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Wednesday
May042005

The Right Tool For The Job

Zire72s.jpgI've been thinking quit a bit about productivity and the tools I use the past few months. This pondering and evaluating has brought me to the realization that my once critical PDA, a Palm handheld, has become a much less critical part of my life.

As a good chunk of my readers are fellow Palm and mobile device users, I thought it might be interesting to journal my thoughts on this change — to see if others are in the same place or have become even more reliant on their PDA or mobile device.

Once upon a time I was a pretty hard-core Palm enthusiast. I used my Palm all the time, even evangelizing others to try handhelds themselves. I created ran the Palm Tipsheet for several years of my life, helping others make the most of their own Palm handhelds. All of this led to deeper involvement in the wonderful Palm community, which I still enjoy being part of.

I'd still call myself a Palm handheld and PDA fan, though I'm not as hard-core as I once was. Of course I still use my Zire 72, though I've found it occupies a much different space in my daily life management plan. Rather than being a central device for managing personal and work data, it's become a mostly read-only device.

My work and personal schedule and tasks are handled in Apple iCal, contacts stored in Address Book and honestly, I hardly use Memos any more. I'd rather add a note to a task or contact, or enter comments in a text file or paper notebook. I may alter my calendar or tasks in the Zire now and then, but my PDA has definitely become a secondary device.

My other main activities with the Zire are reading blogs, websites and e-books with iSilo, reading e-books with eReader Pro, reading the Bible with MyBible and listening to MP3s with RealOne player. I sync e-mail to the Zire but very seldom read mail or even reply to e-mail, even though I have a system which works pretty well with my Mac and Entourage.

What Changed?
I think there have been two significant changes in my PDA usage. First was the change from Graffiti 1 (Classic) to Graffiti 2 — the second was my re-discovery of paper and notebooks (Miquelrius, Moleskine and 3x5 cards).

The death of Graffiti Classic had a large impact on my interest in inputting text via handwriting recognition. My Sony Clié was the last device that could natively capture my writing at a reasonable speed and accuracy rate.

When I moved to the Tungsten E, I already knew that Graffiti 2 was not for me — I'd invested years in mastering Graffiti Classic. I hacked in the Graffiti 1 libraries and this seemed to work OK but not great. Over time, the lower quality recognition on my TE had a chilling effect on my Graffiti input. Eventually, I dreaded entering anything into my Palm.

I began to realize that it made much more sense to input information directly into the Mac (where I work most of the day) rather than fight with the TE's lousy handwriting recognition. This moved me to Palm Desktop and eventually iCal for calendar and task management, which I find very effective for my needs.

By the time I replaced the Tungsten E with a Zire 72 that has decent handwriting recognition, it was too late. I occasionally use the Zire to capture data, but have found my pocket Moleskine or a 3x5 card and a good pen provides a much more immediate and adaptable place for data capture. With paper, I feel it's OK to doodle or scribble visual ideas along with the text — something I never did with my PDA.

Finally, with a Moleskine or 3x5 card, I never have to worry that my battery might be low. As my PDAs have improved in features over the years, their battery lives have decreased, and it's inevitable that when I need my Zire the most, the battery is low.

What about a Treo or Smartphone?
I have many friends who use and love Treo 600s and 650s or similar smartphones. In fact Marc Orchant, a fellow Moleskine user just bought a Treo 650 for himself. I've considered the idea, but I'm just not mobile enough to justify the costs involved.

I work at my home office 97% of the time and when I do go mobile, my Mac or my pre-pay Virgin Mobile phone is along for the ride. The Virgin Mobile account works better for me than a highly-priced voice and data plan from a mainline carrier. I mean, if I'm mobile for 2 hours in a week, do I really need high-speed 3G service to read the latest scoop about the rumored PalmOne LifeDrive while I'm pumping gas?

The Right Tool for the Job
My dad always taught me to use the right tool for the job. If he caught me banging a nail in with a crescent wrench, he'd always repeat that line "Mike, use the right tool for the job!" What a realistic, practical way to approach how I manage my life. Sure, I could "make" my Zire 72 or a new Treo 650 to do almost everything, from full-on PIM management, web surfing, sketching and e-mail, but if I have a Mac, paper notebooks, pens and other tools which excel at each task, why?

The real question for me was this — am I simply making "busywork" for my Palm simply because it could potentially be done? Just because I can cook a roast on the engine of my Saturn, does it mean I should sell off our stove and use the car to cook dinner? Of course not.

For my lifestyle, I don't need a fully-integrated smartphone. I have a speedy broadband connection for most of my work, notebooks and paper to capture ideas and sketches and a PDA for mobile reading and music play. For the kind of life I lead, this balance of tools to fit their best function just makes sense.

For more mobile people, they can truly see a smartphone or PDA being a more critical part of their work and personal lives — that's great! My decision to put PDA use into proper context is not a call for Treo users to abandon them for 3x5 cards. Each person needs to decide what works best for their own lifestyle.

Hopefully my experience and observations will challenge you to consider what tools are truly best for your own needs — rather than doing things with one device "just because it can."

