Friday, January 12, 2007

Someday someone will build a better handheld computer, but it probably won't be Steve Jobs


For all his success, Steve Jobs has been pouting for nearly a decade. 1998 was the year he killed Apple's pioneering Newton, the first and in many ways the best handheld computer ever made. Except for one problem. The Newton lacked a keyboard and relied on a very sophisticated but relentlessly mocked handwriting recognition system for text entry. Jobs seemed to feel that a keyboard would be hopelessly klunky on a handheld device, and if people wanted keyboards, well, he would just walk away from the category.

Ever since, handheld computer fans and Apple users have hoped he would change his mind -- maybe even as soon as this week's announcement of what turned out to be the iPhone. Nope. As Jobs modestly explained to the New York Times, a lot more was at stake.
“I don’t want people to think of this as a computer,” he said. “I think of it as reinventing the phone.”
That's the problem. I was kind of hoping for a computer. I'll just have to keep using my Psion handheld Series 5, which ironically I bought the year the Newton was killed, after the Psion made its debut the year before. I still take it everywhere. It runs on two AA batteries for a month -- and boots up instantly. When's the last time you saw a computer do that? Very handy when you want to jot down a quick note.

I mainly rely on its excellent Word-compatible word processor, and have comfortably written stories on deadline in airplane seats while my seatmates contorted themselves around their laptops. But it has an amazing range of other software, including an Excel-compatible spreadsheet, as well as very slick organizer and address book functions. I originally used its ability to seamlessly synchronize and exchange files with a Windows PC. Now I just use a CF card reader to import text files into my iMac. Not quite as flexible -- but hey, I'm mainly capturing keystrokes.

Still, I wouldn't mind modernizing if the right computer came along. Apple could have built on the powerful iPod platform to produce the coolest handheld computer ever made. But Jobs was still pouting.

Instead, he jumped into the crowded cell phone marketplace, which is mainly driven by commodity pricing and carrier subsidies. He certainly created a very cool, luxury-priced gadget -- one that is priced too high for the average consumer, while lacking the functionality that the business user who could afford it needs. I don't think too many of them will be giving up their Blackberries and Treos.

Speaking of those business users, have you noticed how those power PDA users often have a little cell phone in the other hand? Makes sense. Hard to type into a Blackberry while you've got it at your ear.

The bottom line: Since the iPhone won't even hit the market until June, I suspect the hype surrounding this week's big announcement probably was aimed mainly at getting stock analysts' minds off of the Apple stock option brouhaha. I wouldn't exactly call it a debacle, but once the fuss dies down, I suspect the iPhone will prove to be a significant speed bump for the Steve Jobs Mystique Mobile. The Cisco lawsuit seems like a bad omen, too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Speaking of those business users, have you noticed how those power PDA users often have a little cell phone in the other hand? Makes sense. Hard to type into a Blackberry while you've got it at your ear.

The iPhone comes with what appears - at least in early demos - to be a serviceable speakerphone, so one can hold the iPhone at chest level in one hand and both talk/listen and type at the same time.

However, at one Apple demo at Macworld Expo on 2006-01-12, the presenter was typing extremely slowly, hunting and pecking with one finger, using the 'soft keyboard' on the iPhone. Judging solely from that, it's not yet clear whether someone who wishes to take real-time notes - of a phone conversation or otherwise - might be hampered by that keyboard.