While another part, relies also on how operating systems are named.

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