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Handheld Technology

Is the beloved Psion handheld PDA due a revival?

It just won't die. Psion enthusiasts continue to add their thoughts to the comments thread on the article I wrote about using Psion PDAs in 2014. Why do these machines inspire such devotion a decade and a half since the last one rolled off the production line? And why has nobody built a new version?

The first question is easier to answer than the second. A glance through those comments will give you some idea. The built-in software was elegant, efficient and reliable. The form-factor was perfect for anyone who needed to enter data using a keyboard. The battery life was excellent. The screens could be read in almost any light level, including direct sunlight.

So what went wrong? From my recollection there were three issues that prevented Psion from bringing out new clamshell PDAs in this century.

First, reliability. Anything with moving parts can break – and eventually will. I've had my share of broken Psions over the years. Recently one of my 5mx machines shed its keyboard tray support rail, while a 3mx developed the 'jailbar' display fault that precedes failure of the screen 'flexi' cable. These aren't insurmountable issues but they didn't help sales, especially when they hit machines that were just out of warranty.

Second, connectivity. It was possible to transfer data between a Psion and a PC or Mac but it was never particularly elegant. Towards the end the PsiWin connectivity software was huge and ponderous. It worked but it wasn't slick. By contrast, Palm's Desktop software was intuitive and had perfect synchronisation. In fact the Palm Desktop was so elegant that some users kept it as their primary PIM long after they'd moved on from using Palm PDAs.

Third, the form-factor. I think this is the most important issue. Psions necessarily had to be quite large because they had decent keyboards. Competing products such as the Palm range were smaller and more ‘pocketable’ because they had no keyboard.

Ultimately, the keyboard is the reason why many people still hang onto their Psions. But it's also the reason why the product range came to a natural end. The majority of users simply don't need keyboards. An on-screen one will suffice. It's only those of us who generate words for a living – or for pleasure – who really need keyboards.

Reason number three is a major reason why we haven't seen a replacement for the Psion. Other reasons include patents and the cost of manufacture, but really the big issue is the potential market. Bluetooth keyboards are available for phones and tablets. For most people today, that's enough. A dedicated keyboard in a clamshell design would be wasted on most consumers.

Enough of the harsh reality. Now for the fun part. Let's assume that the size of the market doesn't matter. I want a new Psion. You probably do too. So what would the ideal Psion replacement look like today? Here's what I'd like to see.

 

1. Good keyboard
I have a slight preference for the 3-series over the 5-series keyboard, but I'm happy with either. I'd want it to be more robust, but with a soft enough touch that typing never became tiring.

2. Monochrome screen
I'll probably raise some eyebrows with this, but a low-power mono LCD screen would extend battery life dramatically compared to a colour, backlit one. E-ink might be suitable as long as the entire screen didn't flash on each update. A touchscreen would be useful but not essential.

3. Great power management and battery life
The AlphaSmart Neo has a battery life of 700 hours from three alkaline AA batteries. Psions were rated at around 35 hours of power-on use. With some cunning I reckon it'd be possible to get up to 100 hours today from a Psion-like handheld. I'd keep the AA format but have the cells rechargeable in the machine too, for the best flexibility.

4. Connectivity
There are two problems with connectivity. First is the need for never-ending updates to combat online threats and keep up with new standards. Second is the power consumption. I'd be tempted to not include a phone, as that's a real drain. Wifi or Bluetooth might be useful, with synching to cloud services as required. But I'd also have a USB port and/or SD card slot, so I'd always be able to transfer data to/from the machine even without being online. In fact if it came to the crunch I'd do away with everything except a USB port or SD card, to save power.

5. Software
So far nobody seems to have improved on perfection. I'd want the same Psion built-in applications, tweaked carefully to bring them up to date yet without affecting their efficiency or reliability. A secure email client and web browser would be useful if the hardware supported them, but not essential and I'd do without them if they compromised battery life. All application data would be stored in open formats so file transfer would be easy. The machine's API would be open and free, to encourage third-party developers. I'd love a shell with Linux-like commands too.

6. Construction
Light but solid. Slimmer than the Psions, with important parts made of metal rather than plastic to enhance durability. We know the Psion PDAs' weak points, so it would be easy to design them out. I'd want elegance: that 'wow' factor that comes from good design matched with functionality.

 

That's my attempt, and I'd pay a lot of money for one if it ever came onto the market. What would yours be like? Let me know via the comments box below. Who knows, if enough of us express an interest maybe someone will buy up the necessary intellectual property rights and build the updated retro PDA of our dreams.

 

 

Related reading:

My life using a Psion PDA in the 21st century

Alex Cruickshank’s New Year resolutions

Sinclair’s Black Watch was the Apple Watch of its day

Can Clive Sinclair’s nephew add a page to computer history?

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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