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Personal Digital Assistant



Possible drawbacks



Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are devices that combine a wide range of electronic functions in a handheld package. The most popular PDA as of 2006 was the BlackBerry, which had sold at least 6.2 million units since its introduction in 1999. The term personal digital assistant, invented in 1992 by the CEO of Apple Computer Corporation, John Sculley, is a play on the job title personal assistant, meaning an employee acting for a powerful person who is expected to carry out a wide range of useful tasks, from dealing with phone calls and emails to fetching coffee and making hotel reservations.

Due to the ability of electronics makers to stuff functions into ever-smaller packages, a modern PDA can send and receive e-mail over wired or wireless networks, surf the Web, interface with a computer, send and receive phone calls, display videos, play music, and serve as a calculator, calendar, appointment book, address book, game machine, global positioning system unit, digital audio recorder, and digital still or video camera. In many of these areas, such as in photography, a PDA is less versatile and produces results of lower quality than a dedicated unit such as a digital camera; however, the convenience of owning the digital equivalent of a Swiss army knife appeals to many users. The primary real-world use of PDAs has been to keep people connected to their e-mail as they move about.


The PDA evolved slowly over decades through a long line of products, most of which are now extinct. Its original ancestorstill alive and wellwas the pocket calculator, which first appeared in 1971. A pocket calculator is not usually considered a PDA because it offers only one type of function, numerical calculation, and does not allow for the input of alphanumeric information (words as well as numbers).

Within a few years of the appearance of the calculator, engineers with several companies were adding crude information-processing functions. The first units combining calculator and calendar-time-piece functions with text display appeared in 1976. These devices could not interface with any network (the public Internet would not exist to be interfaced with until the mid to late 1980s). At the same time, researchers at the Palo Alto Research Center in California were experimenting with computers shrunk to briefcase size and Intel engineers filed for a patent on what they called a handheld electronic dictionary and language interpreter (which was not marketed until 1978).

These devices were a far cry from todays PDA. Possibly the first device to merit the term PDA was the Toshiba LC-836MN or Memo Note 30, released in 1978. The LC-836MN could act as a calculator and store phone numbers and short, typed-in memoranda. It was patented as an electronic calculation/memorandum apparatus. This was the first handheld device to be marketed that could create and retrieve text records.

During the 1980s, features were added slowly but surely in more and more advanced PDAs. Units that could connect to telephone modems appeared in 1982. Some were marketed as miniaturized computers for scientists and engineers, while others were marketed as organizers for broader use. Handwritten character recognition appeared in 1980. (The user was required to write using a special block alphabet.) In 1993, the idea of marketing PDAs to the general public was pioneered by the Apple MessagePad, popularly known as the Newton. The Newton contained no truly novel features but offered a user-friendly interface. Instead of a keyboard, it allowed the user to write on its screen using their natural handwriting. Early models featured Apple serial ports for computer connectivity and could dial a computer via acoustic telephone modem. Due to flaws in its handwriting-recognition software and despite its instant fame, the Newton was not a commercial success. It was discontinued in 1999.

The first massively successful PDA was the Palm Pilot, first released in 1996. It did not feature a keyboard, as some present-day models do, but a screen with touch-selectable function icons and written character recognition. There was a small suite of control buttons at the bottom edge of the unit designed to be pressed by the users thumbs. So successful was the Palm Pilot that in many parts of the world the tradmarked phrase Palm Pilot is a synonym for PDA, much as the brand name Kleenex is a synonym for facial tissue.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, PDA sales ballooned. The BlackBerry was introduced in 1999 and swiftly became the most popular PDA to date. (As of late 2005, it had about a quarter of total PDA market share.) Wireless Internet connectivity became standard, and the line between smart phones and PDAs became blurred both technologically and marketwise. Color screens, cameras, and the many other features named above were swiftly added.

