Solutions At Hand

Handhelds, smartphones, mobile technology and the digital lifestyle.

Decisions, Decisions… almost Decided!

Posted by Michael Brown on October 11, 2008

Earlier this summer, I wrote about some of the things I, or anyone else who depends on a PDA or smartphone, should consider when thinking about changing. It boils down to one key concept; my data is my Life! It doesn’t matter if you’re digital or analog (i.e. Day Planner binder). In the days before I used a PDA, my binder held all that important data. I had to ensure it didn’t get lost, stolen, or destroyed, and I had to ensure I had a backup of critical data in case of disaster.

In today’s digital lifestyle, it’s much easier for me to backup and access my data from many platforms, but I still rely heavily on my mobile device, since it is my daily companion much like my old binder was many moons ago. So, my criteria for a mobile platform are:

1. Easy and open access to my data. I don’t like “black box” products. It’s my data, and I want to know where it is, and how it’s being stored. And it needs to be stored in such a way that multiple front-ends can access it. A good example on the desktop is Microsoft Office & OpenOffice.org for documents and spreadsheets, Adobe Acrobat or Foxit Reader for PDF’s, etc. I look at the handheld/smartphone platform the same way.

2. Let ME choose the right tool for the job. Like everyone else, I have my own way of doing things, and my own requirements for how I want my tools to work. That’s one of the beautiful things about the Palm OS platform. It provides all the basics one needs to get started, and yet is easily extensible to meet everyone’s unique needs. When I got my first Palm IIIx, I used the basic calendar/task tools for about a week, then I bought Datebk3. It used the same databases as the built-ins, but gave me the ability to customize how I worked with my data and how it was presented and organized. Similarly, I use other tools like psMemo and MemoLeaf to work with my Memos database. Like my Dad’s always said, “use the right tool for the job”.

3. It’s not the OS that’s important, it’s the applications! Ok, well, that’s not totally true, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The point is, you can only choose the right tool for the job if you have a selection of tools to choose from. If there’s no selection, then you’re stuck working with what you find. The platform(s) you’re considering switching too should have a selection of applications that work for you NOW; after all, you plan on using it now, right? You can’t choose a platform based on what MIGHT come out sometime in the future, unless you plan on making do until the mystical, super-productive *IT* comes out.

Now, to my point about the OS not being as important. The OS is the heart of a handheld or smartphone, but the apps are what give it the “smarts”. There are things that the OS provides that are like the foundation of a house; it gives developers what they need to build on. If those things are left out of the foundation and left up to the developers to build, then they may end up implementing them in different, confusing or incompatible ways. Consumers ultimately pay the price when platforms are too tightly, or too loosely, controlled.

4. Money. You might be able to get a good deal on a new smartphone, but is it really going to be such a good deal weeks or months down the road? The cost of the phone is one thing, but what about other things like chargers, memory cards, cables, headsets, and other peripherals? What about software? Can you leverage any of your existing investments, or will you have to start over and buy new for the new platform? Are you going to be committed to a certain minimum cost of service package in order to get your new device? All things to consider before buying; a productivity device should never be an “impulse buy” based on price or slick advertising.

5. How do I get from A to B? No, I’m not talking about GPS systems, although I do want one on my next device! I’m talking about all my life’s data in my old system, that I need to get into my new system, preferably with the least amount of effort and problems! This is something I can’t stress enough, unless you have a lot of time on your hands to re-enter all your stuff! Other things to consider are:

  • Will I have to implement workarounds for features I used to have that aren’t on the new platform? Think of things like notes, data fields in contacts, task features, alarms, templates, that kind of thing…
  • Is there a corresponding application on the new platform for everything I did on the old one? Let’s say you regularly created office documents on your old platform, but you can only view them on the new one? How will you handle that? What about things like journals, voice recording, capture tools, business-specific applications, etc? Can you get everything over to the new platform, and how will you do it?

