Requiem for a Machine

The season’s hot gadget proves that PDAs are obsolete.

Everything but the kitchen sink

If you’re still looking for the hot geek gift for Christmas, Handspring’s Treo 600 is the season’s uncontested fad gadget. It’s not cheap: You’ll probably pay $500 or $600 for one. Even Amazon’s price of $249 (after rebates) may be more than you want to spring. But if you don’t give that someone special a Treo, don’t make the mistake of embarrassing them with a PDA instead. Because the great thing about the Treo 600 is that it’s made the PDA obsolete. For the first time, Handspring has proved it’s possible to pack a computer into a phone without screwing up both.

That’s the secret of the Treo 600: It’s not a PDA, or even a combination PDA/cell phone. It’s a phone, pure and simple. (Service is available from at least four companies: AT&T, Cingular, Sprint, and soon T-Mobile.) To be clear, this is a phone that contains everything you used to buy a PDA for: Palm operating system, a QWERTY keyboard, a bright color screen, digital camera, Web browser, video and MP3 players, instant messaging, desktop-sync software, and more. But the important thing is that it has the form of a phone, not just the function. If you saw one lying on a desk, you’d immediately know what it was. Could you say that the first time you saw a PalmPilot?

The Treo marks the end of the era of oversized PDAs and hybrid hand-helds that just happen to make calls, presuming you were willing to hold them awkwardly to your head or to walk around wearing a headset. The signs have been obvious, for those willing to see them: Walk through midtown Manhattan, and you see phone stores on every block, not PDA stores. Handspring has acceded to popular demand, and it’s now the first PDA company to reinvent itself as a phone-maker.

With the Treo, Handspring chucked the traditional stylus interface for Palms. Instead, the Treo is designed to be operated phone-style with one hand while working, walking, or (please don’t do this) driving. A rocker switch placed under your thumb lets you jog through menus, joystick-style, rather than tapping them with a stylus. There’s a short stylus hiding in the phone’s backside, but it’s mostly for working with downloaded third-party applications that haven’t been upgraded to use the thumb switch yet.

The gadget’s signature feature is a QWERTY keyboard so tiny it looks like a toy, until you use it. Like a cell-phone number pad, it’s meant to be thumbed with one hand rather than tapped or typed using both. My own thumb covers a third of the keys at once, yet I can feel each individual key and click each one separately without goofing. A tiny bump on the “5” key serves as home base for the phone dial-pad overlaid on the middle of the QWERTY pattern, and the phone applications are smart enough to know when you’re keying in numbers instead of letters. With a few minutes’ practice, I learned to pick up the phone, center my thumb on the bump, and make calls one-handed without looking down, just as I do on my Motorola.

In contrast to the tiny keys, the screen is big and extra-bright. It doesn’t have as many pixels as, say, a Sony UX50, so you can’t fit a whole page of Slate across it. Handspring Chief Product Officer Jeff Hawkins claims focus groups opted for the brighter screen rather than more pixels. Apparently most Treo users want to check calendars and contact lists in broad daylight rather than read Web pages. They also complained about co-workers who bombard them with text messages, and the grumbling led to a revamped interface that includes instant-messenger-style windows for each person. That makes it easy to carry on a text conversation without constantly thumbing through menus.

Even before it hit the streets, the Treo’s buzz verged on the ridiculous. The Wall Street Journal’sWalt Mossberg, who got the traditional first test drive, pronounced it better than any of the PocketPC or Blackberry PDAs he’d tested. Three months later, every gadget geek I run into seems to have one. Occasional Slate contributor Kevin Werbach blogs about his. Gizmodo editor Peter Rojas carries one. By the time a Wired editor enthusiastically punctuated his point during a debate by whipping one of the things out of his pocket, I’d seen it coming.

Carry the Treo long enough, and you can see how it could be slimmer and lighter, with even longer battery life. But it’s only the first of a new generation of phones that will double as pocket computers. In another year, there’ll be no need to choose between a bright screen or a high-res one. And while the Palm operating system has a solid fan club, a Windows-powered version would surely draw lots more customers. (There are a few Windows smartphones available, but they can’t match the Treo’s screen, keyboard, and computing power. Disclosure: Microsoft owns Slate.)

In a couple of years, the Treo 600 will seem big and clunky compared to its successors. But right now, it has the same effect on people as if I’d managed to fit the monolith from 2001 into my pocket. “Put it away, already,” a software exec groaned as we passed one around a restaurant table last week. “You’re embarrassing me and my stupid blue Blackberry.” Hooray for Handspring: They’ve made the first smartphone that isn’t dumb.