Remember that time Kelly Rowland used an Excel spreadsheet to text Nelly in that music video? While this is hilarious in itself, it’s funny to even think that having spreadsheets on something pocket-sized was the height of technology. The ’90s were a strange limbo period for pocket tech, all the ideas where on the table but the means to implement were lacking, to say the least. Despite this, devices from this period have a sort of charm to them, a certain level of innovation that is perhaps underappreciated.

    Personal Digital Assistants are something we take for granted in the modern world, as we are virtually surrounded by them. From our Smartphones to AI devices such as Siri and Alexa, we barely need to think when it comes to incorporating tech into our daily lives. It’s hard to imagine not having what is essentially a super-computer in our pockets, yet the humble beginnings of the PDA where all about compromise, from functionality to portability. Despite this, these primitive devices still managed to fulfil a variety of tasks, inciting hope in those pining for the ultimate pocket assistant.

    So, what could the classic PDA do for its user? Well, as we saw in that memorable ‘Dilemma’ video, Kelly appears to have access to Microsoft Excel, even if she didn’t quite to understand what it’s for. There was a range of Microsoft products that existed as pocket versions, intended for use on devices like the Nokia in the video. While this might be rather mundane, it was a bold step forward into the world of pocket supercomputers.

    Other features that you could expect from your electronic PDA were the likes of calendars, calculators and contact address books, which is of course riveting. What is interesting however is how many devices could actually connect to the internet, providing you used some sort of modem. Many of us didn’t experience full internet capabilities in pocket-sized devices until the dawn of the smartphone, with surfing the web being reserved for laptops and PCs. It’s important to remember, however, that the internet during this time was just as antiquated as the hardware, so the experience would have been massively different from today.

    If experiencing the world of retro PDA devices is up your alley, you might find that there’s an overwhelming choice of hardware available on the second-hand market. A vast range of models makes and form factors are out there when it comes to PDA’s, which makes sense when you consider how vague the acronym actually is. From palmtop devices to traditional handset types, each piece of tech has its own take on how to be functional and portable. The common tropes of a PDA consist of a resistive touch screen, stylus and a keyboard or number pad to keep your thumbs busy.

    Of course, these devices are far from elegant by today’s standards. Battery technology of the time often made things heavy, especially if it was expected to power things like a backlight. I suppose even referring to these devices as pocket-sized is misleading, to say the least, as you’d be hard-pressed to fit it in a conventional pocket, unless you’re Hagrid, of course. When compared to the alternative, however, PDA’s were certainly more portable than the likes of a Thinkpad laptop, which tended to be very heavy and far from slimline.

    You might wonder what relevance these old PDA devices hold in today’s world of technology since they’re virtually obsolete. There’s actually a community of modders and retro enthusiasts that work towards pushing the ever-ageing hardware to its limits, which while doesn’t serve a practical purpose, makes for some nerdy fun. Since PDA’s will commonly run the likes of Linux or Windows CE, tinkering with what the devices can support is completely achievable.

    Tired of playing plain old solitaire on your palmtop? Why not get it to run Doom! Success will depend on your chosen hardware and operating system, but with some patience, you can get your trusty little device to do a lot more than word documents. Websites such pocketdos.com help provide the software and guidance necessary to install the likes of DOS onto your PDA or palmtop computer, which then opens a world of functionality that would usually be deserved for Laptops and PCs of the time.

    Image source:
    RetroGamerVX on YouTube

    So here’s to you, PDA’s of the past, for contributing to a world of handheld computing that has blossomed since its conception. Things might have changed drastically since Nelly and Kelly’s ‘dilemma’, but your place in technological history has been solidified.

    Phil Hayton
    A lover of old video games, dogs and tea. Creator of the video series 'Through The Techades' and something of a history geek.

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