In the beginning, the problem with the pocket-sized personal digital assistant was deciding what it should do, given what the technology of the time could manage. The standard dilemma with software-based devices ironically arises from the very fact that they can do so much that is potentially of value to a consumer. The problem is that organizing them to do so, especially in a small setting like a PDA, can result in impenetrably complex interfaces which sometimes even render the device essentially unusable.
The matter was exacerbated in the early days by the fact that the technology was right at its limits for these uses. When engineers pushed the available capabilities of the software into a PDA, it often quickly sped up to its operational saturation point. So, you then wound up with a device that was both difficult to use to its fullest and, when you figured out how to maneuver through the interface, rewarded you by freezing up.
My early experiments with this issue bore these lessons in mind. The first was a terrific little Sharp Wizard. It was about the size of an open hand, and maybe a little on the heavy side, although it could be carried in a pocket. It had a full, fairly wide, keyboard and a decent screen. It did all the standard daily planner things, plus others such as documents of various types and a clever and useful cross linking system. It came with a computer version of its programs so you could have your calendar, contacts, and the like synced to both devices. I used it for quite a while, and was very happy with it.
But before long it started to run out of memory, and I had to jury-rig together a convoluted procedure to transfer older material to the computer in order to enable the PDA to keep working. Eventually I succumbed to the sophisticated simplicity promised by the early Palm Pilot.
This did just the basics, but it did them elegantly and thoughtfully. It had some bells and whistles, yes – but they, like the handwriting recognition system, served to enhance rather than dilute the core purpose of the device. It was small, robust, and exceptionally useful. I used mine for years, long past the point where it became hard to find a replacement.
As a result, when I finally did have to replace it, I had to go elsewhere, and I went to the Dell Axim. Things had progressed quite a bit by then, and this device could connect by WiFi to download email and even surf the web. It also synced easily to whatever computer-based planner I was using – Lotus Organizer or Outlook. Also, it was a touch-screen (using a special pen), and so had a bigger viewing area.
Over time I bought an upgraded successor to my original Axim, and after that moved to the HP iPaq. That didn’t do anything new to speak of, it just did it amazingly well. I could even connect to it with a Bluetooth earpiece and use Skype over WiFi.
Since moving to the Dell, a new element had entered the equation: I was able to put music on increasingly capable and smaller cards that fit into the PDA, and listen to it on the go. Also, I could read books using MS Reader and other software on these devices. So, I was able to get rid of the MP3 player and enjoy music while getting a surprising amount of reading or work done, all on one device. And when I wasn’t doing that, the HP iPaq had an outstanding GPS turn-by-turn navigation device built in for use with the car or even just walking around.
Integration had begun. But although smart phones had started coming on the scene, I couldn’t imagine any of them being powerful enough to replace my HP IPaq. So, I was going to be carrying around both a phone and a PDA for a while.
But not as long as I thought. We’ll look briefly at the smart phone revolution next. Then, we’ll start getting in to the real purpose of this site, which is to examine how technologies like these – in our shirt pockets or on our desktops – enable us to reach so much more of our lives and our culture.
Enjoy your holidays. See you soon!
What I was listening to while writing this post: Oscar Peterson’s “Night Train” – one of the best stages you’ll find for the display of this virtuoso’s incomparable combination of style, spirit, and effortless piano mastery.