The Sound of One PDA Clapping

Kaci turned to me the other day and said "Hey Mr Gadgetman, I want a new PDA, cell phone, and an iPod…" As she asks the question, I am beginning to think that I am going to get the chance to play the expert. This will be a perfect opportunity to demonstrate my considerable professional expertise. I will be holding forth on the subject of my technical superiority and she will be drinking from the cup of the ancients. This was my dream, but she continued her question. "I want a new PDA, cell phone, and an iPod… but I want them all in one." The cup springs a leak.

Kaci has this way of taking simple questions, especially the stuff I know well and somehow turning them into unanswerable Zen koans. When she asks me about her next gadget, she asks the impossible. What's worse is that she knows it. Before she asks me she has thought about the problem for hours, researched the internet, and has come to a conclusion herself. The device she wants does not exist. That doesn't stop her from asking me.

While it might be that she thinks I have an inside track to some secret inventor's workbench in the land of tomorrow, I think it far more likely that she derives perverse pleasure in setting technology monkey traps for me. She knows I can't help myself. If someone asks me a question for which I think I should know the answer, I am going to give an answer, even if I have to spend hours at the keyboard trying to formulate the answer. In this case, I am struggling with the answer to her dream Personal Digital Assistant. I am drowning in her requirements. She wants a cell phone that has a full-sized PDA color screen, stylus input, and a 40 Gigabyte hard drive? It's a trap!

First I have to be respectful and acknowledge the puzzle before me. "You want them all in one?" I ask. "You want a cell phone, a new PDA, and an MP3 music player and you want them all in one device?" "Yeah" she says. "It will be cheaper. I don't want to pay for them all." Now I twist in the trap "Really? I would be surprised if you could get them all in a package you would be happy with."

Let's face it. Does anyone really want all of those gadgets in one device? My PDA is an MP3 player, but not a very good one. The speaker is so small that my favorite bands sound like they are performing in the bottom of a coffee can. And although the manufacturer claims you can play music while you work, all of the other programs struggle like a mouse in a sticky trap if music actually when playing. And when I have turned the volume up so I can hear some soft ballad, the alarm for my next appointment goes off like an air raid siren in my ear. I love my PDA but it makes as good a music player as my accountant wife would make a bricklayer.

My real complaint with combining these devices is that the battery life would be measured in seconds, not hours. PDAs are like cats. They nap quietly most of the day and wake up only when bothered. The people who make them know that you are far more likely to carry your assistant if it is small. That means they are built around the smallest battery possible, just about one normal working day's worth of juice. If you ask it to stay awake and play music all day, your PDA is very likely to be forced into torpor before you drive home.

Still I struggle with Kaci's problem. Is it solvable? With certain compromises, I think it's possible. Devices do exist that combine the features of a cell-phone, MP3 player, and PDA. They probably will not deliver the battery life or overall convenience she imagines, but it is possible. If she is willing to give up the 40 Gigabyte drive in an iPod, she could have an ok, but not great memory based music player, a good PDA, and a good cell-phone. With one swift turn, I can see myself wriggling out of her word trap. I dream of escape.

She must sense my excitement. For, without a concern in the world, she tosses her hair back and turns to me. "Oh, I forgot, I want it to have Wi-Fi as well."

SNAP! The trap closes. My vision darkens. I lose hope. She wants that which is not.

About Phil Yanov

Phil Yanov is a Technologist, Columnist and Public Radio Commentator.

He is the founder of Tech After Five as well as the founder and President of the GSA Technology Council and the IT Leadership Council.

His personal technology column appears in Greenville Business Magazine and the Columbia Business Journal.

He co-hosts the Your Day technology shows heard on NPR radio stations across South Carolina and is a frequent contributor to technology stories appearing on radio and television.