Personal Digital Assistant (Since 1984): Why PDAs were so Popular in the 90s to early 2000s

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Do you remember back in the 90s to early 2000s when the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) was a must-have? Today I had a nostalgic flashback of my PalmPilot 5000 and the way I would spend hours on ends trying to figure out how Graffiti works on it.

It was an incredible experience back then. When laptops were not that affordable, it was terrific to have a PC on your palm. Yes, the premium versions would cost you an arm and a leg, but it was the best investment at the time for people in business and students who could afford it.

But a few years after its introduction, more affordable versions, sometimes with low processing power and memory, were released to the market, making the PDAs the most popular gadget in the 90s. It was a fancy gadget at the time since smartphones were still expensive, and you would have to pay through the nose. The only downside of the early release of PDAs was that you could not make calls, but the gadgets were so self-sufficient and efficient for the business. They were lightweight and could be taken anywhere, and you could easily keep track of your contacts, tasks, meeting schedules, and appointments. I could even take notes on it using the stylus.

Moreover, the gadget had the ability to sync with your PC easily, thanks to the wireless technologies that were integrated on the PDA, i.e., Bluetooth, infrared and Wi-Fi. A few years later, my dad got a Handspring Visor Deluxe that had a clear case. It came with 8MB internal memory, which was sufficient back then; you could store tons of games in it.

Better still, the calculator was one click away on the PDA; this made it a useful tool for doing quick calculations on the go. But just like a phone, once you buy one, a new version would be released with more superior features that you I would always drool for it. When the Sony Clie was released, I wished to get one, although its introductory price was crazy at the time, on a few could afford it.

A few years later, the Treo 650 was released; this was the beast of PDAs at the time that came with a camera, modern browsers, and loads of features that you would not resist if you were a PDA fan. It had the ability to not only open but also edit Word documents, create PDFs, spreadsheets, and many more things that were reserved for desktop computers at the time. I could not afford it at the time it was released, but three years later, it would cost $199 only on eBay (A used one, of course).

All these PDAs took part in the process of evolution of technology, which included Personal Computers (PCs), laptops, smartphones, and other smart gadgets. Each release of the PDAs would come with revolutionary features that we would only see in movies at the time. But of course, they came at a cost!

It is unfortunate the days of the PDAs are long gone. They were quickly replaced by advanced premium smartphones, Blackberries, iPhones, Treos, and later on, Android phones came and took over the gadget industry with a storm.

I wonder what will be in store for us in the next 10 years. But before that, let us take a nostalgic walk back in time to the time when the PDAs were still popular.

Understand the Background of PDAs
If you were privileged enough back in the 90s, you must have owned a PDA. At first, they were reserved for the elites. They were out of reach of an average Joe like me; the best I could do was to wait for my dad or uncle to buy another newer version and bless me with his old gadget! It was a fancy handheld device that enables you to store, access, and organize your data. Most PDAs operate on a Windows or Palm OS system.

Let’s look briefly at the history of Personal Digital Assistants (PDA).

The personal digital assistant (PDA), was basically a handheld computer. It was also called a handheld PC. It is a type of mobile device that functions both as an information manager and a computer. They have however been replaced by the introduction of smartphones which are more versatile and equipped with fancy features.

Almost all contemporary PDAs would connect to the internet. They had sophisticated web browsers that provided and excellent visual interface. Many models at the time supported audio and could be used as portable media player. A few had the ability to call, and send text messages and connect to wireless WAN. Since the PCs and laptops at the time were bulky machines, the PDAs remained the best gadget to use to conveniently connect to the interne, intranet, and extranets.

The new versions of PDAs would feature touch screens, a new technology at the time that was reserved to high-end gadgets. Back in the 90s, having a touch screen phone was an awesome thing. I would brag about it all day long in school. During weekends, I would have my friends visiting and we played games on the PDA whole day long.

In 1984, Psion designed and released the first PDA called the Organizer, it was followed by Psion’s Series 3, in 1991. The latter, including a full keyboard started to imitate the more familiar PDA style. The word PDA was first used by Apple inc. on January 7th 1992. John Sculley, CEO, referring to the Apple Newton, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. IBM launched the first PDA with analog mobile phone capabilities in 1994, the IBM Simon, which was ideally the first smartphone ever to be made.