Possible drawbacks

As of 2006, PDA evolution may have essentially plateaued, much as pocket calculator design did in the 1980s. A pen-sensitive pad or a keyboard small enough to fit in the palm of the hand cannot be as useful for the input of large amounts of data as the full-size keyboard of a laptop computer, and a palm-size screen can never be as visually comfortable as a full-size screen for performing serious work. Further, there may be a finite number of data-processing functions that can be marketed to buyers in a handheld package. PDAs will probably continue to be popular, as have calculators, but will cease to be considered exciting, fast-changing, or cutting-edge.

In slang, PDAs have sometimes been characterized as CrackBerries because of their habit-forming or (allegedly) addictive propertiesa joking reference to the crack form of cocaine, an addictive drug. Some people use their PDAs almost obsessively, checking their email with excessive frequency and performing other useless tasks. A few legal experts have warned that employees who form such technology addictions may sue their employers, although as of late 2006 no such lawsuits had yet been filed.

Another downside to PDAs is their ability to injure some users. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, if used improperly PDAS can be a source of chronic pain and injury, giving rise to repetitive stress injury involving pain or numbness in the thumbs and hand joints. The condition is informally called BlackBerry Thumb.



Cornelius, Frances H., and Mary Gallagher Gordon. PDA Connections: Mobile Technology for Health Care Professionals. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006.


American Physical Therapy Association. BlackBerry Thumb Causing Digital Distress In and Out of the Workplace. August 29, 2006. <> (accessed November 27, 2006).

Koblentz, Evan. The History of PDAs. October 29, 2005. <> (accessed November 27, 2006).

Larry Gilman

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Personal Digital Assistants

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are small, hand-held computers. They use a form of touch screen technology, using a light pen or stylus as an input device rather than a keyboard. In addition, a detachable keyboard or a voice recorder can be used. PDAs are versatile information processing appliances. They are used frequently as personal information managers (PIMs) to record telephone numbers, addresses, appointments, and to-do lists. Also, PDAs can synchronize with microcomputers to transfer e-mail, text documents, spreadsheets, files, or databases. Other types of PDAs incorporate an integrated modem to connect with the Internet or to dial-up another computer in order to transfer data.

Some PDAs use wireless communications technology, providing great mobility. This use of wireless technology allows companies to provide PDAs to their employees in situations where laptops would be unworkable.

Palmtops, which are small computers that fit in the palm of one's hand, are also referred to as PDAs. The difference between a PDA and Palmtop computer is that the PDAs are pen-based, using a stylus rather than a keyboard for input, while the palmtop uses a small, integrated keyboard.

In 1993 Apple Computer introduced the first PDA, which was called the Newton MessagePad. Rather than just storing handwritten words, Newton converted them into typescript. Early versions of Newton had limited success with this difficult process. Three years later, 3Com's Palm Computing introduced the revolutionary PalmPilot. In June 1998, Microsoft began shipping a scaled down Windows operating system for manufacturers of palm-sized PCs. Apple's Newton was later taken off the market.

PDA Features

Several factors should be considered before purchasing a PDA, including what application software the user wishes to run; which types of input devices (keyboard, light pen, touch screen, voice recorder) are available and desired by the user; whether the amount of memory, specifically random access memory (RAM) , and the life of the battery are sufficient for the user' needs; what size of the device is desired; and, of course, what price the user wants to pay. In 2001 prices for PDAs ranged from a low of $100 for a simple personal information manager to more than $1,000 for full-screen PDAs with integrated keyboards.

Other features available in PDAs are multimedia and audio capabilities, various screen sizes (starting with a full screen), and modems (integrated or not, wireless, or wired). Which features are most important depends on the tasks that the user wishes to perform. In addition to these standard features, mobile telephones or clip-on cameras can be combined with several PDA models.

Primary PDA Manufacturers

Two of the leading manufacturers of PDAs are Palm, Inc. and Casio, Inc. PDAs made by Palm dominate the market with two popular models: the Palm m100 and the Palm VIIx. Both devices use the Palm OS 3.5 as an operating system, HotSync Manager 2.1.0, Pocket Mirror 2.0.7 as synchronizing software, and a 20-MHz Motorola DragonBall EZ as a processor. The Palm OS is fast, simple, and compatible with both Macintosh and Windows-based computers.

