And the winner is... mobile phones or handheld computers?    

Internet-to-go? The last year has seen hype, counter-hype and strongly voiced opinions on the topic of "the mobile Internet" and mobile information services in general. At the same time, more and more people are accessing data on the move, from devices far more varied in shape and form that the box, screen and keyboard on your desk. So is there a mass-market future in mobile data services? And if so, will we access them using a descendant of today's phones, handheld computers/PDAs (personal digital assistants), or some other as-yet unimagined type of device.

In many ways the two product groups are approaching functional equivalence: PDAs are now available with mobile communications capabilities, mobiles, meanwhile, come with address-book and diary functions to help you organise your life. Does this mean that it will merely be a case of survival of the strongest? If so, in Europe at least there is strong inertia behind the mobile phone manufacturers - according to a European Commission study carried out in Spring 2000, 55% own a mobile phone (more than own home computers, cable TV or satellite dishes) compared to an almost insignificant 3% for PDAs.

There is, however, more to it than that (as anyone who has used both types of product will readily agree). Display size, input methods, software, services available, and communication with other services and devices distinguish the product types currently on offer.

Mobile phones do not currently make the best personal organisers: I studied my Nokia manual with unbridled excitement at the number of features available. Several months later I have not even managed to track down many of them on the phone itself - guessing which combination of the 2 buttons and 1 roller will take me to my personal Nirvana has become simply too much for me. I'm backed up on this by a Middlesex University study, which found that on one phone 110 key presses were required to view all of the available options, with an average of 8.2 key presses needed to reach each feature (16.5 when factoring in inevitable human errors). Take-up of interactive services on mobile phones is not entirely doomed, as shown by the recent blossoming in SMS usage and the popularity of the iMode service in Japan, but there must be easier ways.

Contrast this with Palm, whose religious pursuit of usability allows them to claim that you can use their devices without ever needing to look at a manual. Indeed, PDA manufacturers may be beating the phone makers at their own game. I recently had the pleasure of using a Handspring Visor Phone, and have to say that the large display, multiple ways of accessing phone lists, and integration with the Palm OS address book made it far preferable to fiddling with the usual buttons and roller (disclaimer: Handspring is a client, and therefore I would say this. But my Handspring Visor has also become almost a prosthetic attachment over recent months, without which I would find it hard to lead a normal life).

At the heart of the difference is form factor. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen makes the point that a device specifically designed for holding up to your ear is not a device well suited to accessing the Internet (at least until the Internet becomes voice-powered). A PDA is eminently suited to, indeed designed for, accessing and viewing data, so it has a head start in this field. Conversely holding a PDA to your ear does not feel good, and many find earpieces fiddly and embarrassing (although the latter problem may be overcome - my Aunt recalls the shame of her husband's mobile-brick ringing in a crowded street in the late 1980s, something that would deter few people nowadays). Neither should we imagine that competition will be restricted to the basic forms on offer today: mobile phone companies are already experimenting with radically different products, such as the Motorola v-box and Ericsson R380. As demand for differing types of mobile voice and data access grows, so the range of devices on offer will diversify, from the small and simple clubbers-companion to the chunky and complete business-assistant.

© Dan Sumption, March 2001

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