Why Apple Didn’t Get Into PDAs – And the Single Versus Multi-Function Device Debate

Explaining why Apple didn’t get into PDAs, Steve Jobs said in a recent FORTUNE magazine interview, “when we were pressured for years to do a PDA, I realized that 90% of the people who use a PDA only take information out of it. They don’t put information into it”.

Jobs says later in the interview that, for the 90% of the people, cellphones should pretty much do the job, so the PDA market would shrink considerably when more powerful cellphones came out.

Which is exactly what has happened.

I guess I belong to the other 10%. I do take the trouble to enter information into my Palm PDA and the payback has been great. Which is why I find my Palm PDA indispensable and I will not be replacing it by any mobile phone anytime soon, if ever. I find it is much easier to enter information into my Palm (m105 earlier and then T|X for the past one year) than into my Nokia mobile phone. I do accept that retrieving information is just as easy or difficult from both my Palm and Nokia. So, as Steve Jobs rightly predicted, for 90% of the people who only retrieve information, a mobile phone would be just as suitable. So, combined with the fact that you can do many more “cool” things with a mobile phone, why bother with a PDA?

In my personal experience, if you take the trouble to enter information into your PDA, the benefits can outweigh the additional efforts. For example, if you maintain your calendar in your PDA, you can whip it out anytime when you’re on the move to schedule those difficult-to-obtain meeting opportunities. Whereas people using their Notebook PCs to maintain their calendars have to start it up before they can access their calendar. Even assuming they can do this when they’re on the road, it often takes so long that they tend to say that they need to “check my calendar and get back”. Some meetings are so difficult to obtain, so when you get the opportunity, you got to grab it immediately – the opening may not be there when you get back to your hotel or office, check your PC and get back.

This brings us to a slightly different but related topic. “Best-of-breed versus integrated”, “multi-function versus single function devices”, “breadth versus depth” – these are some of the names by which the tech world has been debating whether it’s better to install different software products for different functions or install a single integrated package for all functions; and, similarly, whether it’s more effective to have a separate printer, copier, scanner and fax machine, or have everything rolled into a single multi-function device.

Like we’ve seen in the case of Apple’s decision not to produce a PDA, one major factor that influences this decision is how people use individual devices. For people who only retrieve information, a mobile phone may be sufficient, whereas people who enter information would want a separate PDA and mobile phone.

In my personal experience, other contributing factors are the primary purpose of purchase within the backdrop of the relative importance of other features and the state-of-the art of the technology.

In some cases, I find individual devices better. Like I said before, I prefer to use a separate PDA for maintaining my calendar rather than doing this on my PC or mobile phone. In other cases, I have found a single multi-function device more convenient. For example, mobile phone MP3 players. I have been an early adapter of MP3 players integrated into mobile phones and, like I wrote in 2006, they have changed lifestyles. (Click here to read this blog post). No wonder the Apple iPhone includes the iPod.

My opinion has changed sometimes along with changes in the state-of-the-art of the technology. For example, eight or ten years ago, I used to believe that, in trying to do many things, multi-function devices end up doing nothing too well. Which was quite right at the time. However, when I bought my first multi-function device (HP Photosmart 2210) around four years ago, my impression began to change. Last year, I was completely converted into an MFD fan when I bought my HP Photosmart C6180 multi-function device. It’s a 4-in-1 that can print, copy, scan and fax. Even if its copying and scanning are slower than what you might find in standalone copiers and scanners, that hardly matters to me because I use these features rarely. Besides, as a single multi-function device, it takes up lot less space compared to four separate devices, and that’s a major benefit.

This debate has been going on for years now and, personally, I don’t think we’ll see an end to it anytime soon.

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