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History of the Personal Data Assistant (PDA)

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A leather-bound personal organiser with a keyboard on the front

Today personal data assistants (PDAs) are everywhere. If you don't have one, you are considered a 'techno-peasant' by those that do, which is a particularly unpleasant thing to be called. But where did the PDA come from? Their evolution is a long and interesting one.


Back in the late 1970s and early '80s, if you wanted to make a note of someone's phone number, you either used a notepad, a diary organiser or a RolodexTM, which was hardly portable1. Of these, only the latter was searchable as it could be continually re-organised into alphabetical order. What was needed was something that could be organised to an order that suited the user, could be configured to their needs, was portable and above all, was easy to use. Enter: the FilofaxTM...

The Ringbound Organiser

The ringbound organiser, commonly called the Filofax2, entered the popular scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the yuppies saw that it was good. It became their symbol. It was a small ring-binder in effect, about the size of an A5 page, which came in a variety of colours and textiles, including genuine leather. It contained a basic set of sheets for diary, notes, addresses and phone numbers, tasks and other office-related activities, plus dividers to keep each section separate. They used up to six rings, rather than the conventional two so that the pages could not move around and therefore the holes would not tear thus keeping the pages secure from falling out.

However, what made it unique was that the user could purchase new sheets for it, like the next year's diary, and other sections for almost any task you care to mention. There were sections for projects, meetings, minutes, maps, travel information, etc. There were even some computer applications that could print pages that would fit in the Filofax.

Believe it or not, the Filofax was first created on 6 June, 1921, by Norman & Hill, Ltd. in London. It was based on an American design from World War One3 and its name means 'file of facts'.

Electronic Organisers

Electronic organisers eventually supplanted the Filofax, but not without a fight. When the first models hit the market, they were expensive and had only a few functions. It took some time before they became a viable alternative to the Filofax.

Conversely to the norm in technology developments, later models increased in size. They also increased in functionality. At first they could do little more than store names and telephone numbers. Later versions could store notes, memos and run a basic daily planner.

All electronic organisers suffered from the same problem: compatibility. Many would not communicate with other devices, and even the ones that would connect to a PC would do so using different formats, so that if you upgraded to a newer model, it was often not possible to copy all your data across to the new machine.

A few manufacturers even created an organiser in a watch. They held telephone numbers and could hold basic schedules.


Personal Information Managers (PIM)

The Personal Information Manager, or PIM, is the direct ancestor of the modern PDA. It set out all the ground rules that modern PDAs still follow. These included:

  • PC link
  • Standard functions, including calendar, address book, etc
  • User-friendliness
  • Stylus input (on some models)
  • Upgradable with new software by PC link

These features made the PIM a formidable tool of its day. Most had the ability to link to a PC to back-up files, synchronise with email and set up alarms from the calendar. Some could communicate with each other, usually using cables or infrared (IR). Again these suffered from compatibility issues with other manufacturers.

The PC link also allowed the user to install new software and download files. They could read large numbers of emails on the move and write responses to them, play games and the PIM introduced the idea of the portable e-book to the general public. The user could install software and download entire books to the PIM and read them on the go. This was an entirely novel concept.

The leading PIM manufacturers tended to be the same companies that were famous for their electronic organisers, companies like Sharp and Casio. One of the more famous PIM manufactures was Psion. Their first organiser looked like a mutant scientific calculator and was the same size and weight as a standard brick4. It has an ABC keyboard, rather than a QWERTY and only a two-line display. Still, despite its apparent cumbersome appearance and limited abilities in comparison to modern machines, it was very powerful and very useful. At one time Marks and Spencer in the UK used them for stock control in their stores and it was a common sight to see an assistant punching away at one. They were the yuppies' first machine of choice to replace their ageing Filofaxes.

The Modern Outlook


The leader until 2002 was the PDA. Most people will be familiar with their overall design. Most are closely based on the highly successful Palm Pilot model, using a stylus input on a touch sensitive screen and scratch pad5. Arguably the very first PDA like this was a device called the Apple Newton6. It featured a touch-sensitive screen and a stylus to enable the user to write on it. It also came equipped with innovative handwriting recognition software that, once trained to the user's handwriting, could accept an entire word at a time and convert it into text on the screen. This is something that even modern PDAs cannot do. Unfortunately, as with many PDA designs, it was ahead of its time. The recognition software was about 85% accurate. This sounds good, but in effect means that it misinterprets 15% of the letters entered into it. This is most famously satirised in an episode of The Simpsons, where the text 'Beat Up Martin' becomes 'Eat Up Martha'.

Other designs have gone after the Psion style, a fold-out design that resembles a small laptop computer - however, this design has fallen out of fashion due to the overall size of the device and the keyboard input makes it hard to use on the move without a surface to work on. Successful models (all called 'Series') include the Psion 3C, Sienna, 5, 5MX7, Revo (a cut down, smaller series 5MX) and the Psion 7, the only one of its brothers to bear a full colour screen. Psion stopped making PDAs in the late 1990s. Most could install new software and some had expansion slots for extra memory or devices, like modems.

The third common design is a clam-shell - this is currently rare, but used by some of Sony's Clie PDAs, where the device folds out with a screen and camera on the upper section and a full QWERTY keyboard and scratch pad on the lower.

