Tuesday, November 21, 2006

How the iPod could save the PDA without trying (too hard)

Nobody wants a PDA anymore. Worldwide sales of traditional handheld devices (ones without phone capabilities) have been declining for eleven straight quarters, reaching a measly 1.1 million units sold in Q3, 2006 on their way down, according to IDC. Steve Jobs is even proud of not having released a PDA. That's right, nobody wants one.

But then nobody wanted video on an iPod, either. It was an experiment that few, if any, companies could have pulled off the way Apple has. It really struck me as a stroke of genius when Steve Jobs had this to say about the video iPod over a year ago (emphasis added):

"Millions of people are going to buy this to listen to music – and video is going to come along as a bonus. So if anything is going to happen in portable video, it will happen on the iPod. We'll find out what happens."
The exact same thing could happen on the PDA front. Today, the iPod has support for games, browsing calendars, notes, photos and videos. In what would be a small step for Apple, but a great step for the ailing PDA market, a new-generation iPod could sprout advanced PDA features any day, and take over the PDA market overnight. That's right: if the long-awaited touch-screen iPod becomes a reality and starts selling in the millions, it will immediately outsell the entire existing PDA market.

It's only a question of choice whether Apple wants to use this opportunity to extend its near-monopoly to handheld devices. Millions of users could buy an iPod – and get a PDA as a bonus. If that won't breathe new life into the personal digital assistant, nothing will.

After all, while traditional PDAs are a dying breed, so-called converged devices (smartphones and phone-PDA combinations) are on the increase. And we all know that Apple is interested in the phone market, don't we? Apple could test the waters with a traditional PDA iPod before plunging into the converged waters.

I think Apple should try its luck here. If the rumors are correct and the next-gen iPod is really going to be all covered by a large touchscreen, its input methods can be vastly extended by virtual (and/or clip-on) keypads, if needed, without compromising the simplicity or the core functionality of the device. You'd touch the screen, and the famous click wheel would appear right at your fingertips – that's what the oldest rumors claim. Okay, now touch the screen in a different way, and a keypad emerges... But only if you want it. If Apple's software people do their job right, the added functions would never get in the way of those who want the iPod to focus on being, first and foremost, an MP3 player. (And so we don't start getting into useless bloatware arguments, either.)

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