Tangled in the Threads

Jon Udell, November 10, 1999

PDA Users: What They Like, and Why

BYTE newsgroup participants are avid PDA users. Here's what they say about their gadgets.

So far, I'm still a spectator on the sidelines of the PDA game. For me, the compromises involved in shrinking a computing device down to the size of a Palm Pilot are unacceptable. I suppose that's because I'm constantly writing. Most of my working live involves writing email messages, newsgroup messages, articles like this one, and code. Whatever else PDAs are, they're not very useful for the kind of data entry I do for a living. Especially when you consider the keyboard that I use. Here it is:

The Floating Arms keyboard
Beam me up, Scotty!

My friends call this "Jon's Captain Kirk chair." Why do I use it? Like a lot of people who've been typing too much for many years, my wrists are chronically sore. This setup enables me, quite simply, to work. I can no longer use a regular flat (or even "natural") keyboard for very long, and can do only very limited typing on a notebook PC.

So for me, the notion of downsizing to something even smaller than a notebook PC -- again, given that I'm almost always typing, and that voice or gestural input is not an option for what I mainly do -- just isn't appealing. My PDA is a yellow legal pad, and I'm more likely to want to use a Crosspad than a Palm Pilot or Psion. Actually, I'd be interested to hear about the pros and cons of the Crosspad from those who've tried it.

What about address lookups and such? It's just not a big problem. I'm not much of a road warrior, and when I do travel it's no big deal to print out and carry the little info that I can't get through the Web.

But just because I'm a PDA foot-dragger doesn't mean I think other people should be. I'm always fascinated to learn which PDAs people use, how, and why. The subject came up again recently in the newsgroups, when Mamading Ceesay asked:

I've just ordered a Psion Series 5mx to replace my aging Newton MessagePad 120. I'm curious to know what if any PDA/Palmtop/Handhelds are being used by the people that hang out here. What do you use them for? What would you like to use them for?

Here are some of the things people said.

Fred Paquier:

In my case: a Psion Series 5 (classic), since 1997. I am indebted to the old BYTE publication for this, as I discovered it in a PDA roundup in one of the very last paper issues.

Uses (decreasing timeshare):

  • Sync with Schedule+ group agenda on the LAN at work. This was the primary motivation and is still the daily miracle. Haven't used a paper agenda in two years.
  • Centralised address/phone book. Has become more vital than first anticipated -- no more out-of-date/redundant/incomplete notebooks.
  • Note-taking, or starting Word documents on the go, to be finished on the PC.
  • Games (of course :-)
  • Programming (amateur, hobby style, never enough time for it). Mostly in OPL32 (the built-in, VB-like language), but there is also a port of Python and (for the 5mx) Java.

Alan Shutko:

I'm currently using a Palm III, upgraded from a PalmPilot Pro (gotta love Circuit City extended warranties). I use it for the standard PDA thingies (notepad, addressbook, calendar), and also for a shopping list, keeping track of random info that'll fit in a flatfile DB like my videotape list, reading old books or any other docs I might want to read while standing in line, and (of course) games. I _don't_ do email on it (I'm attached to a real computer enough hours of the day for that) or use it for net access unless I'm on the road somewhere and don't have my laptop. Basically, that means I used it before I had my laptop, and I'd use it again if I really needed to pack light.

Soh Kam Yung:

I have a Palm V. I mainly use it to

  • Do offline reading of (news) web sites via AvantGo.
  • Play games. http://www.ux1.eiu.edu/~cfkdw/pictlogi.html is my favourite game.
  • Read books via doc reader.
  • Set appointments/reminders.
  • Do engineering calculations (mainly conversions between hex/decimal).
  • Operate my fan/TV/dvd player remotely via the Infra-red port using Omniremote.

Vincent Yin:

I picked up a Palm Pilot Professional when that came out. I considered moving to the Palm III but didn't because I picked up a Psion Series 5 instead.

I loved my Pilot and still do. I am more and more convinced that this is the form factor and combination of features that is the most useful. I found it excellent as an organizer -- i.e. the core address book and calendar functions -- as well as for e-text reading and for games.