Then, in 1996, Nokia launched the 9000 Communicator, a PDA with digital cellular features. Palm, with a line of PDA products which started in March 1996, was another early entrant to this market. Before the increasing popularity of Pocket PC devices in the early 2000s, palm would eventually be the dominant vendor of PDAs. By the mid2000s, most PDAs had metamorphosed into smartphones as classic PDAS without cellular radios were becoming increasingly rare.

Six Awesome features that made PDAs stand out back in the 90s.

Back in the late 80s to the early 90s, you there were so many features that you would not expect to find on a handheld device at the time, but the PDAs just did. It literally brought the PC to your hand. The user interface was good, it was like a gadget from a James Bond movie. The PDAs were a gadget from the future. They had futuristic features that you never expect on PDAs.

Here are some aspects of the PDAs that you have to experience it yourself. They had unique features that would make your life easier back in the days when technology was just evolving and we were just getting used to handheld devices.

A standard PDA contains a navigation touch screen, a data storage mememory card slot and a IrDA, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Some PDAs do not have a touchscreen, softkey pads, and a numeric keyboard and an input thumb keyboard and an input thumb keyboard. The software of the system usually contains a date calendar, a to-do list, a contact address book , a calculator and a form of memo (or note ) program in order to provide the expected PDA functions. Wireless data PDAs usually provide a Web browser and email client, and telephony features may or may not be included.

1. Touch Screen

The PDAs featured a touchscreen for user interaction. Original PDAs like Apple Newton and Palm Pilot had few buttons – typically for shortcuts for frequently used programs. Some PDAs like Mobile Windows devices had a removable stylus to make selecting icons on the PDA easier. By clicking on the screen and selecting buttons or issuing commands, or by dragging a finger (or the stylus) to make selections or scrolls the user interacts with the interface.

Typical text entry methods on touch screen PDAs include:

  • A virtual keyboard where a touch screen keyboard is displayed. Input text is provided by touching a finger or a stylus on the on-screen keyboard.
  • A USB-based external Keyboard with infrared or Bluetooth link. Some users can pick a single-handed chorded keyboard.
  • Handwriting acknowledgement which includes letters or sentences, sometimes with a stylus on the touchscreen. The PDA translates the input to text. Handwritten, horizontal and vertical formulas like 3+7 = can also be recognized and computed as a function.
  • The identification of Strokes enables the user to make a predefined collection of touchscreen strokes that represent multiple characters to entered often in a particular input field. The strokes are also made easier for the devices to understand by simpler character forms. Palm’s Graffiti is a well-known system of stroke identification.
We use to have mixed results with handwriting recognition system, it was still under research and development at the time. Some people would find it very frustrating and unreliable, while others depended on it fully for their day-to-day note taking activities.

The PDAs for business applications, such as the BlackBerry and Palm Treo Touchscreen, typically included complete keyboards and scroll wheels or thumb wheels for wase of data entry and navigation. Many PDAs support some kind of external keyboard.

Specialized folding keypads are available for several models that have complete size but collapse into a compact size for transport. External keyboards can attach directly to a PDA, use a cable and use the PDA to communicate with wireless technologies, such as infrared or Bluetooth. More advanced touchscreen formats can be captured simultaneously by newer PDAs such as the HTC, HD2, Apple iPhone, Apple iPod Touch, Palm Pre, Palm Pre-Plus, Palm Pixi, Palm pixi, Google Pixi Plus, or Google Android operating system. These multi touch displays allow complex interfaces with different gestures that are entered with one or more fingers.

2. PDAs Screen Displays
Some PDAs had monochrome or gray scale display, while others could display over 64,000 colors. The screens were either made of active or passive matrix. Those with active-matrix display were easy on the eye, faster, and more responsive and could be viewed at larger angles than the passive matrix displays.

In certain light conditions, most PDA screens can be seen properly. Most have indoor, outdoor and power saving modes. You can set them to dim the backlight when not in use so as to have an extended battery life.

3. Storage: Memory Cards.

While many early PDAs have no memory card slots, the majority of them now have a form of Secure Digital (SD), a compact flash or a combination of them. While designed for memory, SDIO (Secure Digital Input/Output) and portable Flash cards with accessories including Wi-Fi and Digital Cameras, are available if the system supports them. They are designed to memory, but they are not available. There is also a USB port for some PDAs, primarily on USB flash drives.

