Friday, March 12, 2010

What's a PDA?

Each month after reading the latest issue of Consumer Reports, I shelve it and discard the oldest copy on the shelf. Today, before recycling the June 2002 issue I glanced at its review of PDAs.

PDAs? Does anyone still remember that acronym?

A Personal Digital Assistant is like a smartphone, without the phone. I still use the Palm IIIxe I bought in 2000 as my calendar, diary, notepad, e-book reader, etc. It even has a copy of the entire Bible, and plenty of room for other data in its 8MB memory.  What shocks me today is that my Palm cost as much then as a good netbook costs now.

Palm introduced the first successful PDA in 1996. Apple had failed in 1993 with a PDA called the Newton; its inability to reliably recognize handwriting was the butt of many late-night TV jokes. (I've also read that the Newton doesn't recognize dates past 2009; what were they thinking?)

By 2002 there were dozens of PDAs. Palm was dominant, but Microsoft was trying to take over with "Windows Mobile." (8 years later, they're still trying with "Windows Phone 7".)

The biggest surprise is the high prices we were willing to pay in 2002:
  • Cheapest PDA $150
  • Average non-Windows PDA $320
  • Average Windows Pocket PC $560
  • The one smartphone in the group cost an extra $230
The falling cost of electronics is part of what economists call the "Wal-Mart effect" that has kept overall inflation low for a decade, while the price of essentials like homes, food, and energy rises faster than the inflation rate. Great for the wealthy, but tough on people who are just getting by.

And where are PDAs today? They morphed into smartphones, and are now handed out free with 3-year phone contracts!

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