A eulogy for the Tapwave Zodiac

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Last week I posted a story called Tapwave closes doors. I’m sorry to see them gone, but at least my record is consistent: Just about every PDA I’ve ever recommended has been orphaned.

Tapwave, in case you’re unfamiliar, was a Palm OS licensee that built a really cool PDA called the Zodiac. What separated the Zodiac from other Palm PDAs was its robustness for gaming — it incorporated an analog thumbstick with rumble support and an ATI Imageon graphics accelerator. You held it sideways, compared to most Palm PDAs, emphasizing the wide, high-res screen.

At the time Tapwave’s Zodiac debuted in 2003, it was the best solution for someone looking for a good gaming system with lots of additional functionality — which gave it a lot of appeal for me and a small group of other gamers, apparently. The Zodiac included two SDIO card slots and built-in Bluetooth connectivity. It eschewed the utilitarian Palm interface for a nifty interface that made better use of that thumbstick. Tapwave went on to manufacture two models: a silvery 32MB version, and the Zodiac2, which was identical, except it came in black and included 128MB RAM.

Even though the Zodiac didn’t come with Macintosh support out of the box, Mark/Space Inc. quickly stepped up to the plate with a version of its Missing Sync software that supported the Zodiac. That’s when I started using the device. Mark/Space later rolled that support into their general Missing Sync product, which is where it remains to this day.

The Tapwave Zodiac was actually the first Bluetooth peripheral I started using with my Mac. I’m not a huge cell phone user — working from home in an area without ubiquitous third-generation cell phone coverage, I mostly depend on a landline. I’m further hampered by my use of Verizon Wireless — a cell phone service provider that offers a paucity of Bluetooth-equipped phone models, and further limits their connectivity to prevent them from from syncing data to a Mac or PC. So as soon as I started using the Zodiac I discovered the joys of wireless data sync and downloaded and registered Salling Clicker.

For a bootstrap company with a brand new platform like Tapwave, a big quandary comes from trying to figure out how to get third party developers to support it. Incorporating the X-Forge 3D graphics engine, the Zodiac quickly formed a small cadre of developers around it who created games specifically for it. But the Zodiac’s roots as a Palm PDA also made it ideally suited for a lot of existing games that already ran on Palm OS 5. And there are tons of Palm game developers who come up with some really clever titles.

Wrong place, wrong time

Unfortunately, the Zodiac came on the scene at exactly the wrong time. The PDA market has been transitioning from conventional data input devices to “smartphones” like the Treo 650, which a few of my Macworld colleagues have gotten — devices that combine the usability of a Palm device with cell phone, Wi-Fi and wireless e-mail connectivity.

There really isn’t room for a device that combines the features of a PDA with a game console, especially now that Sony and Nintendo are pitched in a battle for domination of the handheld gaming market with their PlayStation Portable (PSP) and DS, respectively.

You’d have to have quite a marketing budget and distribution reach to effectively battle with Sony and Nintendo, and Tapwave certainly didn’t. Even people who might have picked up a Zodiac rarely had heard of them. I even got some strange looks and queries when I’d haul my Tapwave Zodiac at E3, the largest gathering of video game buyers, reporters and enthusiasts in the world — and these are the elite few who would have heard of Tapwave before anyone else.

Versus the PSP

I admit it — I bought a PSP the day they were first available in the United States, and my Zodiac pretty quickly began gathering dust. It made me realize how much I had depended on my Zodiac as a gaming system, rather than as a PDA. Unlike my wife, for example, I’m not a list-keeper — she’s relentless in her use of an old Handspring Visor to keep track of stuff she has to do.

And the PSP is such a better gaming system than any Palm PDA could be, including the Zodiac. The graphics quality is almost as good as a PlayStation 2. The PSP incorporates built-in Wi-Fi for “ad hoc” gaming at your local Starbucks, or infrastructure-based online gaming from home or work. And The PSP sold tons of units since it debuted in Japan last fall — enough to line up plenty of third-party software support. A new 2.0 firmware update that’s just been released in Japan and should be coming to the U.S. Real Soon Now will add a built-in Web browser and other nifty features.

With USB 2.0 connectivity built right in, the PSP can pretty easily connect to a Mac so you can transfer movies, digital music and photos straight to its Memory Stick Pro Duo card (though I’d desperately prefer some way of managing this over Wi-Fi, which is also built-in). A number of third-party Mac software developers have created utilities to simplify this process, as well — iPSP, PSPWare, PocketMac for PSP, and even Kinoma Producer — an app I first got to know on my Zodiac that’s useful for movie conversions, specifically (Tapwave included the Kinoma player application on the Zodiac).

That combination of better game play, good multimedia support, and easy connectivity rang a death knell for the Zodiac, a product whose manufacturer was already in trouble. In April, Tapwave’s VP of marketing said in an interview that his company would transition from making its own branded hardware to licensing the Zodiac brand to other hardware makers. That didn’t actually happen, near as I can tell.

While I love the PSP as a gaming machine and even as a portable media viewer, it has some distinct shortcomings compared to the Zodiac. As a Palm device, the Zodiac included a stylus and touch-sensitive screen, so it was useful for collecting data and updating records, not just playing games, music and movies.

Missing Sync made it a cinch to sync data with Address Book, iCal and other applications — though I must admit that third-party support for the Zodiac was flawed: I could never get it looking right with AvantGo, even though Mark/Space supported that conduit, for example, and some games didn’t run right on it either.

While PocketMac for PSP has the ability to export the contents of your address book as digital image files — a crafty hack, I must say — the PSP isn’t intended to duplicate the features or functions of a PDA. It has no data entry capability (and hammering out letters on an on-screen keyboard using the PSP’s controls doesn’t count, in my opinion). Cell smartphones are a market Sony already participates in, thanks to its partnership with Ericsson, so I doubt we’ll be seeing a cell phone attachment for the PSP any time soon. Besides, it’s way too large to use as a phone — bigger even than a Nokia’s game-centric N-Gage phone, which some liken to holding a taco to your head to make a call.

Batting 1.000

As an old Newton user (I have an original MessagePad and an eMate 300 in my collection), I’m resigned to include my Zodiac in my ever-growing collection of orphaned PDAs. At least my record is consistent.

Well, I’m still using my Zodiac at the moment — I throw it in my knapsack with my PSP and my PowerBook and take it with me almost everywhere I go. If Verizon Wireless ever gets around to offering a smartphone I can live with, I’ll probably replace the Zodiac. But eventually, one way or the other, I’ll set the Zodiac aside and let it grow old gracefully with my other obsolete hardware. Maybe some day I’ll open a museum.

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