by Cory Koch

Who out there has heard that the PDA is dead? The polls are in, and the traditional PDA market is moving to smartphones. The PDA’s reign is over.

Or is it?

Smarter cell phones do a fine job of handling calendar and contact information. Some of these phones can even play MP3s, check email and some websites, and play games. Isn’t that what PDAs are for?

Yes, but times have changed. Just as phones snuck up on the PDA’s traditional turf, a new PDA venue has opened: real handheld computing.

Have you tried to go through airport security with a laptop recently? Takes a while, doesn’t it? You have to disassemble the darn thing, then put it back together and turn it on to prove it works. It’s so much easier to just throw your PDA and foldable keyboard into a carry-on bag and let them go through the X-ray machine. Don’t worry about the X-ray machine, it won’t hurt anything, and you’re far better off that way than dealing with a laptop.

What about when you arrive where you’re going? Can your PDA really replace a laptop for a businessperson on the go? Depends on the PDA, but yes. About the best thing out there for business travelers right now is the Dell AximX30 and the PalmOne Tungsten T5. I know the geek set isn’t happy with it, but imagine the following scenario:

Pete has to go out of town on a business trip. Whittaker Associates is sending him to Oklahoma for a big presentation. To save money, the company has bought him a Dell AximX30 and a Wireless Keyboard for $570 instead of a laptop for $1,600. They’ve also upgraded his cell phone to a Bluetooth capable model and subscribed him to a data plan as well as voice.

Before departure from his office, Pete plugs his X30 into a USB port on his PC. Opening the File Transfer on his PC, he drags and drops everything he might need into his PDA. Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, text files, the all-important PowerPoint presentation he’s supposed to give in Oklahoma, some MP3s, and even a funny MPEG video I sent him in email. Everything gets transferred and the video is even automatically converted to a smaller ASF file for viewing on the PDA. Pete hotsyncs to get his PIM data updated, then grabs his X30, the cable and charger and throws them in his carry-on bag. He’s now off to the airport.

Making it through security in record time, Pete scores a seat at his gate with time to spare. He pulls out his X30 and opens the media-player feature. He starts out playing some MP3s on his headphones, then opens his web browser. The X30 connects automatically via Bluetooth to his cell phone (still in his pocket), then to the internet. While surfing around on the net, he checks news and stock prices until it’s time to get on the plane.

After the plane takes off and gets to cruising altitude and he can turn on electronic devices again, Pete takes out his X30 and watches the video I sent him. I knew he might want to see that! Then he queues up an audiobook from Audible and settles in for the flight.

When Pete lands, he checks the reservation info in his X30 Calendar and heads to his hotel. He’s tired when he gets in, and forgets to plug in the charger for his X30 before he goes to sleep. At least he remembers to set the alarm on the X30 to wake him up.

The next morning arrives and Pete gets ready to make his presentation. He grabs the sync cable and his X30 and jumps into his rental car to head to the office where he’s supposed to make his presentation. He’s never been to Oklahoma before, so Pete activates the Navigation System on his X30 which gets him to his destination without confusion. When he gets there, he finds out that his X30 is running low on power!

But Pete isn’t concerned. His conference room has a PC attached to an LCD projector. He pulls out his sync cable and connects his X30 to the PC. The X30 pulls power out of the USB port, and bam! That’s enough juice to enable Drive Mode. The X30 shows up on the company’s PC as a drive letter and Pete copies over the PowerPoint presentation. While letting the X30 trickle-charge in the background, Pete gives his presentation from the PC. After arriving back to the hotel, he plugs the X30 into the charger and connects to the Internet through his cell phone to check his mail. There’s an email waiting from Dean: his presentation today was a success!

Is there any reason why Pete would have needed his laptop in this scenario? A laptop would have been no more functional in this case, would have cost more, would have been more to carry around, would have taken longer at check in at the airport, and would have eventually caused Pete horrible back problems from the extra weight. Ok, maybe the weight issue is pressing the point.

PDAs are not what they used to be. The concept of a personal digital assistant can’t be taken over by cell phones. Devices like the Axim, PalmOne Tungsten, PalmOne Treo, Tapwave Zodiac and HP iPAQ are all good handheld computers, with all the capabilities that apply to Pete’s trip. In terms of cost, mobility and convenience, they’re superior to laptops.