6. Get touchy-feely with it! C’mon, get your mind out of the gutter; this is a tech blog! Ask yourself, how does it feel to use? Is this something I can and want to carry with me all day? How does the device work for me, compared to my old one? If you’ve come from a phone-style device, chances are you’ll be ok with something that uses T9 style keyboards, be it physical or touchscreen. If you’ve come from using a large QWERTY-style keyboard, then you may not be as comfortable with a T9 keypad or a small touchscreen. So, if you’re thinking of a drastic change, maybe you should go to a store or borrow a friend’s and play with it for a bit. Sure, there are devices with high-res touchscreens, soft keyboards, and other fancy features, but if you can’t type anything it to it, how productive will you be? Another point to consider is how you use your device; do you create a lot of content, or just consume it? Are you a one finger typist, or are you a two-hander?

7. What am I willing to live without in order to switch to the new platform? Chances are, if you’re looking to change platforms, then you’re tired of dealing with something on your old platform. But the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, so you have to ask yourself what changes are you willing to make in order to switch? What compromises will you have to make? What do you need, what do you want, and what are you prepared to live without on the new platform?

This post is about all the things I’ve had to consider given I’ve made the decision to switch off of Palm OS after 9 years of using it, and these are all things other potential “switchers” should consider carefully. I’ve been through a Palm IIIx, a TRG pro, a Handera 330, a Tungsten T, and Treo’s 600 & 650, my current device. I’ve invested hundreds of dollars in Palm software and peripherals over the years, dozens of hours getting it tweaked just right, and I have years worth of data on my Treo, data that I depend on in my daily personal and professional lives. I know Palm OS like the back of my hand, and I’ve been pushing the boundaries of what it can do for years now. But, I’m wanting to replace my hardware, which is getting a little tired, and I’m not willing to give up hardware features any more, just because the aging OS5 can’t support it. These days, most new devices have high-resolution screens, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.0, high-speed celluar data (EVDO or HSPDA), GPS, more memory and storage, high resolution cameras, and other new hardware features. Similarly, some other OS’s have new user interfaces, more advanced PIM databases, multi-tasking, more Bluetooth profiles, and other OS or built-in software features. Palm OS is no longer a cutting edge productivity OS, it’s rapidly becoming a beginner’s , but productive, smartphone OS.

So, of all that’s out there right now, what would I choose?

I was heavily leaning towards the iPhone for a while before it’s launch and for a few days after, but no more. The iPhone 3G’s 2.x software, while great for a feature phone, mobile internet device and media player, is less productive than Palm OS 2 was. Apple is targeting mass market consumers with the iPhone, and while some previous smartphone owners have bought it, most are finding it less productive than their last device. Combine that with the relative immaturity of the SDK, API’s and the lack of standardized built-in PIM applications and sync conduits, and it’s a no-go for me. Eye candy is nice, but not at the expense of usability or productivity. It may be something in a year or so, but not yet. In fact, many people are using other devices like Palm OS handhelds or other PDA’s in addition to their iPhone to make up for it’s lack of productivity applications.

The next one that typically comes to people’s minds when they think mobile devices is the Blackberry; so, is it the one for me? I don’t think so! The Blackberry is an excellent corporate platform with push e-mail and built-in PIMs rivaling those on the Palm platform. So why won’t I get a Crackberry? Basically, two reasons: the OS and the software. It’s really intended to be a corporate device, which is how RIM’s been marketing it until recently, but adding Media players and cameras doesn’t make it a personal platform. Other than themes, it’s hard to customize how you interact with the device; you have to use the menu system to do anything, you have to use the scroll wheel or function+nav keys to get around (although the trackball does make it a bit better on the Curves). There’s no touchscreen except on the just-released Storm, and it will be a while before a lot of software uses it to it’s full potential. Only the recently released Pocket Informant for Blackberry really leverages the built-in PIM’s information close to it’s potential, but it’s still behind software running on other, more-mature platforms.

Symbian/Nokia? Software is it’s limitation too, but I expect that will change in the next couple of years with their decision to OpenSource the Symbian platform. Nokia makes good phones, and sells lots of them, but most people don’t load anything other than content on them. So, not a productivity platform right now. And with Nokia killing off IntelliSync, it’s not certain where they’re going as far as desktop synchronization, so that’s another negative for me.

