Hanging up on pocket assistants

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SORRY if this ruins anybody’s preconceptions about journalists, but the most common question asked in any newspaper office does not involve the next visit to the pub, but is a request for a phone number. It is always needed in a hurry, and I am always the wrong person to ask.

It is not that I do not have a good list of contacts, but while I am still switching on the latest personal digital assistant (PDA), some grubby hack with a well-thumbed notebook or Filofax will have shouted the number across the newsroom. It only confirms the Luddite tendencies present in most journalists.

Although I would never admit it, I do have some sympathy with pen-and-paper tigers in this case. There probably would not be a PDA in my pocket if I actually had to pay for it. Apart from one early Psion, every PDA I have had has been loaned by a manufacturer. So it came as no surprise to me when Sony announced last week it would stop selling PDAs in the United States and Europe. It is just the latest in a long string of companies, including Psion and Apple, which have found there is no brass in pocket computers.

The trouble is PDAs have been seen as geek’s toys. Yes the latest models can do just about anything that a desktop computer can do, including playing movies and music, but how many people actually use these functions for more than a fortnight? Generally they are just expensive diaries and address books.

But PDAs are not dead. Instead, many of their most useful functions are appearing on mobile phones, and not just the pricey ones. Even the devices which are given free with a subscription frequently have, at least, a diary and the ability to store several hundred phone numbers.

Mobiles also have a couple of major advantages over PDAs. Many phones are essentially fashion accessories and pulling out a PDA down the disco has never achieved that level of desirability. There is also the convenience with a phone of being able to dial a number from the address book with a single click. Such is the convergence between the two types of device that, by some measures, Nokia is now the largest manufacturer of PDAs - and it only makes phones.

Sony is right. The PDA is dying. But its marriage to the mobile phone ensures its legacy will live on as the "smartphone". Indeed, Sony itself makes smartphones in partnership with Ericsson.

But there are some intriguing unanswered questions. In the last few years, the most innovative Palm-based devices have all been made by Sony. Its smartphones, however, use the rival Symbian operating system. Given that Palm is launching a mobile phone version of its software, which one will Sony opt for? Or will it swing both ways?

Yes, the PDA is going through its death throes, but only because its mobile phone offspring does the same job, only better. But neither is as flexible as pen and paper.