Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Gadget Freak Grows Up - Or How I Stopped Worrying and Grew to Love the PocketPC

I have been a gadget freak all my life, every new and cool toy was on my wish list. I mean I had a watch that I could beam appointments and phone numbers to, I had a casio databank PDA before PDA's could do anything useful, I had an original PalmPilot when PDA's started to be useful, mini disc players, mini personal stereo's, mini portable televisions... And did I mention one of those cool keyrings that beeps when you whistle for it? (I know you had one as well!). The point is that if it was gadgetty and techy I had it or wanted it badly. Now though, the virus has somewhat left me... The calendar watch is in the draw next to the beeping keyring that lost its mind and only beeped when you stopped whistling and my PalmPilot started to gather dust years ago. I mean it took me two years to decide on and buy a digital camera! That's the sort of thing I would have had as soon as they hit the shelves in days gone by.

So where did the gadget virus go? Well I finally realised that unless I had a real and genuine use for something it's was only worth its novelty value which would wear off at a rate inversely proportional to its novelness. I also found that if things are a hassle to maintain I wouldnt bother with them for long, i.e. my appointment beaming watch used a special IR device special software in fact the watch itself was a bit "special" consequently it was really just a very ugly watch. So after years of denial I realised I just aren't the sort of person who will adjust his life around technology, it has to be the other way round and be more than a toy for any device I own to have a very long life in my personal gadgetverse.

Finally a year and a bit ago I happened to get an HP PocketPC device, because my PalmPilot got stolen from my retired gadget drawer. I didn't see any point in replacing it with another Palm device which I had stopped using because my Outlook email client kept out growing the abilities of sync software and I didn't see why I had to pay extra for constant upgrades. As I said above, previously I would rush out and bought a PocketPC device not just because I needed a Palm replacement but simply because it was a cool gadget. But the gadget-virus was gone so I didn't until I was presented with the replacement opportunity.

As far as handheld devices go, the PalmPilot was the first one that really worked. It worked because Palm figured it out in three important ways:
  1. They moved away from pure handwriting recognition as the primary input mechanism
  2. They came up with an easy way of syncing data to and from the PC

    and the final and I think slightly less obvious one

  3. The easy syncing meant that you didn't necessarily need to use the device to input any data
You see, there is a large class of PDA users (and I am one of them) who doesn't actually want to use the device for data input at all, in fact I'll go one step further... Any device that relies on transferring the pen and ink metaphor to a digital device is doomed! (think Apple Newton) This is one reason I think tablet PC's (in particular Windows XP Tablet Edition) will struggle (more on this one in another post). Why? Because the pen and ink thing doesn't translate properly, people have expectations of how a pen should work and a stylus dosent work like a pen on a PDA (or tablet, but again that's for later).

You can't handwrite notes on a PDA like you would on a piece of paper, the device has to mess with the pen metaphor to make it work and it's messing with years of ingrained human learning and instinct. Anyway, I recokon most people turn to electronic devices to get away from handwriting! So many people struggle with the handwriting thing and will give up, consigning the device to the retired gadget drawer. On the PocketPC you can get a little keyboard image that you can stab at with your stylus, but if you have to do that for any length of time you go mad, and long for a real keyboard. This is why devices built for input havereal keyboards attached i.e. BlackBerry devices, Cell phones etc

So the PalmPilot didn't rely on you entering large amounts of data on the device, you could do it on the PC and sync it to the device. Sounds obvious, but I think it is a key factor in the success of the Pilot and the PocketPC as it opens up the device to a much wider user base. The Apple Newton didn't really have an easy and convenient way of doing this and neither did the early databank devices they mostly relied on special software and manual data entry on the device. It took Palm to really get the cradle and sync thing right.

Happily the PocketPC is the same, the device makers and Microsoft obviously didn't miss that trick and the trail blazed by the PalmPilot was closely trodden by the PocketPC. I love the fact that I enter all my data into my Outlook client and it magically appears on my device as soon as I cradle it without any rigmarole. The simplicity is beautiful (unlike other elements of the PocketPC OS, but again that's another story). The job of entering data is left for the place it is easiest (the PC) and the PocketPC OS allows me to easily access the data using the stylus in the way its designed to be used. The PocketPC OS is designed to be operated using a stylus for manipulating elements on the device, its a pen based OS but I not a generic pen based input device. Notice how most successful applications on the PocketPC exploit the form based and minimal data entry nature of the device?

I can carry all my phone contacts, calendar details, notes, useful little applets on a device that makes it easy to access and read information and I don't feel the need to go through the pain and anguish of entering any data into it directly. Of course if I need to enter small amounts of data you can, of course, and it sync's back the other way. Marvelous! Microsoft went one step further and made it really easy to write apps for the PocketPC OS, which is where Palm fell a bit flat.
I have almost got the bug back!

The PocketPC is a gadget that suits the way I work, it's the evolution of a smart idea that takes all the key elements of what information normal humans need in and on a device and gets it mostly right... I could almost convert my mother to using one! Now if only manufacturer's could get converged phone/PDA devices right!

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