I picked up the Psion because I often write notes on the bus and on the train whereas I was having a great deal of difficulty with my Pilot.

The machines are still immature and PDA's haven't really converged yet. Basically I love my Pilot and it works great as a PDA, for games and for reading e-text. I don't find it very good for entering text or carrying larger documents (hopefully this changes with the Handspring). The Psion 5 is my portable library, but I don't really use it as a PDA. I certainly don't have the same depth of feeling for it as I had (and still have) for my Pilots.

Joakim Westin:

I've been using handheld devices for many years and the one that I have truly come to love is the Palm Pilot. The form factor and functionality seems just perfect and the PalmOS is getting better all the time (I even run Java on it now!!!)

I use my Palm for:

  • Personal information management (synchronised with IMAP server and calendar).
  • Time reporting and project tracking.
  • Browsing of the Web (using AvantGo).
  • Spreadsheets -- excellent for quick, small calculations.
  • Managing my cell phone's phonebook and SMS messages (using the IR port).
  • Plus all the other stuff such as games, programming, etc.

I recently attended the PalmSource conference in San Jose, Ca and there were 2100+ developers there from 30 countries. According to Palm there have between 500 and 600 new applications each week on their website to join their development program. If even a fraction of these developers deliver solutions the number of applications for the Palm will explode in the coming year.

Another interesting development is HandSpring. The man behind the original PalmPilot design (Jeff Hawkins) left 3Com and formed HandSpring. What makes their device uniqe is that it has an expansion slot. The slot is called SpringBoard and already people have developed all sorts of interesting expansion options. The one I want the most is the MP3 player! But a GPS receiver isn't too bad either.

From PDAs to eBooks

One of the things that fascinates me most is the notion of PDAs as reading devices. Since when I'm not typing I am usually reading text on a high-resolution computer monitor, I find myself no more inclined to want to read on a Lilliputian device than to write on one. When I have time for recreational reading, there's no contest: I'll take a printed book over an e-book.

In the realm of reading, it looks like the Rocket eBook is going to be a hot toy this Christmas. Interestingly, you don't need to buy it to try it. There's a Rocket eBook simulator that'll show you how it works. It comes with some canned encrypted titles, including the user guide. And you can download unencrypted free titles from the Rocket Library site.

Is the Rocket eBook a must-have for the BYTE newsgroup gadgeteers? Apparently not.

Alan Shutko:

I spend 8 hours a day on a computer programming. I go home, and I spend another 2-4 hours programming. I'm looking at a screen constantly. I have a Palm III, and between it and the PC I've read a number of full-length books & short stories electronically, including the Hugo & Nebula nominee CD that Clarinet put out a few years ago, and Children of the Mind which Orson Scott Card put on AOL before it hit the street in paperback), plus a bunch of stuff from Project Gutenberg. I should be an ideal customer for Rocket, no?

Nope. As I see it, there aren't many people right now who'd be interested in reading books on a small, relatively low-contrast screen. I'm one of them. But most of us who would use such a device don't care about the device, per se, but would rather read books electronically on all those other devices we already have. I already carry around two devices at all times which are capable of reading said books... I don't need another.

Peter Hess

I can't imagine doing any serious reading with an e-book. The resolution and contrast are bad compared to a printed page (even a badly printed page) and the typesetting of the text is ugly. It's just HTML rendered to a really tiny window with no justification. What's the point of justification when you can only fit three words on a line? The typesetting problem is especially bothersome to me. When it's done well, you simply don't notice it. Badly done, however, it pokes you in the eye as you read.

Well, it's a relief to know I'm not the only one who isn't going to put a Rocket eBook under the Christmas tree!

Jon Udell (http://udell.roninhouse.com/) was BYTE Magazine's executive editor for new media, the architect of the original www.byte.com, and author of BYTE's Web Project column. He's now an independent Web/Internet consultant, and is the author of Practical Internet Groupware, from from O'Reilly and Associates.

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