What is a handheld device?

Posted: 08.09.04

What is it? Well, obviously it's something you can hold in your hand. So under that broad definition we might have to include the nozzle of a gas pump as a handheld device. OK, then maybe we should add the word portable to it; what is a portable handheld device? A can opener is a portable handheld device. OK, add another word, electronic (as distinctly differentiated from "electrical"). That would include everything from an FM radio to a garage door opener. OK, add "with a display." Now we can include everything from a watch, a remote crane controller, to a spectrum analyzer. How about adding, "with a keyboard?" That narrows us down to Gameboys, phones, PDAs, Harmony TV remote controllers, laptops, and data collection terminals.

Is THIS a handheld device?

OK, this obviously is getting us to the definition of what we commonly think of when we casually use the term handheld—is it? But if you happened to meet someone who wasn't from Tokyo, Palo Alto, Taipei, or Seoul (I know, why would you want to?), how would you describe that portable battery-powered device thingie with the medium-resolution color display that has an alpha-numeric keyboard that's in your purse that you can use to make phone calls, play games, and keep track of your calendar? As you can probably guess by now, assuming you've bothered to read this far, I'm having a problem with this. We've been working on the "Handheld Multimedia Devices" report and I was asked by someone in the medical industry, "What's a handheld device—a PDA?" Well, yes, it is, but not just a PDA, I started to say, it's also a mobile phone. "Then why don't you call it a phone?," she asked. Because, I tried to explain, a motorcycle and a truck are both rubber-tire-equipped ground-based, self-propelled vehicles but you wouldn't call a truck a motorcycle. She walked away rolling her eyes (I get that a lot).

I tried coming up with an acronym like PDA; that can get pretty amusing. A battery-powered digital display keyboard or pen input device with microphone and speaker device: BPDDKPID—yep, that's a name that'll work—instant recognition. Just don't try saying it after visiting the dentist.

I also floated the notion of "PC" (personal companion), or personal digital companion—PDC. I kinda like that one. Anyone seen my PDC? Hey, can I barrow your PDC? But for an acronym to catch on it generally has to end in a vowel, like PVR or DVD or, wait, those aren't vowels.

Without trying too hard I found eight commonly used names for our PDCs (PDA, PIM, Pocket PC, multimedia phones, smartphones, featured phones, converged phones, FOMA), plus a dozen commonly used brand names like BlackBerry, Tungsten, and brands themselves like Nokia.

I say it's time to end this confusion, time to put aside selfish marketing efforts, time to unify our language. We need an acronym. So, brothers and sisters, put on the sneakers, drink the Kool-Aid, and repeat after me: PDC, PDC, PDC.