Some PDAs use microSD cards that are electro-enabled like SD cards but have considerably smaller physical dimensions.

4. Network Connectivity: Both Wireless and Wired Connections

  • Wired Connections – Although early PDAs are connected via serial ports or other proprietary links to a user’s personal computer, many are now connected via a USB cable. Older PDAs could not link via USB, as their USB deployment could not support hosting. Some PDAs may connect to the internet through a serial port or ‘sync’ connector indirectly via an external modem, or directly via an expansion card that supplied an Ethernet port.
  • Wireless Connections – Modern PDAs have Bluetooth, a popular mobile device wireless protocol. You can use Bluetooth for connecting keyboards, headphones, GPS receivers and other accessories in the vicinity. Fies between Bluetooth PDAs can also be shared. Most modern PDAs have Wi-Fi hotspots. All smartphones and other modern PDAs, such as those offered by cellular telecom companies, are capble of connecting to wireless broadband networks.
Old PDAs released between 1990s and 2006 had a short-range wireless line-of-sight wireless communication with an IrDA (Infrared) port. This technology is being used by few current models since Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have been better transfer rates than IrDA.

Infrared enables communication between two PDAs or between a PDA and any IrDA port or adapter unit. Some printers have IrDA recepotrs, which can print IrDA-equipped PDAs, if enabled by the PDA. Infrared Technology is low cost and the benefits of being allowed in the board of the Universal PDA keyboards for these older PDAs.

5. Ability to Connect to the internet
The PDAs allowed the user to access his emails, just like on a PC, with more advanced email sync features. You could also download content from your laptop. Some PDAs come with e-mail access software for certain products. Other e-mail accounts brands may have additional applications available.

Some PDAs also feature internet browser apps while others need browser software to be installed by users. Early PDAs would connect to the internet by using a telephone jack in order to access the internet or check your emails. A special modem can also be used to connect a PDA to the internet. Other PDAs also allow wireless e-mail access, without need for extra hardware or software.

6. Ability to Synchronize data.

PDAs were designed to synchronize their data to user-based applications. This helps the user of applications like Microsoft Outlook or ACT! To change devices but still have update information on both. It allowed users to schedule or share other details between devices by moving the same date back and forth between devices. This prevents the user from updating their data in two ways. Syncing also prevents loss of data stored on the computer when it gets damaged or incase of theft.

When the PDA is repaired or replaced, the machine will re-sync the user data to the new device. Certain users find the data entry faster on their devices than on their PDA, because text entry is slower on PDA than when using a standard keyboard. Therefore, users will sync their devices to their PC to allow them to enter data much faster using the standard PC keyboards.

Wireless Synchronization – In addition to being connected directly to a personal computer via a cable, PDAs can sync some or all of their data via wireless networking capabilities. Devices that run palm's webOS or Google's Android OS mainly synchronize with the cloud. In contact data, email and calendar information can be synchronized, for example between the PDA and Google servers if Gmail is used.

RIM offers BlackBerry Enterprise Servers to businesses so that BlackBerry corporate users can wirelessly synchronize their PDA with Microsoft Exchange Servers, IBM Lotus server, or the Novell GroupWise servers. The company servers are automatically synchronized via e-mail, calendar entries, contacts, tasks and memos with BlackBerry servers.

Reasons why people loved PDAs back in the days.

Here are the reasons as to why PDAs were so famous back in the 90s and why they were the answer to all computing needs at the time.

