TECH TALK: Disruptive Technologies: Handheld Computers (Part 2)

The first generation of handheld computers failed. Remember Apple Newton? Then, along came Palm. With a focus on doing a few things well and working more like an information organiser, Palm created the industry. Wrote David Pogue in The New York Times (December 14, 2000):

From the day it was born in 1996, the PalmPilot has been a slender reed resisting the winds of complexity. Electronics stores refused to stock it; who would buy a gizmo that did little more than suck in the address book and calendar from your PC? Venture capitalists implored Palm Computing to add features. “It needs a modem!” “A voice recorder! Color screen! Upholstery attachments!”

Fortunately, the designers at Palm were worshippers in the church of simplicity. As a result, their pocket-size creation became one of the most successful inventions in history, with nearly 10 million sold in four years.

Palm was followed by Handspring, Compaq (with its iPaq), Sony, and others. Research In Motion focused on the enterprise through its always-on Blackberry (which integrates with the corporate mailbox) and carved out a niche for itself.

A new generation of companies like Cybiko and Danger is targeting
consumers with a range of lower-cost, connected wireless
devices. Within the enterprise, handhelds are finding their niches (an
example is the most recent announcement of Palm and Siebel teaming up
to offer mobile CRM solutions). Palm also offers the ability to view
and edit MS-Office files, and later sync them with the files on the
desktop. The innovations in handhelds are happening along two fronts:

adding more features and functionality within the device (the
Springboard add-on module in the Handspring can convert it into an MP3
player, a cellphone and many other things), and enabling connectivity
through wireless networks.

There are two ways to look at the new handhelds: as possible PC replacements (which is highly unlikely at this time), or as adjuncts to PC (which is how they get used most of the time). The possible PC replacement capability is what has the potential to make handheld computers disruptive. But it is not going to happen in the developed countries of the world.

There is a whole world of people out there who have not been touched by computing. The installed base of computers in India is less than 6 million for a population of 1 billion. For these people, the low-cost, connected handheld can become the primary computing device. Witness the rapid adoption rate of cellphones in many of these markets (growth rates in excess of 50% per annum). What is needed is localisation (ability to support different languages) and voice as an input medium. These handheld computers can then be plugged into the computing grid through wireless networks to use all the resources of processing power and storage that they need.

Thus, for handhelds to be truly disruptive, they need to target a new market – people who have never used computers. Creating content, applications and services for this market can become an industry as big as the PC industry itself. After all, there are 4 billion people in the “rest of the world”. The real personal computing revolution lies ahead.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.