Reader Comments (13)

Hi Mike

I've commented about this sort of thing before, so you already know that I'm in much the same position as you. I was a die-hard PDA fan (Psions from 1995-2001, then Palms ever since), but lately I've found that I'm relying on my Palm less and less, and trying to find alternative ways of putting stuff down. While I never had the problems with G2 that you've had (in fact, in many ways I actually preferred it at one point), my biggest frustration with the Palm is entering information, both in terms of how easy it is (it isn't!), and what structure I can use (usually not the way I want to do it). Perhaps part of this is due to the portable keyboard for my old m105 dying shortly before I graduated to a T|E, and never having bothered to replace it. I'm finding that a Moleskine for my personal journal is just so much more ... personal! And while the planning system I'm in the process of evolving (mainly for work) is bulkier and feels less organized than my old Palm system, I find I have to think more about it, use it more, and so I feel it's ultimately more effective. David Allen's blog has a great post in the last few days about not letting the system rule you, and I feel that this was the weakness the Palm had, and for me the solution is to revert much more to paper.

All that said, like you, I still use the Palm as a read only device for my calendar, contacts etc. I have an iPod, so music isn't really an issue, but I have a few games as well, so I guess that's my main use for it now.
May 4, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterNeal
So if you are mobile for 2 hours a week, for what do you need a PDA anyway?
May 4, 2005 | Unregistered CommentermE
I've been reading your column for ages, and have been a big fan since the Palm Tipsheet days.

As for "the right tools", I seem to have a dissenting opinion here. My wife got me a UX50 about a year and a half ago, and my PDA usage has gone way up since then. This is my first wireless device, and I had no idea how important this would be for me.

I work in a totally different way than Mike. I�m a 9-to-5er and work in an office. I also have a very active volunteer life. For me, email is the killer app. I can�t use my corporate network for personal stuff, so having my UX pick up mail automatically throughout the day (via my phone using bluetooth) has proved invaluable. I can deal with any Word or excel documents as they come in, and get back to people almost immediately.

Before my UX, I was forced to deal with all this after work when I got home, and it was a little daunting to see so much mail there waiting for me. (I always seemed to miss out on those rapid-fire email exchanges, that seen to make the world go round.) Now I don�t miss a thing.

I keep all my meeting notes, PIM information, journals, and financial stuff on my handheld. It is so natural to take it out when I get talking to someone and there are �actionable� items in the conversation.

From an entry point of view, I can write as fast with tealscript as I can with a pen and paper, and the UX has the added benefit of a thumb board if I get tired of writing. I don�t use my Mac for data entry much, because it is never in front of me when I need to enter things.

I have tried the paper route before, and I just loose everything. I misplace tasks, notes, appointments, etc. I still use paper for brainstorming sessions, and the occasional sketch when explaining something to someone, but I think that a palm is going to remain my main tool for my daily work, communication, and leisure.

Anyway, just wanted to give my two cents on this. Different strokes I guess.

Thanks again, for you�re work Mike. Really enjoy reading your articles and blog entries.

May 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Baron
I am the happy owner of a Treo 650.My last PDA was the UX 50 and is now in my globe box.Cheers
May 5, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterchinchorrero
Like you, my Palm has a less useful place in my life than it once did. It used to be that I'd never leave the house without it, now I rarely even turn it on. I have found that more and more, I am sitting in front of my laptop anyway and can look up phone numbers and other "PIM" tasks on my desktop as well as anywhere else... I was never much into games on the Palm anyway (once in a while, one would grab my interest for a few days), and there haven't been any other third party apps that really lit the fire.

Grafitti's death was a large part of it, but really, I had already switched to a Tungsten C before that point... in the end, for me, I think it was the small screen that finally did it for me. I work better if I can see a lot of information at once, allowing my eyes to roam a page, not get a tiny 3 by 3 inch snapshot view.

Like you, I've gone back to a paper planner.. although I've shrunk that down now to a pocket calendar... but that was out of a realization that with a larger journal, I didn't need a large calendar anymore. :)

I'm still supporting our Palm software, but the hype and interest in the Palm platform seems to be waning. I think the future for the productivity applications is going to be in the phone industry... not the behemoths like the Treo, but the little phones that have some minor functions... in other words, the phones that are into the "Zen" of the original Palms... and of that old adage KISS.
May 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterBrad
I am exactly opposite of Mike here (Very similar to Nathan). I work as an engineer in a chemical plant, so I work my 40 a week, but I am on call 24/7 if any problems come up. If I am not at work and get a call, I need to be able to look up infomation and contact info instantly. I also volenteer as well, and am a National Officer of a Fraternity (Sigma Theta Epsilon, www.sigmatheta.org). Luckily, I can use my work network to do a little work, but only at lunch. I usually have figured out what I need to do by the time I get home, and have entered it into LifeBalance on my Palm. LifeBalance is really the killer app for me, as it helps me keep track of all the tasks I need to complete, and what is more important to me at what time.

