It is here that things start to get a little difficult. These days high-end mobile phones often come with the kind of features that you would normally expect to see in a handheld computer. The line between phones and PDAs has become somewhat blurred, prompting some quarters of the IT press to prematurely announce the demise of the PDA. This is perhaps a little extreme – mobile phones are gaining PDA type features and conventional PDAs are gaining wireless data and voice capability, but this does not mean the end of the PDA, just its evolution.

This is leading to the kind of technology driven shake-up that the ever changing IT market is notorious for. According to analyst firm IDC, worldwide PDA sales saw a year on year fall of almost 12 per cent in the first quarter of 2004. The difficulty in pinning down a precise definition of what constitutes a smart phone means that figures vary from source to source, but most analysts agree that sales are very positive. Canalys reports that smart-phone sales in Europe jumped 83 per cent over the same period.

Todd Kort, a principle analyst at Gartner said “Through the end of 2004, smart-phones will generally have a negative impact on the low end of the PDA market, as many individual users will find the personal information management (PIM) and e-mail capabilities of smart-phones acceptable. These users will tend to become less interested in low-end PDAs that have provided these capabilities.”

Sony pulled out of the international PDA market in June this year, citing poor sales of its Clie range of handheld devices. On the surface this may paint a fairly bleak picture for the future of handheld devices, but when you consider that the company’s joint venture, Sony Ericsson, is enjoying great success with its range of smart-phones (such as the P800, P900) things don’t look so bad after all.

Although smart-phones are understandably booming in popularity, conventional PDAs are still going to be with us for quite some time. There are numerous reasons why people may not want to combine their mobile phone and PDA in a single device not least of which is the increased bulk and inferior battery life that smart phones offer in comparison to conventional mobiles.

By linking the two devices with a Bluetooth connection, a GPRS capable mobile phone can be used to provide a PDA with web and email access. This approach is preferred by many people as it removes the need to compromise on the specifications on either device. Modern PDAs have powerful processors, large, bright colour screens and other features which consume lots of battery power. People expect mobile phone batteries to last days rather than hours, so smart-phones usually aren’t able to offer the same sort of specification as PDAs but still end up with less battery life than a standard mobile phone.

This is a line that PDA manufacturers are happy to push, since it can be terribly difficult for them to break into the smart-phone market. Building handheld computers is one thing, but any device that offers telephony features, be they voice or data, has to conform to all sorts of telecommunications regulations which vary from country to country. Mobile phone manufacturers already have the expertise in place to deal with that, but for companies like HP and Dell it is a completely new ball game.

An effective way to solve this problem is simply to buy a company which has that expertise already, which is what PalmOne did when it bought specialist smart-phone manufacturer Handspring in 2003. At present the company’s smart-phone offerings are all Treo models which were designed by Handspring before the take-over but the next generation of devices will doubtless benefit from the joint experience of both companies design teams.

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