The amount of memory available in these devices is important, especially the amount of RAM. The Palm m100 has 2MB of RAM and 2MB of ROM. The Palm VIIx has more RAM (8MB) and the same amount of read only memory (ROM). Both use a touch screen as their input and have a speaker as well as an infrared port. To exchange data between Palm PDAs, users can beam information from one to another using an infrared port. Users also can place the Palm PDA into a docking cradle and synchronize their PDA with their microcomputers. The Palm VIIx has a docking serial cradle for synchronizing with a microcomputer and a built-in modem that can access the Internet or other networks without wires.

The PDA models produced by Casio offered the first 64-bit screens on the market. Casio's PDAs include the Casio Cassiopeia E-125 and the Cassiopeia EM-500. Both have color displays, use Windows CE 3.0 as an operating system and ActiveSync 3.1 as synchronizing software, and use a 150-MHz NEC VR4122 as a processor. Most of these use the Windows CE operating system (WinCE). WinCE is similar to Windows 95/98. It can run set-top TV controllers or small handheld devices that can communicate with each other and synchronize with Windows-based computers.

The Casio E-125 PDA has 32MB RAM while the EM-500 PDA has 16MB RAM. Both use touch screen or voice recorders as input and have a microphone and speaker as well as a stereo headphone jack and an infrared port.

Making PDAs More Useful

PDAs must be trained to recognize their users' handwriting. To do this, the user must write each numeric digit and letter (in uppercase) several times on the screen with the light pen. Even so, recognition is not always 100 percent. For users who really want a keyboard, text can also be entered by tapping the light pen on the appropriate letters from an on-screen virtual keyboard. There are other problems with entering data on the screen with just a light pen. How can users delete an entire word, or bring up an entire document? These problems have been solved in several ingenious ways. For example, deletion of a word occurs by crossing it out on the screen. Tapping the light pen on the name of a stored document brings it up on the screen.

As these problems are being solved, new applications for PDAs are being developed and new technologies are being combined with PDAs. For example, Symbol Technologies, Inc. has combined PDAs with bar code scanning equipment. Symbol is supplying the Kmart Corporation with in-store wireless and mobile computing solutions in its entire chain of more than 2,100 stores. Kmart is using Symbol's wireless local area network (LAN) and the company's PDT 6840 wireless devices for receiving merchandise, tracking inventory, and printing labels, and on the sales floor for price checking and employee communications. Many market watchers believe that PDAs will gain wide use in a variety of business applications, especially retailing, warehousing, and inventory control.

see also Microcomputers; Telecommunications; Wireless Technology; World Wide Web.

Terri L. Lenox and Charles R. Woratschek


Brown, Bruce, and Marge Brown. "Expanding Possibilities." PC Magazine, March 6, 2001, pp. 188200.

Turban, Efraim, R. Kelly Rainer, Jr., and Richard E. Potter. Introduction to Information Technology. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2001.

Internet Resources

Casio Corporation Web Site. <>

Products, Services & Company Information. Palm, Inc. <>

Symbol Technologies Web Site. <>

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Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) are handheld or pocket computers capable of a wide range of functions. At their most basic level, they serve as electronic address books and to-do lists. However, the capabilities of PDAs have evolved considerably since their introduction in the late 1980s to include wireless access to phone, fax, e-mail, the Internet and other subscription-based data services. Users are able to download information (including books, games, spreadsheets, and word processing documents) from desktop computers or the Internet to their PDAs and beam text messages or business information to other PDA users. Information can also be entered directly into PDAs by using a pen-like stylusmost PDAs are able to convert handwritten characters into typeor via small, portable keyboards.

Because immediate access to information is important to both consumers and retailers, PDAs' wireless properties make them especially valuable tools in the world of e-commerce. PDAs link to the Internet by using a communication standard known as wireless application protocol (WAP), in which a special computer language allows information to be displayed on small screens via a cellular connection. According to Nua Internet Surveys, The Strategis Group predicted the number of individuals subscribing to mobile data services would climb from 5 million in 2000 to 172 million in 2007. Also according to Nua Internet Surveys, Cahners In-Stat Group predicted wireless Internet access device sales would achieve triple-digit growth from 2000 to 2004, eventually surpassing desk-top computers as the most popular means of accessing the Internet.

