But despite the hype, many users can't tell a BlackBerry from an iPaq, and even if they could, it's far from sure whether they'd want to buy one.
When trying to distinguish between the devices, there are a few main differences to look for, including whether it can connect to a corporate network or make mobile calls. Devices also run on different operating systems including Palm OS and Pocket PC, which includes scaled-down versions of popular packages like Microsoft Word. Customers will find a bewildering array of software applications, and there are many other factors to consider, such as the ability to add more memory, the overall cost, colour screens, style, battery life and more.
Confused? Plenty of users are in the same boat. "With the growing number of devices out there, many people don't know what they want," explained Andy Brown, Research Manager for Mobile Computing at research company IDC. "They don't necessarily understand things like Bluetooth or GPRS."
Palm's dominance in the industry in past years made the decision easier for users because the functions of most devices were generally the same. These included calendar and contacts, and even e-mail. "But now the operators are targeting users that may not have much experience with PDAs, and the decision is much harder for them to make," said Brown. Even those who have been using Palm or the popular Psion for years may be tempted to switch to Pocket PC-based models, he said, because of the added power and users' familiarity with Microsoft programs.
Operators, on the other hand, know exactly what they want users to buy. O2 is pushing two devices, the XDA and the BlackBerry, and a third device, a Handspring, is coming later this year. At EUR629, the XDA is both a handheld computer and a mobile phone. The company says the device is aimed at "high-end" consumers and at businesses considering buying handsets for workers. "If you are looking for one device that does everything, the XDA is probably it," said Gavan Drohan, O2 Ireland's product manager.
This sleek looking device comes with all of the bits and bobs, including a variety of Microsoft Office applications, an MP3 music player, an Internet browser and a connection to O2's high-speed GPRS network. It offers little in the way of games, but the company says these can be downloaded. What's more, users can access e-mail over an XDA, but probably not corporate e-mail.
That's where BlackBerry comes in. Canadian company Research-in-Motion has started selling its BlackBerry device in Europe through O2. The BlackBerry lets users collect corporate e-mail and receive text messages as well as calendar updates, on the move. Software that sits on corporate servers is required to access e-mail. Though powerful and surely useful, the Blackberry is not a full-blown handheld computer, concentrating instead on messaging and calendar functions.
In the US the BlackBerry was dubbed the "CrackBerry" because of its runaway popularity, but will Europe be as enthusiastic? "European businesses have exactly the same problems US business have," said RIM's Director of Marketing Communications Richard Wisdom. "E-mails are time sensitive, and it's not efficient for employees to check in with the office. All of those criteria lead us to believe that BlackBerry should be just as popular here."
Mobile phone makers also see their target market fairly clearly. Nokia, with its voice-enabled 9210 Communicator, is clearly going after a younger market with the inclusion of football, snowboarding and golf in its games repertoire. The device also boasts PowerPoint, a word processor, a spreadsheet and other business standards.
But will these devices help a business run better? The device makers say yes, yet market research paints a different picture. IDC says that Western European handheld device shipments fell by 21 percent, to 449,740, in the second half of this year. Amazingly the drop comes even as manufacturers are constantly introducing new units, many of which come with goodies like colour screens and multimedia messaging.
In part it's the suffering economy that is preventing companies from spending. But also, businesses seem doubtful of the handsets' ability to easily integrate into existing technology. And even if a worker's iPaq, Palm or Jornada can connect to corporate network, CEOs still ask how long this will take and how much it will cost.
Industry watchers think the growing power of PDAs will eventually make them irresistible to buyers, and perhaps that's true. But in the meantime the industry must do a better job of clearly positioning devices in the minds of consumers; surely a student and a CEO should not be using the same device. And many experts agree that a PDA can improve a person's life and work; the question the user needs to ask is, "Will it improve mine?"