The Northern Spy
A Palm for the Apple, Part I
"What," you may ask, "is the Northern Spy doing reviewing a Palm device? Isn't this a Macintosh column?" Well, yes, and no. Actually, it's a technology column with an emphasis on the Mac, but more than that, the Spy is free to editorialize on any information age subject that comes to hand, or to mind. Besides, if you pronounce that word slightly drawn out, it becomes the French for "apple", so entirely fair game.
Ah, and before going on, Nellie, take a note to all who called or wrote for an explanation of last month's column, unsure of the ramifications of Apple buying a major industry toolmaker. Older hands could have warned you that anything the Spy says on April 1 ought to be considered in context. He's the same fellow who on one All Fools' Day called the pastor of his church (an American) for an estimate on the length of his sermons, in order to submit to the Canadian government the necessary word tax. On another, he slipped a paper titled "Contributions of Computer Science to the Modern Theory of Big Game Hunting" into Canada's official position papers at an ISO standards meeting, and had it made an official part of the proceedings before the chairman noticed. See the link below for a copy.
In what bids to become annual tradition, Apple recently announced that this year's WWDC in May-June will see the introduction of OS X 10.4 (Tiger). Based on Panther, we can expect modest refinements to existing elements, rewrites of some functionality, speed and reliability improvements, a new application, and (per Expose) two or three new interface features.
Chief on the Spy's list would be bug fixes to Safari and iSight's firewire connection, more reliable rendezvous, improvements to the dock(s), an iBookshelf, store, and bookreader (the latter three to complement iTunes--the thing could be an iPod with a larger screen). On the hardware side, look for an announcement (but not shipping product) of a 3 GHz G5, technically fulfilling last year's rash promise to produce such speeds within the year--a promise IBM has been unable to deliver chips to fulfil.
The most revolutionary software product would be a word processor and spreadsheet combo compatible and feature competitive with office (including macros), but without the bloat or the glacial slowness of the MS products.
Alas, Apple seems uninterested in the PDA or bookreader market, and seems unwilling to compete head on with MS.
Oh, and one other thing. Expect at least one unexpected announcement.
But the Spy will not attend WWDC this year, instead opting for an earlier vacation to more southern climes. This years affair, while long on consolidation, is likely to fall far short of last year's Panther/G5 extravaganza, so he'll wait till 2005 and have another boo then. He may need that long to think up a new stumper. (You have to be there.)
The pitter patter of Little Feats
The last few weeks' technology soaps have seen the Sasser worm's intrusions, the arrest of its author, further problems with unconventional accounting, this time at Nortel, and the saga of investors threatening to pull out of SCO. One could also mention speculations that Longhorn's arrival is now estimated at approximately the next return of Haley's comet. None of these events directly affect Mac users, though they ought not be overly complacent, as no system is invulnerable to hostile intrusions from hackers, litigious leeches, or badly written software.
But on the whole, the technology industry is quiet these days. Ordinary wisdom says it 's a mature industry, won't recover from the bubble's bursting or the accounting scandals for several years, won't produce many revolutionary computing products for a while, just incremental improvements, won't make many new fortunes from garage startups, will make some from litigation. Yes, both Apple and Microsoft have the money to innovate without depending on financial markets, but the former is now sharply focused on the lucrative consumer entertainment market, and the latter is unlikely to suddenly metamorphose into an innovator after all this time. Thus, we look elsewhere for inspiration this month and next.
On to the Treo 600
Through his day job as Professor of Mathematics and Computing Science at TWU, the Spy recently obtained one of the first Treo 600 PDA/smartphones to be made available on the Canadian market. These are the first products from PalmOne, hardware arm of the merger between Handspring and the original Palm, and are higher-end successors to earlier Treo models. Note that although telephony on the Treo 600 is next month's topic, there are two models, depending on the network chosen. They are not interchangeable, though the PDA functions are identical.
This wasn't the Spy's first PDA. That honour goes to the Newton 100, way back in the "good old days" (code for he doesn't remember the year). It is, however, his first cell phone, for he's never been the sort to invite intrusions when not at his desk (and has been known to unplug his phone when talking to students, which he'd rather do than most things).
This month, a few thoughts on the state of the PDA art. Next month, he'll conclude with remarks on the communications functions and overall integration and value.