I also use my Palm for PocketQuicken, keeping track of my weight, keeping track of my vehicles mileage, and many other small details that I just wouldn't even think about if I didn't have the palm on my hip all day.
May 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Johnson
Funny, I am also feeling the pull of the 'less-digital, more-analog' way of life. My PDA has been supplanted with a stack of index cards, even though I own a Treo 600.

Even though my PDA is very powerful, I'd rather do most of my 'heavy lifting' with my Mac, especially considering the new tools that have sprouted up on the Mac since OS X made it's debut.

While I like my hipster PDA and FIsher bullet pen, I would never trust it with an appointment, because nothing beats the combo of alarm + vibrate for me.

My 2�

//k
May 5, 2005 | Unregistered Commentermacfixer
Interesting discussion. I used a PDA for six year, got weary of it, and switched to a Time Design binder. I only used it full time for 3 months and then switched back to the Palm. I just could not replicate the value of being able to carry everything in such a small container.

As a Pastor, my appointments change a lot and I was constantly having to white out my paper calendar and try to re-write everything.

Do I think the Palm is the end all of my organizational needs? No. I've been thinking about using just my Powerbook and Palm desktop for a while and see if I need the Palm with me as much as I think I do. Carrying it is a habit - and one I may be able to break. We'll see.
May 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterDean
I have read several reviews which were critical of the 650, but one owner explained it this way. It is first a PDA first and a phone second. He based this on the companies that made it. I think it would be nice to have both the PDA and phone in one but I want the pocket pc operating system so I can use excel.
May 5, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterdave
I'm not sure if this applies to anyone that has already commented, but I've found that a PDA has helped me use any sort of calendar a lot more than a paper product, for possibly two simple reasons: it's harder to hold a paper date book and write on it, and it's infinitely cooler to have a PDA than a paper date book. I mean, it's much more appealing to take out a PDA from your pocket than a mangled paper date book.

As for using a desktop/laptop to organize a calendar, I've always found it more comfortable to enter on the PDA (but then I have a T|C so it's not a pain). I think I like knowing that it's there, in case I forget to sync if I'm entering from the desktop/laptop.
May 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterKelvin
Thanks everyone for your comments! Great stuff here.

Neal, yep, it seems we are moving on a similar track with regard to devices and paper. I too like the freedom of the Moleskine and other paper items for capturing ideas, better than that of a Palm.

mE, Well, I'm away from my Mac for maybe 2 hours per work week, but in my personal life I run around alot. It's just that in my personal life I don't need network connectivity (except voice) enough to justify a Treo. But also, I use my PDA for lots of reading and MP3 listening, so really my use of the PDA has just shifted. I still love my PDA, though I can't see moving to a Treo or other network oriented PDA yet.

Nathan, Glad to hear a dissenting opinion, though I support your point of view. Mainly the change has been in my own work style -- I'm no longer working in a way that portability is so key. That's why I think the question of the right tool hinges very much on your context and usage patterns.

Brad, I think it's going to be interesting as PalmSource moves into cheap phones with their new China Mobile Soft based Linux OS. Can you imagine a cheap pay-as-you go phone that has all the features of a Palm and maybe even those of the Treo? That'd be cool.

Alex, it's very cool to see you making good use of your Palm in your work and personal situation! :-)

Kyle, I think Hipster PDAs and other paper-based thngs are great for raw capture. I capture stuff on paper because of the immediacy and allowance to doodle if needed, then bring it into the Mac for final storage. It then gets copied to the Palm for viewing when mobile.

Dean, excellent points on Palm and the small package. This is one of the reasons I still love my Zire: it's just that I don't do as much input as I used to really. I use a Moleskine as a supplement to the Palm for idea capture and doodling/sketching, but if those ideas are to be acted on, the get inputted in the Mac or possibly the Zire.

Dave, actually the Treo comes bundled with DocumentsToGo, which has an excellent Excel spreadsheet companion. You can create new sheets on the Treo or edit existing sheets on the Treo via sync conduit -- or you can edit them right off the SD card, as DocsToGo supports editing of native files now. It's quite powerful, if that's a key requirement for you. www.dataviz.com

Kelvin, excellent points about PDA usability. I think one benefit to using paper for capture is that it doesn't cause distraction as much as PDA (since PDAs are kinda cool looking). Because pen and paper are so mundane, people tend to not be distracted as much by them, in my experience.
May 7, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Palm PDAs just don't seem to be as exciting as they used to be. Maybe we are just taking our PDAs for granted???

I am looking forward to using Dashboard, Automator, Safari 2, iChat AV, H.264, and Smart Folders in Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger.

What is on the horizon for Palm PDAs? LifeDrive with 4GB hard drive. Somewhat interesting, but I'd rather have at least a 20GB hard drive to really get some use out of it.

By the way, does anyone know of a Mac program to transfer ones Palm Memos to an iPod Photo? I can transfer my Contacts and Calendar using iSync, but not my Memos. Thanks!
May 9, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterkpr
Wow! What a change in my practices since I wrote here in May 2005. I'm now using a PC laptop (although I love my Mac!) and a Pocket PC for organization. What's everyone else doing now?
January 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDean

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