In the late 1990s, a Gartner study found that the TCO of a business PDA (Personal Digital Assistant, the forerunner of today's smartphone) was around $5,000. Today the figure for a phone in the workplace is much harder to pin down, due to greater variability in use cases, blurring of the line between business and personal use, and the difficulty of calculating productivity gains (or losses). The most frequently-quoted statistic I've seen puts the actual hardware purchase cost of a business smartphone at around 10% of its TCO.
Even allowing for inflation, that's a major increase in TCO. Is it worth it? Has productivity really increased in line with expense? Can that PDA of the last century teach us anything about the use of devices in the workplace today?
A typical PDA in 1999 would have been a Palm device, such as a Palm IIIxe. By luck, I have one; hoarding old technology sometimes has its benefits. Compared to an iPhone or Android-based device it feels rather toy-like. It's light, but the moulded plastic construction lacks elegance. Nobody would look at it today and think, "That's beautiful."
Still, beauty is only skin-deep. What are the enterprise pros and cons of a Palm IIIxe compared to, say, an iPhone? That sounds like a ridiculous comparison to make and perhaps it is. But let's see what conclusions can be drawn.
First, let's deal with the iPhone's obvious advantages. It's sleek and elegant, it has a colour touchscreen, a powerful processor, huge amounts of memory and the ability to connect to the entire world's resource of information. By contrast, the Palm runs on a 33MHz Motorola Dragonball CPU and has 8MB of RAM. It has a monochrome touchscreen and the only connectivity is via infra-red to an antique phone, or by using a cradle to connect it to a host PC. So far, so obvious. There's no comparison. The iPhone is just better in every way.
Or is it?
I'm writing this article in a café in Berlin on a Palm IIIxe with folding Palm keyboard, amongst a group of professional writers, programmers and entrepreneurs. I'm surrounded by svelte laptops sporting the glowing Apple symbol, plus a couple of security-hardened Lenovo/IBM Thinkpads. iPhones and Android devices lie casually strewn on the tables next to them.
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