Landscape fills with PDA smart phones
Big displays are go
The PDA market - everybody knows this - is dying, and the smartphone is taking over. That's what the figures seems to show and yet, behind the scenes, the designers of smartphones are seeing a strange trend - phones are getting bigger and more like computers.
The Symbian platform and its Ericsson-led variant, the UIQ platform, have given the world some of its bigger phones and Johan Sandberg, CEO of UIQ, has been hinting that the next version of the software will support bigger as well as smaller phones.
A recent interview with Sandberg - carried by Computer Business Review - focused on the trend to smaller devices. But there's more to this than first meets the eye.
Sandberg was clearly inhibited from being specific because some of the phones are still under wraps inside companies who are clients of UIQ, but he did say that there would be new clients, and new phones based on Symbian OS 9 - which was announced last week - and that they would support "both touch screen and keypad devices."
What he appears to mean is simple enough; Ericsson phones are notoriously large. They have huge touch screens and pen input - and therefore, it will be a surprise to observers to see some of the smaller devices which look more like Nokia Series 60 phones - smaller, and with keyboard only.
But sources inside UIQ say that in fact, the message is rather more complex. "What we're seeing is an increasing demand for bigger displays," said one designer. "The move away from two-handed operation with a pen, to single-hand operation, is just one trend."
What's more important, said this source, is the need for the operating software to drive both portrait mode and landscape mode screens. "And a landscape mode screen includes a whole range of new tablet-like devices, some for video display, even for TV - others unashamedly PDAs."
The market for small phones remains good, but the trend seen five years ago has been reversed. Where it was necessary to produce the smallest possible device to fit into pockets and handbags and simply make and receive calls, the development of smart phones with extra features has started making the owners of tiny phones envious of the clear, bright displays of those who use them for email, for appointments, and even for video messaging.
At Microsoft, the trend which took the Pocket PC and shrunk it down to the C500 smartphone is creating new sales. But at the same time, the rebound is visible; the XDA IIi is unashamedly a PDA, and a big one, with a full keyboard plus WiFi as well as GSM wireless - and it is selling better than expected.
The new phones and PDAs based on OS9 from Symbian are likely to be released from most manufacturers in time for the year-end gift season - but there may be some corporate variants that hit the market in September, say sources.
"We want to commoditise email," was the comment from research VP David Wood, when he unveiled OS 9 last week. It provides support for third party email platforms in an equal-handed manner, including support for Goode, Smartner, and JP mobile.
Again, the trend in the past has been to try to make email PDAs smaller. Blackberry's original mini-frisbee design has been shrunk down to handbag proportions for new operator customers like Vodafone and O2 - but the challenge of reading very small print and finding the right key to press is not relished by the more senior phone owner.
Palm, the other major player in the PDA market, has been unashamedly catching up with the smartphone segments, and the Treo family has created most of its commercial success in the last couple of years. But PalmSource, which creates the software for Palm and other licensees, is even more frantically trying to catch up with the need to support more variants of the hardware.
Both Palm and Windows CE from Microsoft have appeared on boxes so large that they can't be considered PDAs. The Dana is a portable notebook PC, despite being Palm based; and the Psion notebook range, astonishingly based on Win CE and not Symbian, is equally aimed at the standard PC user who wants substantially more battery life than Windows can provide. But the amount of work required to develop those platforms means that they aren't widespread, and worse, they're quickly out of date.
What's needed is a software platform which doesn't get brittle when asked to display its output on an unusual display, which can cope with variations in the input technique. One which has to have a qwerty keyboard simply can't survive in the phone business; while one which simply must have a mouse input is never going to be usable one-handed. Equally, a system which can't display on a full size XGA display is trapped in small-screen pocket devices.
Does that matter?
"Yes, it matters a lot," say designers. One viewpoint, heard in Symbian, is that the future of phone displays is going to be "whatever display is nearest."
They believe that at some point in the future, the phone in your pocket will merely be your "authority" to use a display. If there is a wide-screen plasma display in the corner, you can (for a small fee, perhaps) switch from your phone's own tiny window on the world, into a far bigger view. Or if you sit down at a desk with a PC on it, the data will remain the same, but the keyboard and display will shift from your hand-held, to the desktop.
Having a device where the software has been carefully re-written to display on one particular size of LCD would be a crippling handicap in such a market.