From a consumer point of view, a PDA is a scheduler and to-do reminder with enough expendability to satisfy peripheral wants such as game playing, picture taking/storage, book reading, and communications.
The Treo 600 performs all these tasks well enough, excepting communications, of which more next time. The scheduler and to-do program are as good as any basic programs of the type, can be enhanced by third party software, and are tied by default to specific buttons on the top row above the keyboard for fast access. Moreover, these buttons can be reprogrammed in case some other functionality proves more important to the user.
Schedule repetitions can be entered by the day, week, month or year, and the software is smart enough to distinguish between the fourth Sunday of every month and every fourth Sunday. To-dos can be sorted in five priority categories, and may be purged when completed. PDA reminders, contact lists, memos and to-dos, whether entered directly on the Palm or in iCal, have come a long way from the primitive schedulers that were around ten years ago, and are now worthwhile tools.
Palm OS 5 is reminiscent of the early days of the Mac, having a primitive, unfinished, and occasionally buggy aura. The culture appears similar, too, as there are all manner of commercial and shareware programs available, to add missing functionality, though not all are optimized for or will even run on the Treo 600. Also, the launcher is minimally functional, and one of several shareware programs is necessary even to list database files, much less move them around. This is a big deficiency in the supplied software.
Supplied software includes a program launcher calculator, CityTime program, MemoPad, Tutorial, Calendar, and preferences setting application. To a Mac user accustomed to running many programs at once, it's disconcerting that almost no applications have a quit box, relying instead on pressing a hardware button to return to the launcher. However, you get used to it.
From a functional point of view, on the other hand, a PDA is a portable data base machine, and Palm OS 5 recognizes this, with applications and their associated databases framing the whole experience. The Spy suspects that failure to recognize this was part of the Newton's downfall, for it was marketed as a portable computer with handwriting recognition rather than as a the database device it was.
An important consequence of this principle is that there must be a simple, foolproof means of coordinating the databases with a larger machine. After all, though one can do data entry on a Palm-sized device, few would want to. Moreover, a user wants her schedule also on the laptop/desktop, and a guarantee that a single button press will synchronize the two, capturing the most up-to-date changes on either without having to answer a series of messy questions about which item is most pertinent.
Palm supplies desktop software that will mimic the small device on the larger screen and allow this to happen, but Mac users are much better off obtaining the Apple conduit from Apple's web site (or from the disabled conduits folder, if present) and installing it in Library/Application Support/Palm HotSync/Conduits, then configuring to synchronize with the feature rich iCal and Apple address book through iSync instead of with the Palm desktop application. There is also software available to sync FileMaker Pro databases to the DB program JFile on the Treo, but the Spy has not yet tested that functionality thoroughly enough to comment.
Palm's HotSyncManager is used both to do the configuration and to handle all other file transfers to the Palm device. Once installed, connect the Palm device with a cable or cradle, push a button, and the synchronization is automatic, though not entirely without bugs, for occasionally items are replicated onto days they don't belong. Still, in all, it's synchronization with one's computer that makes a scheduler useful, and minor bugs aside, this works pretty well, at least with a Mac. (The Spy does not test using W*ndoz.)
For the Spy, of course, book reader functionality is critical to the utility of a pocket device. No such software is supplied, though Mobipocket sells a $19.95 reader to access books in their format, Palm Digital Media (Palm Gear) has free and Pro versions of their book reader, and Adobe has a free version of their book reader (with accompanying desktop software). The Palm reader is the most full featured, but the book reading experience on such a small screen is mediocre. Best place to buy eBooks is Fictionwise, which offers most in multiple formats that once purchased van be downloaded for more than one device. The Spy will vacation this week with a batch on his Rocket Reader, and a couple on the Treo.
Besides the 32M of internal memory, the Treo has a slot that accepts either MMC (MultiMedia Card) or SD (Secure Digital) flash memory cards, neither of which comes with the initial purchase. Costco sells the latter for $99CDN in the 256M size, and smaller versions in many brands are widely available wherever digital cameras are sold. For speed reasons, the SD cards are recommended, even though they are slightly more costly than MMC. However, one quickly learns that not all programs will run correctly from the card. Either they need to be in main memory themselves, or their databases do. Moreover, the card may have only a single partition for applications, again limiting its utility. On the other hand, it can be removed, changed for another, read in a USB reader attached to the desktop machine, or, with an appropriate utility, mounted on the desktop directly while still in the PDA.
