Monday, February 16, 2004

PDA usage

Mike Rhode has written a reflective piece about PDA use, which contained these two questions, which Mike clearly finds in need of an answer. So here is my answer. But first the questions:

"Exactly what am I using my PDA for? Am I simply "making work" for it so that it feels more useful (and justified) or are there actions which are vastly superior when done on a PDA?"

Well, first of all I need to diffuse a presupposition of the question: even if I am simply making work for my PDA, doing things with it that I could do equally well but more cheaply without it, it does not follow that the money I spent on my PDA is unjustified. On the contrary, part of the justification for my PDA is that I enjoy it. I don't have my own car (we have a family car which I drive at weekends, always with my family in it), I don't spend much on clothes, but I do get pleasure out of my PDAs. Think of the many millions of people who buy a coupe or a convertible rather than a functional hatchback: they don't need to take the more expensive option, but there is nothing wrong in their doing so.

Having got that off my chest, let's look at my PDA use. Is my diary any more useful when digital? Slightly. I can easily enter appointments for times long in advance, I can search for particular events, and I can keep masses of data without any practical consequences. What about my address book? Undoubtedly that benefits from its portable but digital format. I only have about 300 addresses, but I remember from my pre-PDA days that I used to keep a master address book at home in my desk and just copy the ones I thought might be useful into my diary. Now I can find any address or phone number of anyone I know at the drop of a proverbial hat. To-do list? Probably no benefit, except those consequent upon keeping it with my diary.

What are my other primary uses? 'Sticky notes' with alarms!! iSilo ensures I have weather forecasts for a wide range of places, and cinema listings, and a few other websites, like Foxpop. I have a specialized TV application which gives me up to 14 days scheduling. I keep track of all my finances. I listen to audio books. I have a dictionary. I have loads of notes. I have a few games I rarely play. etc. etc.

But, the reasonable question will be, is this any better than buying a newspaper and looking things up in your study?

Yes. Two examples: (i) I carry my PDA when I walk my dog, morning and evening, which gives me time to review the upcoming/just past day, check up on anything I think about (my money, what I am doing at the weekend, whether I have forgotten Auntie's birthday, �), jot down notes, and, if the mood takes me, listen to something. The PDA is small and easy to slip in a pocket. Most days that is where it stays, but when I want it, everything is there at my fingertips. (ii) Knowledge is power � there are times when it is possible to look something up on a PDA which you cannot easily look up any other way. Think of all the times you have thought 'I must remember to look that up / write that down' but never do. Carrying a PDA means that you can.

Reading Mike's posting makes clear something which has recently become apparent to me. I have always had the ability to read email and surf the web on my PDA, but I rarely bother. But that is no criticism of my PDA. After all, I always have the ability to copy out large quotations from books I read, but I prefer to take it to the photocopier. So what?

Mike's questions arise from a marketing phenomenon: the marketing men think that they should be trying to sell high-end PDAs to businessmen as laptop replacements, which is a daft idea but would make a lot of money if it worked. PalmOne got it exactly right by being less greedy with the Tungsten E, which is cheap enough to be a personal rather than corporate purchase, and never claims to do anything but supplement normal computing facilities. I totally love mine, but instead of buying yet another keyboard for a PDA which would lie unused, I bought a secondhand iBook. If I need mobile computing I take the iBook, but if I just want a portable brain extension ('cognitive tool' as they are now called) I take the T|E. And for that reason I have it with me all the time.