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From the editor

Commentary by Pen Computing Magazine's editor-in-chief

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
January 2001, issue 37

I have always believed that consumer acceptance of most technology products is on a curve. Initially, the product is not mature or useful enough to appeal to many people. At that stage in its life, it is mainly of interest to early adopters, enthusiasts, and gadget freaks. An example would be the earliest PCs in the mid and late 1970s. Entering programs via toggle switches--as on the Altair--was a concept only the most dedicated enthusiasts could endure. After additional development, the product becomes somewhat useful to a growing number of people. That's where PCs found themselves in the mid 1980s. DOS was okay, and early wordprocessors and spreadsheets started to gain a following. Then there is a time when a technology becomes so useful and ubiquitous that it is adopted on a large scale. It has reached critical mass. PCs reached that stage in the early 1990s with the advent of Windows 3.1 and online services such as Prodigy and CompuServe.

We are now seeing mobile and wireless technologies approaching critical mass. Early handhelds and PDAs were too large, too cumbersome, and simply not useful enough to be of much use or interest to anyone but early adopters. The first Newton MessagePads appealed to a small (albeit totally devoted) group of enthusiasts and they really weren't very useful. Later versions of Apple's PDA and other products, such as the Sharp Zaurus, had matured to a point where they were actually useful for real work to some people. But it wasn't until Jeff Hawkins created the Palm Pilot that PDAs were truly on their way.

Yet, even the emergence of a product as brilliant as the Palm Pilot does not guarantee that a technology reaches critical mass overnight. That's because--despite the millions of Palms sold--the current generation of PDAs is still only useful to some people some of the time, and not to most people most or all of the time.

Most people still don't need a PDA in their life because PDAs are not yet useful enough. They are not yet as simple and easy to use as other implements in our lives. There isn't yet a compelling enough reason to have one. At least not for the majority of the population. Entering data into a PDA is still cumbersome. Exchanging data with a PC is still a drag. There still aren't any rock-solid, eminently useful applications that you simply cannot do without. PDAs, even Palms, still only appeal to some people, and they are only useful some of the time. We're all still trying to figure out what a PDA should really be. Much of what we're doing with PDAs are still technology demonstrations. Yes, you can cram an entire Excel spreadsheet into a PDA. Yes, you can see a full webpage on a Pocket PC. Yes, you can listen to an hour's worth of almost CD-quality music. But none of that works very well yet. You pretty much have to jump through hoops to get the PDA do all those things. That, of course, is precisely what appeals to enthusiasts and early adopters who think nothing of spending an ungodly amount of time at making things work. I am one of them. I love all the cool stuff I can do with my Pocket PC even though I know that we're not there yet. Not by a long shot. But that's okay. Mobile technology is within eyesight of critical mass, and once that's reached, the market will truly explode. A convergence of the internet, the web, e-commerce, personal multimedia, and transparent wireless connectivity will make PDAs as common as wrist watches and infinitely more useful. I firmly believe that PDAs will indeed become our personal digital assistants. They will carry and accumulate all the personal data we need, growing and maturing with us in the process, but they will also entertain us and help us cope with an ever more electronic and virtual world. I can see a day where no one would dream of being without one.

For us enthusiasts, the journey is the reward. We can marvel at the latest cool stuff and shake our heads at boneheaded ideas. Little by little we take more and more for granted. Things like never having to worry about the battery in a RIM 957 because a charge lasts for weeks and weeks. Or being able to lean back in an airplane seat and listen to great music stored on a tiny MMC card through the earphones attached to a Casio EM-500 Pocket PC while using its handwriting recognition to draft an article, or perhaps read an electronic book. All of this is both useful and entertaining enough to entice a growing number of people to buy these devices. But despite the nice color screens and all the cool applications, the current crop isn't useful enough yet to have universal appeal. Not when batteries only lasts a few hours, or it takes seven steps to get that music into the PDA, or while getting a modem connection to work is like hitting the jackpot, if you can get a modem for the device in the first place. Yes, it's a journey we're on, and it will still take some time to truly get there, but critical mass is in sight now. All the remaining obstacles will be overcome one at a time. It will be both frustrating and great fun to go along for the ride.

Count on us here at Pen Computing Magazine to fill you in on what's happening. The future of mobile technology is very, very bright. -

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and general editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at

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