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May 1999

Robert Vahid Hashemian The PDA. Topping Or Toppling The Laptop?


If I were ever to give the "dumb product award" to a popular high-tech item, the laptop would definitely be high on my list. Now, before you start flaming me with all sorts of great uses that laptops have afforded you, allow me to explain. You can flame me later to your heart's content.

I remember my first introduction to the father of laptop, the portable, back in 1987. It belonged to my friend's father. He would bring it to college occasionally to finish up some late school projects. It was a Compaq 286 that resembled a big lunch box, and weighed about 20 or so pounds with a handle like a suitcase, and a small keyboard that doubled as a closing side panel. One would unlatch the keyboard, which revealed a small monochrome screen and a 5.25" floppy drive. The portable was outfitted with a 20 MB hard drive and 640 KB of RAM. Of course there was no battery and no mouse, but nevertheless, I found myself intrigued by this gadget, which was basically a complete PC and a small monochrome monitor in a box.

Portables have persisted to this date, and there are several manufacturers producing them around the world. They are, for all practical purposes, equivalent to PCs, only smaller and transportable to allow quick move-ins and move-outs. Most are industrial strength, as they are used in remote industrial locations such as on oil rigs, planes, and ships, where space is limited and the environment is rugged.

Laptops erupted onto the scene in 1989. They were dubbed the true self-powered, portable computers, and they became very popular, very fast, especially in the business world. Why wouldn't they? They allowed people to carry an entire computer on their shoulder from plane to plane and continent to continent. They allowed them to do work at home, in the plane, or in the hotel room, just as if they were in the office. And with new innovations in display, keyboard, and mouse technologies, they have become the ultimate gadgets of the so-called 'road warriors.'

For many, laptops have become an extension of their daily lives, without which they would be lost. I suspect (sarcastically speaking) many would rather lose a body part than their laptops. The laptops are stuck to them like leeches on a human body (picture a scene from a horror movie). Just imagine: An army of people enslaved by intelligent machines. But then, there is nothing intelligent about laptops. In fact, they are stupid and here are the reasons (in the form of adjectives) I think so:

  • Heavy. As light as some of them have become in recent years, they are still a big burden to carry. We lug these electronic torture boxes in total oblivion that they are straining our hands, shoulders, and necks. Ten pounds may not sound like a lot of weight - until you consider that some people use 10-pound weights for burn-out weight training.
  • Big. Okay, compared to desktops they are smaller and more compact, but they are still too cumbersome to handle for frequent travelers. In many cases they count as a carry-on item on the airplane and unless you are in the first/business class, they don't exactly lend themselves to easy setup and usage. I suppose the industry has tried to clean up the weight and size image by calling them notebooks. Nice try, but a laptop by any other name is still a laptop.
  • Flimsy. My desk happens to be in the same room as the MIS department, and I get to see plenty of laptops returned from trips bruised and battered. Problems vary from distorted graphics to outright death, but in just about all cases the laptop is rendered totally unusable.
  • Awkward. I don't know about you, but at times I feel like I need to be a finger contortionist to type on laptops. I don't blame this poor ergonomic trait on the designers. After all, they have a very limited range to work within. I admit, I am no typist. But neither are a whole lot of other laptop users. Somehow I find my hands and fingers constantly colliding with each other as they jockey for dominance on the small keyboard. And as far the mouse, be it in the form of touchpad or glidepoint, it's just another nuisance to deal with.
  • Short life span. I mean this in two ways. First, most laptop users rely on it when there is no power available. But the battery cells (which seem to be made of lead) have a terribly short lifespan. It seems like just moments after you turn the laptop on, the battery indicator starts signaling the bad news about running out of juice. Second, laptops in general have a much shorter useful lifespan than desktops do. I still use my old 486-50 desktop at home. It's not perfect, but it can handle most jobs. I doubt I could have said the same about my 486-based laptop if I ever had one.
  • Slow. Of all the reasons I despise laptops, this has to be the number one reason. Laptops are just too slow. They are slow to boot up, slow to open applications, slow to respond to user input - slow to do anything. I don't care what the marketing media is feeding the consumers about the new and improved mobile chips. I don't see any proof of that. I only believe what I can personally observe. And in my observation, a generic Pentium 90 desktop (my other home PC) runs a lot faster and smoother than a Mobile Pentium II 300 laptop. Of course, there is a way to make your laptop go really fast. Just throw it off a tall cliff!

There are still more drawbacks to laptops than the points mentioned above. What about the fact that there is little room for expansion, be it memory or interface cards. And let's not forget their exorbitant prices. So how can we finally rid ourselves of the laptop? Enter the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant).The true call of the PDA is still somewhere in the future, but from what I am seeing, it may just be the proverbial silver bullet to finally eliminate laptops. A desktop PC it's not, and perhaps it will never be. But it doesn't pretend to be a PC either. Together with the Internet (as it evolves) it will be the perfect gadget to handle all your needs, whether you are in the office or out. And while I don't think the desktop will disappear any time soon, the PDA will become a perfect supplement for it.

Think about it. Using the power of the Internet (perhaps over wireless), your PDA can stay in touch with your desktop from anywhere. You would no longer need to carry your data locally with you. Therefore, no need for large storage and no security compromise if your PDA is stolen. Your files, phone calls, voice mails, faxes, e-mails, or whatever else will be handled by your desktop while the PDA will act as a portal or a gateway to access all of them and remain in touch with your desktop at all times. And what about a comfortable keyboard or a nice display? Voice recognition can partially eliminate reliance on the keyboard, but for those times that we need it, how about a thin folding keyboard and a folding display than can be unfurled when needed? Just like the solar panels on the Hubbell telescope. Such a device would be cheap, light, small, as fast as your desktop can feed it, and very efficient on power consumption. In fact, it can rely on solar energy to complement its power needs.