Most modern PDAs have the following features as a minimum:

  • Colour screen
  • User-friendly and intuitive interface (easy to learn)
  • Stylus input (on most models)
  • Standard software: calendar, address book, etc
  • Sound
  • Large memory (typically no less than 16MB8)
  • Wireless link (IR, Bluetooth, WiFi9)
  • PC link
  • Vast range of software that can be installed via the PC link
  • Upgrade port (for extra memory10, attaching other devices or backup)
  • Some support for connecting to a mobile phone for Internet connection

Network-enabled PDAs

There have been many PDAs which have been network-enabled (in other words they are a PDA but have mobile phones built into them). This was first done successfully with the Nokia 9110, a large mobile phone that opened out into a keyboard and screen device. It was unpopular due to the size and weight.

The next real contender was the XDA, available in the UK only on the O2 mobile network. It looked identical to the Palm style, except for the aerial jutting out on top. Other similar designs included the Blackberry.

All had the disadvantage that they did not function well as mobile phones or as easily.


Smartphones are devices that are very similar to network-enabled PDAs, but are designed to function as a phone first, with added subordinate PDA functionality. Examples include the Sony Ericsson P800 and P900, the Nokia 6600, Motorola MPx200, Siemens SX1 and many of the new 3G phones, such as the Motorola A835 or the NEC e808.

Market Leaders

As of 9 January 2004, smartphones are outselling PDAs for the first time.

Operating Systems

The main operating systems used by PDAs are:

Palm OS was developed for the Palm Pilots and is very user friendly. It comes with conversion software to enable the user to read Word, Excel and Powerpoint files.

Symbian was originally part owned by Psion and wrote the successful EPOC software that will be familiar to any Psion owner. It acts in a similar way to Windows, allowing the user to create directories, move and copy files and view properties. It is fully compatible with Microsoft Windows, and can convert most Office documents. Sony Ericsson devices still use it.

Windows CE is seen as the new entry and, although it has been around for some time, it is only now seeing real market penetration. It is used in many Palm-like PDAs, including Toshiba and Hewlett-Packard. It is also being seen in many new phones.

It is worth pointing out that many PIMs had their own operating system also. The Sharp series used a system called 'Synergy' and Casio used 'PVOS' for their highly successful Pocket Viewer series.


With these new devices has come a new wave of compatibility between them. Most now share a common communication method, Bluetooth; a wireless communication system using radio signals. Data can be sent from one PDA to another via Bluetooth even if they are from different manufacturers. This has led to a new phenomenon called blue-jacking, where a person sends an empty phonebook entry with a message in the title, so that anyone nearby with their Bluetooth on gets a message.


Of course some devices are hard to categorise. It can be argued either way whether the Psion 3C is a highly sophisticated PIM, or a rather dim PDA.

Likewise, it is difficult to tell if the Psion 5MX is a sophisticated PDA or a mid-range solid-state palmtop computer, a device that attempts to recreate all the functions and abilities of a laptop or desktop computer in a device small enough to fit in a pocket11.

A good example of how difficult it can be to define what is a PIM and what is an electronic organiser can be seen in the Sharp range of devices. These were very popular in their day. The Sharp ZR-5700E is almost undoubtedly a PIM, its functions are greater and it has more flexibility, where as the Sharp ZQ-5650M is a powerful electronic organiser. This is according to Sharp's own definition, but the line is a very fine one, and some PIMs have been unfairly mislabelled as organisers and vice versa.

The Future

As PDAs become more a part of everyday life for business and personal use, they still suffer from the same problem that they always have. Input of text into a PDA, particularly a touch screen model, remains very slow. Most people can type and write faster than they can jot into a PDA.

Future products currently in development include a speech-to-text interface. You say it, it types it. This is already available on desktop computers, but at present requires time to train the program. It also needs a boom microphone attached to headphones, so that the microphone stays a constant distance from the user's mouth, and it is very susceptable to background noise. As the PDA would be used outside and in noisy offices, it would need to overcome this problem. One suggested solution even included a camera so that the device could lip-read.

However you feel about PDAs, you are likely to see a lot more of them in the future. With their wireless connectivity, they will start to integrate themselves more and more into everyday lives. People have already started using them for dating; the PDA transmits what kind of person it is owned by and what type of person they are looking for. When it finds a match in the room, it alerts its user.

Like them or loathe them, they appear to be here to stay.

More Information

1You've probably seen a Rolodex. It's that rotating card index device that sits on a desk. You can remove and add cards as you wish. The cards are slightly bigger than a business card.2Although there was another popular one later called Time Manager and others that were more a general organiser, such was the success of the Filofax that the brand name has evolved into a generic term for similar organisers.3There is an obligatory, but reportedly true story of a soldier in 1943 whose life was saved by a Filofax which deflected a bullet.4It is classed as a PIM by most because it had a PC link ability, but lacked the usability of a PDA.5An area off the screen to write numbers in - ie, to prevent scratching the screen.6The Apple iPod bears a remarkable resemblance to the Newton.7Internet enabled8Megabyte. 16 MB is more than enough room to store every appointment you will have during your entire life9A wireless networking system10Some devices use standard memory cards for compatibility with other devices11The most touted version being a device from Toshiba that was literally a miniature laptop that could fit in an inner jacket pocket.

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