Google’s Android? One phone, the G1 made by HTC, has been released running Android. More are due, and none are in Canada at this point, with Canadian releases likely at least a year away. In my opinion, it has the same problems as the iPhone; the SDK is immature, as is the software ecosystem. A year or two from now, it could be a whole new ball game, but that doesn’t help me now.

So, that leaves Windows Mobile, previously known as Windows CE. A ways back, Palm users used to joke about it; it made you wince (WinCE) everytime you used it. Well, it’s grown up somewhat since then. Palm OS still beats it hands down when it comes to ease of use, but Windows Mobile is now the more capable operating system. It’s mature, has a stable and thriving developer community, with lots of enhancements being made to address it’s usability issues “out-of-the-box”. HTC and Sony Ericson are making touch-friendly front-ends to WinMo, making it more consumer and finger-friendly, and less like your parents old WinDoze. With all the WinMo handset makers out there, which ones made my shortlist?

I looked at hardware features, OS revision, bundled software, manufacturer reputation, and most important, how much of an active user community there was. I also looked at what kind of third party software was available for each device, which addressed deficiencies in that device, or added value to features the manufacturer didn’t exploit to their fullest. And most importantly, I looked at what I use my mobile for, how and where I use it, and the ergonomics of how I use it; those are three important factors in choosing the type of mobile device to buy. In my case, I use my mobile both one and two-handed: one-handed as a phone or camera, and for information viewing or retrieval (reading mailing lists, news, web browsing, etc.), and two-handed for information capture, e-mail, and content creation (like this blog post, written in a memo on my 650). So, a device has to work both ways for me to consider it. Based on all that, the Treo Pro was a no-brainer as one choice for me. Does that mean it’s a slam dunk for the Treo Pro? Nope! It made the shortlist, but it’s not a shoe-in. It’s facing heavy competition from HTC’s Touch Pro, the Touch Diamond’s big brother.

I had initially ruled out the Diamond (and the Touch Pro) because of concerns about the usability of the device. The Touch’s screen is physically smaller than the iPhones, and the software keyboard took up 2/3 of the screen when exposed. On the Diamond, it was a deal breaker; I lost too much screen real estate to the method of input. But then I started to really look at the ergonomics of how I interacted with my present 650 while I did my common tasks, and I realized I do use it differently based on one or two handed use. For serious content creation, the Touch Pro has the slide-out QWERTY keyboard, whereas one-handed use usually involves the D-pad navigator and the menu keys, or the phone keypad. There’s the odd exception to the rule like today, where some of this was typed one-handed on the 650’s QWERTY keyboard while standing on the bus, bouncing down Limebank Road. So, given that perspective, I only ruled out the Diamond, and kept the Touch Pro on the short list.

The Touch Pro betters the Treo Pro in most hardware specs: more memory, faster CPU, dedicated graphics chip, better camera and better video frame rates on video recordings, higher resolution VGA touchscreen, and accelerometer, light and magnetic stylus sensors. On the other hand, the Treo Pro has a QWERTY candybar/slab style the same size as the iPhone, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a larger battery, and lots of hardware buttons for common actions and functions. They both run Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional, with similar software bundles, with the major differences being in their software User Interfaces. The Touch Pro has TouchFlo 3D, which adds some iPhonesque finger swiping interfaces, while the Treo Pro eschews eye-candy for a more business-like Today screen with added features. Being that both devices are manufactured in HTC’s facilities, their build qualities will be the same; HTC actually provided some design experience on the Treo Pro, and Palm chose to license some HTC software for use on the new Treo.

So, which one will it be? Like the Highlander says, “There can only be one” (in reality, it’s because that’s all I can afford; I do have kids to feed!). Like a reality TV show, you’re going to have to wait for the results post when I reveal which got cut, and which went home with me, and why. Stay tuned!

Originally published at PalmAddicts here.

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One Response to “Decisions, Decisions… almost Decided!”

  1. Inner Prop said

    What was your final decision and how did you come to it?

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