personal digital assistant (PDA)

What is a personal digital assistant (PDA)?

A personal digital assistant (PDA) is a small, mobile, handheld device that provides computing and information storage and retrieval capabilities for personal or business use, often for keeping schedules, calendars and address book information handy.

Popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, PDAs were the precursors to smartphones. Most PDAs had a small physical keyboard, and some had an electronically sensitive pad which could process handwriting. Original uses for a personal digital assistant included schedule and address book storage and note-entering. However, many types of applications were written for PDAs.

Types of PDA devices

Apple's Newton was the first widely sold PDA that accepted handwriting. Other popular PDA devices included Hewlett-Packard's Palmtop and Palm's PalmPilot. Some PDAs offered a variation of the Microsoft Windows operating system called Windows CE. Other products had their own or another operating system.

Product photography of the Palm T|X and HP iPAQ hw6915.
Personal assistants Palm T|X, released in September 2005, and the HP iPAQ hw6915, released in February 2006.

History of PDAs

Apple CEO John Sculley coined the term PDA in 1992, but devices fitting that description had existed for nearly a decade prior. In the mid-1990s, the manufacturers of PDAs, pagers and cellular telephones began to combine the functionality of those devices into a new device type now known as the smartphone.

PDA and pager manufacturer Research in Motion Limited released its first Blackberry smartphone in 2000, and the company dominated the market for most of the ensuing decade. However, in 2007, Apple released the first iPhone, a touchscreen smartphone. Within five years, the market had shifted away from devices with physical keyboards.

Future of PDAs

In the 2010s, the technology industry recycled the term "personal digital assistant." Now, it's more common for the term to refer to software that recognizes a user's voice and uses artificial intelligence to respond to queries. Examples of this type of personal digital assistant include Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Amazon's Alexa.

This was last updated in May 2024

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