Wise Guy: The Goal of a New Machine

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Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared in the September 1993 issue of Macworld.

By the time you read this column, the first wave of personal digital assistants (PDAs) will be hitting the streets. (Apple’s Newton is shipping even as you read this.) PDAs were designed by the techno-best minds in the computer and electronics industry. They will be either the next wave of productivity enhancers or expensive Game Boys. I’ll let other columnists criticize the usefulness of PDAs. Instead, I’ll describe the kind of PDA I would use.

Achieving Nirvana

For a PDA to be attractive to me it would have to replace one or more of the four most important things in my life: my wife, my PowerBook, my cellular telephone, or basketball. No PDA that I know of can do that; the first wave of PDAs are still computers—less functional than PowerBooks, albeit cooler and lighter. They were designed by computer dweebs for marketing dweebs. The PDA I want would be a telephone that’s got a computer, not the other way around. It would replace my cellular phone and, for all but the heaviest writing, my PowerBook.

What’s in a Name?

Let’s call the gizmo I want the Personal Telephone Assistant, or PTA. At heart, it’s a cellular telephone. I carry a cellular phone because almost anywhere, I can call and be called by almost anybody. At a conference, you see people waiting in line for telephones, right? Ever see people in line to use a computer?

The PTA should also have the functionality of a computer and fax so I can send and receive electronic mail and faxes. With incoming calls, it should answer, figure out if it’s a fax or voice call, and then let me read the fax on the screen or talk to the caller, or switch to an answering-machine function. With an outgoing fax or E-mail, the PTA should send the call through the fax modem. If I’m making a phone call, the PTA should work like a cellular telephone: I pick up the phone and dial.

Spec Sheet

So much for functions; here are the hardware specs to make it a success.

  • Size, 7 inches long (the smallest length possible for a usable keyboard), 4 inches wide, and 2.5 inches tall; weight, 3 pounds maximum

  • An LCD display a la Sharp’s Wizard (battery life is more important than readability for this product)

  • A push-button light to illuminate the screen briefly, as with digital watches

  • AC power, a cigarette-lighter adapter, and a rechargeable battery with 12-hour standby and 2-hour talk life (it should accept AA-size batteries in case you don’t have a charged battery)

  • A 14.4-Kbps fax modem

  • A serial port to send and receive data files from a personal computer

  • A trackmarble (as opposed to trackball) pointing device

Here’s the point: the PTA is a wonderful telephone instead of a lousy computer. An LCD display on a computer is lousy. On a telephone with a keyboard, it’s terrific. The glass is half full, not half empty.

Software Specs

The PTA would require only a few essential programs. You could add others, but the following should be bundled in.

  • A calendar program

  • A contact-management program

  • Various E-mail programs (AppleLink, America Online, CompuServe) and terminal emulation

  • A simple word processor

I should be able to search my contact-management program, find a person, and have the PTA dial that person or send E-mail or a fax.

This little wonder should cost about $1000. A cellular phone like the Motorola MicroTac costs about $500; a Sharp Wizard costs about $500; and a fax modem costs about $500. Some company should be able to squeeze out $500 to bring the total price to $1000.

This price is a little high, but I can rationalize spending $1000 because the PTA is a cellular phone—something I know I’ll use—and for only $500 more, I get both a computer and a fax modem!

Initially, the best companies to build the PTA would be Hewlett-Packard or Motorola, or Hewlett-Packard and Motorola. HP has shown the ability to build something like this with its OmniBook 300. Motorola makes the MicroTac cellular phone—I rest my case. AT&T is a dark horse; it has the most to gain, but the company’s distribution is pathetic.

So far, the PDA closest to the PTA is the EO 440 (owned by AT&T). It’s a pen-based computer with a cellular phone and modem attached. But for me it is too large (about 8.5 by 11 inches), too expensive (about $4000), and lacks a keyboard. It is a pen-based computer with telephony, not a telephone with a computer.

Where Do I Send the Check?

My PTA would be pretty easy to build and sell because all the components already exist, the channel is in place, and it’s easy to explain. If someone from HP or Motorola is reading this, let me know where to send my check. Better, send me an evaluation unit, and I’ll review it.

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