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The Development of Handheld Computing in the UK: New Technology, Uncertain Uses

Principal Researcher

Professor Jonathan Allen
Krannert Graduate School of Management
Purdue University
1310 Krannert Building
West Lafayette IN47907
+1 765 494 2188

Research Period
1 October 1997 to
31 July 1999

Aims and Objectives
Project Design


Why do some technological designs become widespread, and others languish? Who is able to create the dominant design for new, emerging technologies, and how do they do it? Recent research suggests that events at certain critical times - often in the earliest stages - have a disproportionate influence on the future evolution of a technology. Questions are being raised about how diverse and changing groups of producers, investors, analysts and consumers shape the development of new technology markets at key points in time.

This study takes an in-depth look at one of these critical times for an emerging information technology: handheld computing. UK-based companies have been relatively successful in the earliest stages of this industry. Given past concerns about converting innovative IT research into dominant products, it is important for UK-based companies, investors, and government agencies to understand the dynamics of technological dominance during these critical, and uncertain, time periods.

Aims and Objectives

The main objective of the project is to create a series of case studies. These case studies describe how networks of producers, investors, and consumers understand highly uncertain emerging technologies, and build those understandings into information technology products.

The case studies focus on two important processes identified in previous research: how new product concepts are defined over time by the groups involved, and how networks of producers, investors, and consumers are brought together to create fundamentally new technologies.

The case studies compare how companies in the UK and USA understand highly uncertain social contexts of technology use, and build their understandings into technologies. The case studies are used to refine concepts such as "problem framing" and "network building" for explaining the evolution of new personal computing technologies.

Project Design

The project comprises four studies of handheld computer development. Two of these cases involve UK-based producer companies, and two involve US-based companies.

The case studies use data from interviews, company documents, trade press articles, and product information/press releases. In addition, the project has created databases of handheld trade press articles and product information on all handheld products released between 1990 and 1996.

Each case study includes 12-15 interviews. Interviews begin with the managers responsible for product definition in the main producer company, and follow up with other influential parties as their identity emerges in the interviews.

The main purpose of the project is to generate new theory, and to create rich and convincing examples of emerging technology development. Beginning with a broad review of social science research on technological change, the study uses a constant comparison method and theoretical sampling to create new theory.


On the practical side, the handheld computer industry offers an example of an emerging, highly uncertain technology industry where UK-based firms have been relatively successful. By learning from this example, it may be possible to build a much stronger consensus about the roles that organisational practices and institutions play in building a new wealth-creating, high technology industry. On the theoretical side, the handheld computer industry in the 1990's is an excellent occasion for enriching our understanding of the social shaping of technology in an extremely complex and uncertain new industry.



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