The handheld computing world is bulging in every possible direction. We have phones that play music and receive radio and TV, handheld computers that act as phones, mobile media companions that aspire to rival your hard drive for storage capacity.
There are two ways to look at this. One is to use a Vogelism and say the handheld tech industry is octupussing. Trying as many different angles as possible, in the hope that it finds one that sticks. Taking this view implies that the industry has few firm ideas about what punters want, what its market is for a particular device, or how its overall market might develop over time.
The other, more conservative perspective, is that there are many markets, and as an industry still emerging and finding its feet, the mobile devices sector is working out what these are. In a fluid, fast moving, dynamic sector, the only way to do this is to release products and see what lives and dies in the hands of the fickle consumer. Too much of this and companies can implode, to little and they risk complacency and, possibly atrophy.
The truth is probably somewhere in between these two views, with octopussing sometimes widely in evidence and a more measured approach also apparent.
Other ways of interpreting octopussing include â€˜going out on a limbâ€™, â€˜trying something newâ€™, and â€˜testing the marketâ€™, all of which seem legitimate when presented in that light. And letâ€™s not forget that technology can drive things forward. PalmOneâ€™s LifeDrive (yes, dear regular reader, I am still in love with this gem) has a hard drive because it can have one, and because by being first with this idea PalmOne proved it can do innovation and lead the market. Others can only follow.
The danger of being a leader, though, is that others get to identify any flaws in your first, pioneering step, and rectify them with their follow up. Mechanical memory might end up being the LifeDriveâ€™s bete noire as devices move to more robust flash memory as cost and capacities grow and chip sizes fall. We can already see the transition starting to happen. For example, the very latest iPod, the nano, which was announced last week uses flash memory and, not uncoincidentally, is considerably thinner than the iPod mini which it is designed to replace.
One area where these connected points about octopussing and knowing your market are most visible is keyboards.
Letâ€™s get two things very clear here. One: keyboards are for creating text. Two: there is a vast difference between creating an SMS message and writing a longer document like this editorial.
I need to write lots of text, and like to be able to do this wherever I am. Itâ€™s a total waste of time (albeit an enjoyable one) to sit on a train staring out of the window listening to music when a deadline looms. Much better to be working towards that deadline. I need a device for this. It has to be small enough to carry easily but incorporate a usable keyboard. My needs are like those of thousands upon thousands of mobile professionals.
Anyone that has seen me in press conferences, and regular readers of this column will know I use a Psion Netbook for this job. I also sometimes use a Bluetooth handheld and a wireless keyboard â€“ the Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard. This is my favourite solution when trying to travel very light and still knock out the words but I need to know that a table will be on hand as a lap just isnâ€™t a feasible resting place for this two-piece solution.