According to The Detroit News, documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by PDA manufacturer Handspring Inc. indicated sales of handheld computers would exceed $35 million by 2003. According to Federal Computer Week, IDC projected demand for PDAs to grow at a compound annual rate of 28.8 percent between 2000 and 2005.

In the early 2000s, it became possible for consumers with credit cards to purchase goods through wireless devices.,, and Barnes & were among the first retailers to begin offering shopping services to consumers in this manner. Wireless shopping portals also began to emerge, through which consumers could access products from a number of different retailers by downloading a single site onto their PDA or wireless phone.

According to InformationWeek, in the early 2000s Andersen Consulting developed prototype technology enabling PDAs and other wireless devices to function like synthetic currency. Known as Mobile Micropayments, the technology enables consumers to receive special offers from merchants in their immediate location via their wireless device. For example, a consumer who walks past a vending machine might be presented with a range of selections on the display of his or her PDA, which could be purchased immediately. Mobile Micropayments used Qpass Inc. to handle billing and payment in a manner very similar to automatic payment systems used on toll roads. The technology can be used to pay for everything from fast food to cab fares. In late 2000, Andersen Consulting expected an increasing number of devicesincluding printers, cash registers and vending machineswould be able to seamlessly communicate with other wireless devices in their immediate vicinity.

PDAs also are important to the corporate e-commerce sector. For example, salespeople are able to use them to access company databases for sales figures or inventory information, to conduct research, and to process orders. In Pharmaceutical Executive, Josh Weinstein, president of Torre Lazur PR Health-care Public Relations, explained: "Executives' connections to their workplaces are driven more and more by the Internet and wireless applications. Web-linked corporate e-mail seems to be the most developed, and it is common for traveling pharmaceutical executives to log on daily. More workgroup projects develop from such e-mail sessions than from the urgent voicemail messages or pages executives receive when office fires need to be extinguished."

PDAs also are valuable to securities brokers, who are able to use them in the trading process. In a Planet IT article by Talila Baron, Ron Valeggia, senior vice president and CIO of New York-based Quick & Reilly Inc., commented that the use of PDAs would increase tremendously due to their small size and convenience. Quick & Reilly's brokers already were using wireless phones to trade in mid-2000.

In 1989, Atari introduced the Atari Portfolio, one of the very first handheld computers. Apple Computer also became an early PDA pioneer when it introduced the Apple Newton in 1993. In 1996 U.S. Robotics, which eventually was acquired by 3Com, introduced its PalmPilot model, which eventually became a strong market leader. The introduction was a catalyst for the widespread adoption of PDAs by consumers. In the early 2000s, manufacturers of PDAs included Palm Inc., Handspring, Microsoft, Compaq, Symbian, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Fujitsu, Norand, Sharp, Psion, and Sony.


Jerome, Marty. "How WAP Works." ZDNet, February 6, 2001. Available from

Morrison, Kara G. "Handheld Computers are, well, Handy." The Detroit News, April 29, 2000. Available from

Nelson, Matthew G. "Innovation: A Remote Control for E-commerce." InformationWeek, October 30, 2000.

"Strategis Group: Mobile Data to Take Off in the U.S." NUA Internet Surveys, January 30, 2001. Available from

Zbar, Jeffery D. "E-commerce Eyes Potential of Communication Devices." Advertising Age, March 6, 2000.

SEE ALSO: Motorola, Inc.; Nokia Corp.; Palm, Inc.

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personal digital assistant (PDA) A pocketbook-sized computer with a combined touch-sensitive membrane covering an LCD panel as its main input and output device. The user writes on the screen with a penlike stylus, and the objects drawn are echoed on the screen. It is possible to interpret handwriting by means of character-recognition techniques, to store what is written or drawn as images for later retrieval, or for the screen to display menus and check boxes so that selections may be made with the stylus. Applications include calendars, diaries, and personal organizer functions. Communications with other computers are also available.

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