This may sound all too futuristic to you, but considering the exponential advancement of technology, it really is not too far away. Companies such as Nokia, Motorola, and 3Com are producing PDAs today with capabilities we couldn't even dream of a couple of years ago. And in light of that, and the advancements made in wireless technologies, my prediction suddenly seems well within grasp. The days of the laptop reign are numbered, and as far as I am concerned, it can't happen soon enough.

For another point of view on the PDA, take a look at Rich Tehrani's Publisher's Outlook titled Distributed Intelligence, PDAs, & The Continuing Evolution of Communications in the March 1999 issue of Internet Telephony.

Robert Vahid Hashemian provides us with a healthy dose of reality each month in his Reality Check column. Robert currently holds the position of Webmaster for TMCnet - your online resource for CTI, Internet telephony, and call center solutions. He can be reached at rhashemian@tmcnet.com.

Readers Check In

Over the past several months I have received feedback from many of you on Reality Check topics. Following is a sampling of these letters and some responses organized by issue:

January 1999 - Of Bugs And Men
Phillip Remaker writes: "Read your article in Internet Telephony lamenting lack of quality in all things technical, and the fact the people emphasize quality over service. I hear you, but I bet nothing changes. After six years in service and support, let me tell you the problem. Customers. If we wait until our product is bulletproof to release it, customers will gobble up inferior quality product from our competition and will have no money to buy our quality product. And even if they did, they'd be buying the next new buggy thing rather than the old, proven thing…"

Phillip brings up a good point. I suppose this is one the drawbacks of competition. Especially those that are fierce. Perhaps us consumers need to send a message to the vendors that we won't tolerate bugs and back that up with action. Vote with your dollars. It works.

February 1999 - The Little OS That Could
Bardia Saeedi from Vsys writes: "…I come from a telco background and the only "big" question in my mind regarding Linux is a cultural one. I believe the biggest problem which Internet telephony will be faced with is cultural. As a consumer, every time I pick up the telephone handset, I expect to hear dialtone. How can Linux be positioned as a highly available platform for Internet Telephony 'carrier-grade' networks?…"

The same concerns would be valid for any operating system, including NT, which is trying to get into this market. Linux still needs to gain maturity if it is to compete effectively here. But make no mistake about it. Linux has made all the right moves to position itself favorably vis-a-vis Windows NT and other UNIX flavors. Stay tuned.

Peter Buswell from Franklin Telecom writes: "…I want you to know that Franklin Telecom is the only player in the market with a complete Linux VoIP solution… Thanks for letting the world know what Franklin already knows; Linux is more than a viable alternative to NT."

I do not endorse individual companies. So we let Peter's feedback stand on its own merits. But I certainly agree with the last statement.

Gary Fallon writes: "…You may be interested to know that there is a Web site that covers Linux telephony and has some exciting information concerning telephony vendors doing ports to Linux. Please visit www.linuxtelephony.org. I look forward to more coverage!"

Greg Youngblood from linuxtelephony.org has published my February 1999 column on this Web site. It is an impressive site, with or without my column. Surf on.

Gregory Wood from Farsight Computer writes: "…Although they don't advertise it, I suspect NBX runs Linux. I tried to get their people to admit to that when I was at the [CTI EXPO] show in San Jose - no go. Later I talked to a gentleman who had been through their classroom training. He said they are."

I posed this question to Miriam Gaylin, Marcom Manager at NBX (now part of 3Com). Here is her reply: "3Com Corporation, also formerly NBX Corporation, does not use Linux in the NBX 100 Communications System. Our network-based, TAPI-enabled business telephone system operates completely independent of whatever network operating system (NOS) is used to run the data network on the same infrastructure. Your reader may be referring to the fact that the NBX 100 allows you to administer the system using the NBX NetSet Administration Utility on any browser running under Linux. The NBX 100 operates independent of protocols and network operating systems also residing on your Ethernet LAN." Thank you Miriam for the reply.

March 1999 - Internet Telephony, All Grown Up
Charles Slater writes: "Thanks for your recent article. It is very good to see that there are people who still see the light although it is a bit dimmer at the moment. It is good to see CT in the forefront of many discussions as I too wonder all the time why the sector went stone cold…"

There are times when the market may be too preoccupied with other segments and pays less attention to a particular one. The investors will return. In my opinion this is too good of a segment to become a wallflower.

Steven Schwartz writes: "…Thanks for the NICE article about the IT stocks. In the last [few] weeks Dialogic has surged with the MSFT deal and other news. But what about Natural MicroSystems?…"

I am neither an analyst nor a financial guru. So I posed this question to Chris Ward, Director of Marketing at NMS. Here is his reply: "We'd be happy to provide some perspective on our view of the future of telecommunications…[We had an] announcement [a few weeks ago regarding] an Open Source initiative and [will have] other very significant announcements coming up during the next several weeks."

Steven, Natural MicroSystems will be exhibiting at CTI EXPO (May 25-26, 1999 in Washington D.C.) and later on at Internet Telephony EXPO (October 7-8, 1999 in San Diego, CA). Perhaps you and other interested parties can stop by and get your answers straight from the horse's mouth.

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