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The World in the Palm of your Hand?

By John Kasp

As infants we relied on our parents for our daily schedule, oblivious to personal time management or commitments. Not long after picking up the ability to walk, talk, read and write, things start getting complicated and sooner or later we end up with a little black book. Birthdays lead to parties, that lead to lunches and a life of endless meetings, commitments that we end up detesting for their railroading of our time and space to think.

Most of us have used a familiar format, a diary and another book for contacts. Scraps of paper serve as an evaluation zone for those awaiting transfer to a more permanent status, or as memos to ourselves, forgotten until they rise to the surface again. This means living in the boundaries of a book with the constant worry that you will run out of pages, something that makes an uneasy situation for the popular among us.

The Filofax, which became one of the eighties’ must-have accessories, removed this constraint. The personal organiser was born. Here was an adaptable and flexible system that allowed corrections to be made, and coped with an ever expanding circle of friends and colleagues. We could also dispense with those scraps of paper, with free space for free association. Flashes of great thought could now be recorded instantly and never forgotten. It also gave us storage for invaluable information such as train times, city guides, technical manuals and other life essentials.

Like the mobile phones of the era, they were bulky items. Desktop organisers stayed on the desk, too heavy to lug around but useful to those without a secretary to run their lives. The personal version could get rather bloated too. This size and bulk meant that they could usefully double up as a weapon, with which to deal blows to annoying colleagues or when on the mean streets trying to get home. Try and defend yourself with your wafer thin orgainser now and you might break a nail, not lay someone out cold.

But a cut or a graze was nothing when compared to the heart-sinking blow of personal loss. Lose your Filofax and you may as well have lost your mind and given the world your secrets. Putting all one’s eggs in one basket is universally agreed to be a bad idea, but we’ve all suffered this misfortune. Unless you had the luxury of a minion commissioned to replicate all your data or had the inclination and time to fulfil this duty yourself, losing your leatherbound friend could bring tears to the eyes.

But thankfully technology came to our salvation. The electronic organiser rolled out into the marketplace and we could move on from pen and paper. Darwin’s theories of evolution came into play and only the fittest of the pioneers have survived. The main bugbear in development proved to be date entry. Some machines relied on some form of keyboard input which compromised their size. Others worked around this by developing text recognition software. The most successful PDA (personal digital assistant) so far was developed by networking hardware manufacturer US Robotics – with its Palm Pilot series.

The Palm Pilot created an industry standard. US Robotics optimised the PDA’s format and created a very pure design, using their own operating system – Palm OS – which is simple, fast and lean. They were able to reduce memory demands and keep their machines compact. The Graffiti text entry language removes the requirement for a keyboard (although a virtual one can be called up on screen). It is operated via a stylus applied across a touch sensitive screen which again reduces its size.

However its most useful and lifesaving feature is its ability to back up and synchronise data with a PC or Mac via a hot sync cradle. Data can be entered on your desktop machine and downloaded at the touch of a button. Lose your Palm and keep your mind. Replace the handheld and download all your data to your new personal friend. Here lies the key advantage of electronic over paper organisation, peace of mind and flexibility.

Beyond the calendar and contact management features, the current batch of PDA’s have evolved into integrated business companions. The adaptable Palm OS has seen many third party software developers create (often free) programs to enhance every aspect of our busy lives…interactive city maps and guides, handheld books, global positioning systems, gym workout planners…the list is endless. The current top-end machine from Palm, the m515 offers a lightweight and truly pocket-sized machine with masses of memory and a full colour screen.

Handspring was formed by the original Palm Pilot development team, that has launched its own Visor series of PDA’s. Along with other manufacturers such as Sony and HandEra, Handspring uses the Palm OS under licence. These rivals offer some form of enhancement either through expandability (the Handspring expansion port), screen size (the larger HandEra display) or interface (the Sony Clie is equipped with a jog dial for some of its functions). The Handspring Visor edge is one of the most dramatic and stylised machines -with an alloy body and cover – but unfortunately no colour screen. Sony’s machines are equipped with a MP3 music player – a feature with which others can be accessoried. These variations in features and enhancements are a credit to Palm’s flexible OS and those that support it.

Palm’s reign could be in question, however, with the arrival of Microsoft Pocket PC powered machines from the likes of Compaq and Hewlett-Packard.

Microsoft has attempted to make inroads into Palm’s market dominance in the past with its Windows CE operating system. However, they were attacking from the wrong angle as this OS was based on Windows and was simply too fat to run on small hardware. There has been some improvements with Pocket PC but this OS is still power and memory hungry.

There is great debate over the merits of these platforms. Pocket PC gives users an environment which is very close to Windows, but is this a benefit? It may well ease their initial dialog with the hardware, but at the same time, it is in no way as intuitive as Palm’s OS. Much like Windows, there is too much nannying and second guessing. Using the simpler Palm OS is faster and, once you are comfortable, it’s more rewarding.

There is no clear winner though…it’s a case of horses for courses. A choice that is born by your needs as an end user. There is no doubt the organiser has evolved into a powerful piece of kit, with the promise of a wireless, online utopia just coming into view. But if you’re only looking for an organiser, then the cheaper and simpler Palm-based models will cover all your needs. They can offer masses of enhancements and colour screens further up the price range – they are without doubt the purer machine. The Pocket PC handheld offers simpler integration into the Windows environment (eg, the ability to work on Excel spreadsheets on the move – which Palm can also perform, albeit with less functionality) but they are more expensive, fatter and more bulky.

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