Turning to the rest of the hardware, the Treo 600 comes in a relatively small package for a PDA, though somewhat larger than most phones. It has only a low resolution screen (160 by 160 64K colours), which slightly impairs readability. Though there is a backlight available (on-off only), the screen becomes invisible in bright light. On the other hand, the keyboard is backlit when in use, which is very helpful. On the gripping hand, unlike many Palm devices, there is no graffiti area, though the addition of the donationware program Graffiti Anywhere allows this functionality to be enabled.
With respect to accessories, the supplied case is a simple sleeve of minimal value. Third party belt cases are widely available in a number of styles, as are spare power supplies and syncing cables. The Spy recommends an all-in-one syncing cable for laptop use on the road, and an automobile power adaptor may also be useful to some. A plastic adhesive screen protection film is recommended, even if you will not be writing on the screen a lot. And, a concern here. The battery is not accessible nor meant to be changed, though the Spy suspects that the case could be dismantled and the battery removed with the right tools. The stylus contains the reset button probe, but appears to be fragile, and the prudent user will purchase a few spares.
Beneath the main screen is a navigation system, similar to those now appearing on other devices, with a four-way ring for choosing menu items and a central button for choosing/executing the selected item. The highlighting to indicate selection is a rather faint blue, and could use improvements, however. Surrounding this are the four programmable application buttons, which come set for mail, phone, scheduler, and screen off, with additional choices when the option button is pressed first.
Below this, occupying the lower quarter of the device's real estate is a full Qwerty keyboard. As the keys are quite tiny, they have been domed to allow large thumbs to use them without depressing several at once. The instruction book depicts holding the Treo with ones fingers and typing with both thumbs, but the Spy found this impossible, for the case is too slippery to grasp this way. The bottom right has a key to exit the current program to run the launcher, and another to bring up the running application's menu. It takes some use to remember which to use and when.
With this last key, and the five way navigation, a person with agile fingers could in theory access the PDA functionality without using the keyboard or tapping the stylus. In practice, this is not as convenient as promised, and the usual working routine becomes to switch back and forth between button navigation and stylus tapping, depending on if and how well a given application has been optimized for the Treo 600. The side and top of the case sport additional buttons to support communications functionality, about which more next month.
Finally (for now), there's the 0.3 megapixel camera. Turn on the camera application and the lens on the back transmits a fuzzy picture to the screen, which can be captured by the select button and optionally stored on the card. The default quality is that of the screen resolution, apparently intended to allow low quality shots to be mailed or beamed to friends.
To make this more useful, obtain the freeware program Qset, and set the JPEG compression quality to 90% or higher. Then obtain the $12 program iTreo for the Mac, which allows the pictures in the synced backup to be displayed on the desktop or laptop in 640 by 480 resolution. Despite an annoying tendency to forget its registration data, this program allows the images to be copied and used elsewhere or exported to other formats. Since web site illustrations are normally low resolution, the camera becomes potentially slightly more than a toy, though one would not make prints from or project such images.
The bottom line so far? While not the PIEA the Spy has written about for two decades, the Treo 600 comes as close as any device when considered solely for its PDA functionality. It's a slim, attractively designed package that packs adequate pocket tools, a Swiss army knife organizer that's worthy of consideration even without the communications capabilities. Yes, on balance, it's actually more functional than the Newton was, despite the smaller screen.
Next time: Is PDA telephony there yet? As the phone companies conceive it, perhaps not.
--The Northern Spy
Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree format from Bowker's Booksurge.
The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com
WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net
Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com
Big Game: http://www.opundo.com/cmptbiggame.htm
PalmOne (Manufacturer): http://www.palmone.com/
Products and Discussions: http://www.treocentral.com/
Graffiti Anywhere: http://www.escande.org/palm/GrfAnywhere/
Mobipocket reader and books: http://www.mobipocket.com
Palm Digital Media reader and books: http://www.palmdigitalmedia.com
Adobe Reader: http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readerforpalm.html
JFile DB program: http://www.land-j.com/jfile.html
FM Sync for JFile: http://www.versiontracker.com/dyn/moreinfo/macosx/17987&mode=feedback