An OS for PDAs?

I am often asked which PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) I recommend. Most people don’t realise that the really import part isn’t the PDA itself, but the Operating System (OS) it runs.

Often I hear people saying “Oh, I think I should pickup a Windows CE based one, for better compatibility”. Or “I’ll get a Linux based one – that is so cool, and will give me much more functionality”.

How wrong can you get?

Neither Windows nor Linux make very good PDA OSs – they simply weren’t designed for that. On the other hand, PalmOS was designed from ground up for PDA usage, and it shows: a vast majority of the handheld market runs PalmOS, the top 10 selling PDAs in the USA all run PalmOS, and I suspect Bill Gates secretly uses PalmOS as well – we *know* that Linus Torvalds uses it ;) .

What is important is how well the PDA works *with* your desktop. And PalmOS shines there – I don’t know any OS (Linux, *BSD, Solaris, AIX, BeOS, MacOS, etc.) under which PalmOS-based PDAs are not supported. Wince based machines, however, can be used *only* with Windows.

As you must have guessed – I have been a PalmOS PDA user for a long time (coming close to 4 years, I think). I use Linux exclusively with my PalmOS based Palm Vx, and even though I *do* use Windows at home occasionally, I don’t even have the Palm software installed on it ;-)

This is not a question of improving Linux (or Wince, for that matter) to work better on PDAs. This is a question of how well the OS was designed for the target to begin with. For example – most PalmOS PDAs work happily given 2 MB of RAM/ROM – but PDAs running Wince or Linux need many many times more than that.

It is also a matter of interface. The first time I saw Wince, I laughed myself silly. Someone in Microsoft seriously thought that usability of a PDA depended on having the same UI as a Windows desktop. No wonder they don’t sell!

The Palm was designed around real-world usage – often one-handed. I often use my Palm Vx with just one hand, including switching it on, selecting the application, scrolling through data, etc.

Compare that to Wince’s way of doing things.

Microsoft *just* hasn’t figured out what makes a handheld tick. Trying to cram a Windows desktop on a PDA is the most insane thing I have ever heard.

While this may sound to you like Windows-bashing, I have nothing good to say (at the moment) about Linux on PDAs either. Linux itself doesn’t have a graphical user interface – that is an add-on to the OS in the form of the X window system. Now X works great in a desktop environment, but for a PDA, things need to be simplified enormously. Having a zillion little doo-dads cluttering your screen is simply going to kill productivity.

The simple rule is – on a PDA, an average application should be usable with the tip of your finger. If you need to reach for the stylus for accurate screen access, you are doing it all wrong.

I was scared that the new PalmOS 5 would head down the “more jazz” gutter. Thankfully, recent releases show that PalmSource may have a few screws loose, but when it comes to the “simplicity and usability before eyecandy”, they apparently realise that you don’t mess with a good thing. ;-)

Bottomline? I may be a productive Linux-user, but I prefer PalmOS on my PDA.

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