  • Handheld – at the time when the only computer we know was the desktop PC, having a handheld PC was a relief to those who needed portability. The PDA was easy to carry around, and could be connected easily to an external display screen or a projector for job presentation. In the early 90s to Mind 2000s, the laptops were still bulky, and therefore could not be used as portable option. The averagely priced laptops were very heavy and inconvenient to carry around.
  • Easy to operate – The Palm OS and other PDA operating were designed to be easy to use. This led to the widespread use of the PDAs. Unlike the MS-DOS PCs that were common at the time, the PDAs had a graphic user interface that allowed anyone with knowledge of computers to use. You could easily use the PDA on the go, plus it had a point and go features that enabled the new home users to operate it with ease.
  • Friendly user interface – over time, the PDA evolved to have a unique graphic user interface that was close to that of an ordinary home PC. But the use of a stylus and touchscreen made it user friendly and easy to use. The screen became more appealing with time as more colors were added on the display. Initially the display was monochrome, then came the 256 color versions and later on the more advanced 64,000 color version. This was a game changer in the PDA media delivery. The PDA could be used to stream media and video calls real time. It was actually the beginning of the evolution of the smartphone as we know them today.
  • Less bulky than a laptop at the time – One notable feature of the PDA that appealed to the business class, corporates and students was the ability to carry it around. More so, it could be held on none hand, unlike the PCs and laptops at the time. The PDAs were designed to be lightweight and did not require external cooling.
  • Most of the PDAs would weigh 1.4 ounces or less, and would fit in your pocket easily. The smallest PDAs had fewer functions, but still they could be used for your data organization functions; for instance, they can keep your contacts, schedules, to-do list, emails, and other basic functions.
  • Ability to use windows or PC based software – Windows based Operating systems were at the time easy on the eye and many people preferred working with windows-based PC as opposed to UNIX. Since most of the PDAs came with the windows-based user interface, it was easy to operate them even with the slight knowledge of operation an average PC. In the spirit of making Microsoft Windows a versatile and ubiquitous operating system at the time, most of the PDA manufacturers partnered with Microsoft in order to make more sales. Some PDAs were designed for cross-platform compatibility.
  • Can be fully Utilized to enhance your business or studies – The PDAs were mainly designed to suit the business class. The applications and ability to organize your schedule on the go was a sort after feature for the business class. It was in the wake of the 2000s that the laptops and smartphones replaced the PDAs in business and industrial applications. But even until now, the PDAs are still used in most of the industrial applications. The rugged PDAs are suitable for the industrial environment.
  • Adaptable – latest models of PDAs were designed to be easily upgraded. You can easily download application updates from the internet and install. Also, you can upgrade the memory and internal storage capacity. Additionally, you can easily connect them to an external display screen for ease of watching media. You can also add printers, fax, external keyboards and speakers as well.
What Happened to the PDAs?
The death of the PDAs was majorly contributed by the introduction of smartphones. The smartphones were designed to be even lighter, more fancy and highly compatible with most devices. This led to the slow face out of PDAs. Some PDAs are still being developed but are for unique functions like industrial or vehicle troubleshooting purposes.

Something else that also accelerated the demise of the PDAs, was the development of the tablets. The evolution of the tablets, pushed away the PDAs because tablets had bigger screens and thin form factor compared to PDAs. Also, the tablets would run on android and other already versatile applications making them the most preferred devices for home and industrial applications.

PDAs Operating Systems
Unlike the PCs and Laptops, most PDAs came pre-installed with an operating system. The most popular Operating Systems for PDAs include:
  • Palm OS - Graffiti
  • Microsoft Windows Mobile
  • Symbian OS
  • Linux / iPAQ
  • Newton
  • QNX
Most Popular PDAs of the 90’s to 2000s.
There were many PDAs designed and distributed by different companies. But the most popular PDAs during this period were:

  • Acer N Series
  • AlphaSmart
  • Amida Simputer
  • Apple Newton
  • E-TEN
  • Fujitsu Siemens Computer Pocket LOOX.
  • Gmate Yopy
  • HP Jornada Pocket PC
  • Palm PDA – Tungsten E2, Tx, Treo, Zire Handheld.
  • Philips Nino
  • Casio Pocket viewer.
  • Psion
  • Sony Clie
  • Sony Magic Link with Magic Cap OS.
  • Abacus PDA Watch
  • Toshiba e310.
  • American Industrial Ssytems (IP67)
  • Catchwell
  • M3 Mobile.
  • Psion Teklogix
  • Trimble Navigation.
Final Thoughts.

I have a feeling that the PDAs will make a comeback albeit for specific custom functions only. The design and features of the PDAs have more to integrate and upgrade to make it better. There was a great protentional in the mobile telephony that was left untapped by the PDAs.

What is your experience with the PDAs? Did you own one? What do you think about their revival?


Omega Geeze
Jul 13, 2019
I actually used to have one of these as a kid! I think it was a prize for something but it was so cool haha.
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