On the downside of a mobile phone monoculture (or: how my PDAs went extinct)

The Nokia N900 phone

An Eulogy for the PDAs in my life

I've been musing about the popularity and proliferation of ebook readers and smart phones lately. From my observations, many students these days use their phones as their main (or perhaps only) access to email, Facebook, Twitter and other amazing products of Internet technology, bringing communication in the digital age full circle. (Applications to apps, phones to phones?)

The Nokia N900, the last Internet Tablet. Photo showing phone in opened position with three-row keyboard slid out.As my first smartphone nears (or has recently passed—yet to be determined) EOL, i've begun the process of choosing yet another personal digital device, or as we used to call them, PDAs. Aforementioned phone is the wonderful Nokia N900, which runs the abandoned Maemo OS. It's an almost one-of-a-kind linux box that's also a phone. Unfortunately, Nokia's market share meltdown and internal instability led to the decision to abandon their experimental Internet tablet line and turn to Windows Phone. So i am finding it necessary to switch PDA platforms, again. Ironically, the commoditization and mainstreaming of the personal electronic device has produced a market where the niche geek PDA products we have known and loved for the past decade and a half can't survive.

My PDA timeline looks something like this:

1999 (PalmOS) I bought a Handspring Visor Deluxe just a few months before Y2K as a computer science undergrad, along with a belt clip and quick-release nylon holster. Talk about geek chic... The Visor was my notebook and diary for a European Fine Arts/Religion tour with two of my siblings through their alma mater that following summer, and i became really proficient in Graffiti.

2001 Traded the Visor Deluxe for a Handera 330 that lasted forever on a charge with its 4xAAA batteries, 33 MHz Motorola processor, and 16 grey scale QVGA (240 x 320) screen. It had a soft graffiti area, meaning that the bottom area where graffiti strokes were entered could also be part of the display, extending the screen into something like the 9:16 ratio that is almost universal today. In 2001 most monitors were more square with a 4:3 ratio, and "widescreen" monitors were a rarety. This feature made it a great spreadsheet and e-book device.

2004 When the Handera was stolen out of the lab at grad school, i bought a Palm Tungsten T3, my first Palm-branded PalmOS device. It was my first with a color, backlit LCD screen and had a 400 MHz CPU (!), but was a disappointment for battery life and functionality. I sold it off about a year later to buy...

2005 (Embedded Linux/QTopia)
a used linux device, a Sharp Zaurus SL-C860 from someone who had had it imported from Japan, to celebrate finishing my SM degree. Although it had very similar hardware to the T3, this was a clamshell pocket computer with VGA resolution (640x480) display and miniature keyboard, and i used it to record lab data in spreadsheets and play music. It also had a version of KAddressBook and KOrganizer that made it a very powerful PDA, indeed... but of course it had no cell radio or wifi built in, so it wasn't nearly as "connected" as some of the simplest digital devices today. However, it came with a Compact Flash WiFi adapter, and could browse the Internet and check email. This solid device was still going strong at the end of 2007 when it was my reference, notebook, and diary for a trip to Egypt and Israel. Unfortunately, the extensive lab use led to a few falls to a concrete floor and some water damage that affected the function of one of the arrow keys, and the community behind the devices was beginning to dissolve as the decade was drawing to a close...

2009 (Maemo linux) Almost exactly ten years after my first PDA, I got the N900 in December 2009. For the first time, i had a single device as my phone, camera and PDA (and my first GPS-capable device, although it had some issues with GPS). I became an active contributor (and moderator) of the maemo.org community, helping to manage the flood of new users that the first Maemo-based phone brought.

One of the criticisms of Maemo (It's Finnish: say my-mo) was a shortage of available software. This was a valid concern for an ordinary user on what was largely a DIY platform; the same criticism is still brought up now, just a few years later, when comparing mobile devices from the surviving ecosystems, but it's now quite a stretch because they all have thousands of apps... I wanted to help remedy this, so i added some code to some old classic open source projects to make them behave properly on a phone, tweaked the interfaces, and packaged them as debs, bringing Doom, Starcontrol 2, a Bejeweled clone called Gweled, and a recent version of MAME to Fremantle (the N900's version of Maemo). I also developed a utility i called Accelemymote (pun intended, also subtitled "make your accelerometer more joy-ful"), by creating a linux joystick kernel module and daemon that would process data from the built-in accelerometer and convert it to joystick input, along with a gui to configure it. This made it possible to use the existing sensors in the phone as an alternative input device for old software designed to work with a joystick, without rewriting the input interface, which i thought was a neat trick.

The growing smartphone-using public had made specialized apps a trend organizations couldn't avoid. As an owner of a phone with a niche OS and as a person who preferred to not depend on cell radio reception for access to maps, documents, and even Wikipedia (and indeed, just prior to getting the N900 i had experienced a situation during my first bicycle overnighter when i needed to call for directions in a remote area and had no signal), i was able to find local solutions for all of them, something not possible on closed hardware/software Android and iPhone offerings of the time. I wrote a screen-scraping script to create a locally-stored html version of the LDS Scriptures from the official webpage, and adapted the CSS to make it just right for display on the N900's 800x640 screen. I wrote a custom pdf-viewer that provided an interface to select a number and would then display the appropriate LDS Hymn music, and shared both with the Maemo community. I also supported, for a time, the Navit project on N900, providing instructions and settings to help community members use the rather complicated, but powerful, navigation program.

Maemo is a debian-based linux distribution, and the first phone that could be considered to have a full-powered operating system, but unfortunately its PDA apps were a disappointment after the Zaurus. Nevertheless, the added integration of a phone, GPS, and (more than decent) camera made it giant leap forward.

2013 (?) So here we are. PalmOS is gone; Palm went out in a wimper of glory with the advanced WebOS and Palm Pre phone. Nokia has shut down the Internet Tablet project and there are no linux phones on the market. The new Blackberry OS 10 is the technologically superior platform, really the only phone OS that's not held back by legacy design decisions from when phones were just phones, but the company's status is sadly similar to that of Nokia and Palm preceding the demise of the Internet Tablets and WebOS, respectively. In an additional unexpected and unwanted development, even as phones have blurred the line with PCs, the hardware keyboards popular at the turn of the decade have become almost extinct. It's all about giant screens, slick-but-limited operating systems, and no way to touch-type—because that's what the public demands...


That really only leaves Android. On a slab. Like everyone else has.