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Chips and Chingarerras, Part 2

By Don Granberry, 5 July 2000

In my last piece I mentioned that Apple should sell us a radically different subnotebook and avoid the PDA market. Critics have mentioned to me that the Newton’s major drawback was that it was too big and too expensive. Now look at what is going on with the PDAs that took the Newton’s place. Look at what most PDAs actually do, and guess what? Nearly all they do is provide the user with a highly portable database. “Huh?” you grunt. Yep, that’s right. Even e-mail is a kind of database. No one generates graphics on a PDA. No one does much of a spreadsheet on a PDA and no one in their right mind is going to attempt to write something like Stranger in a Strange Land on a PDA. Even a two-page memo on a PDA is a pain to write. PDAs are basically digital PostIt™ pads.

Despite this fundamental characteristic of PDAs, we are seeing a great deal of feature creep in that market. Look at all the accessories that are available for them and you’ll see what I mean. You can buy keyboards for them. You can buy clip-on modems for them. You can cable them up to your cellular telephone. If you opted to buy a Visor™ from Handspring, you can buy a bevy of instruments to hook up to your PDA through the Springboard expansion slot. If you don’t mind greatly shortened battery life in your PDA, you can even get them with color screens – nothing like the color you can get on a “real” computer, mind you, but you can get color. Buy a PDA and pretty soon you will also own a camera bag full of accessories for it. This proliferation of add-ons seems to defeat the original purpose of a PDA – namely, a digitally enhanced system of PostIt™ notes. This is nice, but it does not do the things you can do with a subnotebook-type computer. On the other hand, the PDA has four great advantages over the subnotebook. The PDA is more rugged. PDA batteries last longer. A PDA costs less. And most important of all, a PDA does not require a flat work surface for efficient use.

Think I’m kidding about the flat work surface? Try using your laptop standing up without a flat surface for it to rest upon. Those that argue that it is hard to beat a keyboard for fast or prolonged data entry are right, so long as they are in an office environment. The keyboard is not such a great input device when you are wandering around a warehouse taking inventory, or out in the field doing vibration analysis on pumps, or if you are an artist sketching outdoor scenes, or you are an engineer taking notes and making field sketches. The keyboard even has drawbacks if you are trying to take notes during a lecture – someone invariably gripes about the noise. Here is an operational envelope that remains untouched by anyone in the computer business. PDAs are not powerful enough and laptops lack the physical design characteristics that make them useful in this environment. This particular market envelope is quite large, underexploited and largely unnoticed. It’s ripe for the picking by Apple – if they will design for it.

The trick is to somehow get the advantages of a PDA designed into a subnotebook-sized computer. Having said that, it is necessary to face one fact up front: price is not the place where a computer manufacturer can compete with the PDA maker. PDAs are low-cost because they do not do all that much. Their durability comes from being small and weighing little. You can drop your PDA from chest height and chances are pretty good that you will recover your $500 chingarerra intact. Do this to your $2000 subnotebook however, and you will most likely need to replace it with a new computer, even though the materials the two machines are made from differ very little.

There are two key factors at work here, weight and mechanical complexity. Let’s take that last one first. All the fully functional, portable computers I have seen are made up of two fairly massive pieces held together by a hinged joint. The display, a fairly massive component, is in one part, while the battery, hard disk, track pad, et cetera are in the other part. If one of these machines is dropped while open, even from the height of an ordinary desk or table top, they are almost invariably damaged. The hinged joint does not handle shock loads very well when open. Any and all weaknesses in structural design are greatly exacerbated by the machine’s total weight, because the greater its mass, the greater the amount of energy it must dissipate whenever it is dropped.

Weight, or mass, is not the only part of this equation. Speed or velocity is very much a part of our problem as well. No doubt you have seen a movie where someone takes a long, breathtaking fall from a cliff or a rooftop, only to be saved because they were tied to a rope, or even more farcical, they manage to seize a rope or tree limb or flagpole to stop their fall. Physics does not work that way. An adult taking a fall of a mere six feet (1.82 m) develops enough energy to break a one-inch-thick (25 mm), hemp rope. Imagine what would happen to your spinal column if the rope were tied around your waist. (Think about this the next time you feel the urge to ignore your safety belt.)

Computer makers do test their hardware to see how much of a fall it can survive. Many moons ago such tests were done from a height of thirty inches (76 cm). This is about the height of most table and desktops. The problem with this hoary old standard is that our new and longed-for chingarerra is to be used by a person walking around, holding it in one hand while using the other hand to input data. That means the average height from which our dreamed-of chingarerrra is likely to fall is forty-two inches (106 cm). How do I know that? OSHA specifies that all handrails shall be forty-two inches (106 cm) in height, which is just about elbow high for the average male while standing. Ever write on a pad of paper while standing? Try it now while paying attention to how you are holding the pad. Forty-two inches may not be a rigorous enough test, but it should be the bare minimum for this chingarerra. We need it to be AnvilTough™.

The solution, then, is to design our longed-for chingarerra to be light – three pounds (1.5 kg) or less. Three pounds may not sound like much, but try carrying three pounds around in one hand for eight hours straight and you will discover it to be fairly substantial. The other thing we must do is to abandon the time-honored, clamshell form factor, thereby eliminating the fragility of a hinged joint. The display should be in the main body of the computer, and the keyboard should become an attachable accessory, used only when it is needed, and conveniently employed. The display therefore needs to function much like this little trick now being sold by Wacom. I think a keyboard along the lines of this one (many thanks to Japan Apple Watch) would be the ideal choice for our dreamed-of chingarerra with two changes: make it USB instead of ADB, and add a trackpad to it.

By now you may be wondering if such a wonderful chingarerra is possible. The answer is, “Yes!” All the pieces necessary for it are already being sold off the shelf. I could list them all right now, but I am out of space. I’ll take up the specifics next time. Sayonara, amigos!

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