The Past, Present, and Future of PDAs

by John Tennison, MD, Copyright July, 2002 (updated May 2005)

This article is based on a lecture of the same title first delivered at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas, in July of 2002.


This is a reprint of the cover from the April 2001 issue of Texas Medicine Magazine.  rolex replica sale Instead of choosing one of the more popular PDAs to grace the cover of this issue, Texas Medicine Magazine choose a picture of a more obscure Psion Series 3 PDA.  cartier replica uk This computer was likely chosen because of its generic appearance, and so that it would not give the impression that Texas Medicine Magazine was endorsing any one manufacturer over another.  hublot replica sale Yet, ironically, the Psion series 3 line is my all-time personal favorite PDA design for reasons that will become clear when the full content of this article is posted.

The Early History of PDAs

    For an excellent treatise on the early history of PDAs, see THE EVOLUTION OF THE PDA 1975-1995 by Evan Koblentz, editor, Computer Collector Newsletter -- posted May 2005, version 0.991

The Definition of "PDA"

    The term, "PDA," (an acronym for Personal Digital Assistant) was not coined until January of 1992 by Apple CEO, John Sculley at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show.  rolex replica uk However, devices existing many years before 1992 should rightfully be regarded as PDAs.  In his article, "The Evolution of the PDA," Evan Koblentz discusses early PDAs and offers the following working definition of "PDA":

    "A PDA is any digital device that has a one-handed design, can function independently, and features a non-appliance, non-mathematical application set.

The Advantage of Keyboards as a Data-Entry Interface   

    Despite the marketing success of the keyboard-less Palm OS based devices, nothing has yet surpassed a keyboard for speed of alpha-numeric data entry.  Veteran PDA users were well aware of this fact when the Palm Pilot hit the market in 1996.  However, only after many Palm OS devices were sold did many Palm OS users realize how important and fast keyboards were for data entry.  For this reason, Palm OS devices have began utilizing built-in keyboards for data entry.  Some contend that Palm OS devices have had keyboards available for some time.  However, they were cumbersome in that the Palm OS device had to be plugged into them.  Moreover, the full-sized keyboards for Palm OS, such as those made by Targus, had to first be unfolded, placed on a flat surface, and then have the Palm OS device plugged into them.  Clearly this process inhibited the spontaneous flow from idea to computer that Psion users have taken for granted for years.  Moreover, some would contend that such a cumbersome configuration should not even fall within the definition of what should be considered a PDA (see the excellent early history of PDAs by Evan Koblentz).

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    Although Psion has fallen on hard times as a PDA manufacturer, their Operating System, Symbian, is alive and well in the 2002-model Nokia 9290 Communicator, which is a combination of PDA and cellular phone.  Psion's operating system has had more years to "mature" as compared to any other PDA operating system.  Check out the Nokia 9290 Communicator and see for yourself.

    Because of the shear quantity of people, especially doctors, using Palm OS based devices, the true "Power Users" among you will probably want to carry both a Symbian OS device and a Palm OS device.  (No, this is not an excessively bulky alternative.  Do you remember how many books you carried around with you when you were a medical student or an intern?)  Carrying a Palm OS device allows for greater universality in data exchange with other Palm OS users.   Also, the Palm OS is adequate for data retrieval, such as reading back names and addresses, book content, or for any task were pointing and clicking is can satisfy most data-entry requirements.  However, for extensive alpha-numeric data entry, the keyboards on Psion and Nokia devices are still superior in speed of data entry to Graffiti or to speed of data entry on the extremely small built-in keyboards of the latest Palm OS devices, such as the Handspring Treo series and Sony's Clie Palm OS devices.

    For those among you who are creative "idea people" who like to write or "journal" a lot, there is NO substitute (at this time) for a QWERTY keyboard that is larger than the ones currently being built into Palm OS devices.  However, if you are determined to use just one PDA, and you would like a Palm OS, device, the choices are limited. First, there is the Sony line.  Sony's Palm OS PDAs are visually very attractive, but in use the keyboard's keys are too flat and harder to type accurately on than the Handspring Treo or Palm Tungsten C Keyboard.  The Treo has a keyboard which feels better than the Sony keyboards, but it is a bit on the small side.  My favorite built-in keyboard for a palm-sized Palm OS device is hands down the Tungsten C by Palm.  I can ALMOST type as fast on it as I can on my Psion 3c.  Last, the company Alpha Smart ( makes a Palm OS device, the Dana, with a full-sized keyboard, and a 3-times normal width screen.  It uses a black & White LCD, thus gives you many hours of battery time.  Because of its extra wide screen, you can get a large amount of text with the horizontal dimensions closer to what you are accustomed to seeing on a desktop computer.  For basic word processing with a full-sized keyboard that actually part of the PDA, the Dana is worth checking out.  However, keep in mind that it has a form factor about the size of a small laptop (thus will not be considered a PDA by some), but its batteries will last a lot longer than many of the color screens currently on the market.

Any feedback about this article is welcome:  Contact John Tennison at

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