Solutions At Hand

Handhelds, smartphones, mobile technology and the digital lifestyle.

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    Michael is a trainer and consultant specializing in making mobility technology work in people's everyday lives.
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Archive for the ‘Productivity’ Category

Avoid RSI, gain productivity and increase your IQ.

Posted by Michael Brown on September 27, 2007

I ran across a story at LifeHacker which echoes something I’ve been doing for a while. For right handed people who use a computer, mousing with the right hand can lead to Repetitive Strain Injuries or RSI. It’s also not that ergonomic, when you really think about it. Most keyboards have the numeric keypad on the right hand side, which would mean your mouse is even farther out from the centerline of your body when you use the mouse on the right. If you were to move it to the left, it would be pretty much in the same place on the left as the numeric pad on the right, meaning that your arms would lay more naturally when it comes to positioning. You can see below what I mean…

My Keyboard/mouse set-up

In the above picture, you can see that I have a mouse on the left side of the keyboard, and a mouse/tablet stylus on the right. When you sit at the keyboard, the center of your body should be centered between the ‘G’ and ‘H’ keys (or where the grey area is on the Palm rest).The mouse on the left is roughly where the numeric pad on the right is sitting with respect to how your arms will usually lay. The mouse on the right is out far enough that it will cause you to need to hold your arm out further from your body than is normal for a “resting” position, which can lead to RSI’s in the shoulder.

I primarily mouse on the left side now (even though I’m right handed), and I will use the tablet stylus or other mouse on the right occasionally or for a change of pace. With the Wacom Tablets, you can use the stylus as a mouse, which is another way to avoid RSI’s (by switching between the mouse and the stylus). The neat thing is, you can use two mice in Windows by using two different types of mice with their controls managed by their own drivers. So, my MS Laser 5000 is managed by the MS Intellipoint driver and is configured for left hand use, and the Wacom Graphire is managed by it’s driver, and is configured for right hand use. That makes it handy for my wife, as she can just use the Wacom mouse on that computer, as she’s right handed (and prefers to mouse with the right). The same setup works in Linux(Ubuntu), using the Gnome control panel; the mouse is configured as a left-handed, and the Wacom is configured through the X-org.conf file as right-handed.

This LifeHacker article is a good read for those thinking of switching their mouse to the other side. As for increasing you IQ, this article by the DumbLittleMan blog indicates that regular use of your non-dominate hand builds better ties between the two hemispheres of your brain, strengthening it’s development.

Posted in Ergonomic, PC, Productivity | 2 Comments »

The Desktop is a dying breed…

Posted by Michael Brown on August 22, 2007

HP TouchSmart PC
At least that’s the gist of what I heard a Best Buy employee telling a shopper. The shopper was looking at this new HP TouchSmart “Family PC” and trying out it’s Smart Centre functions. It has a 19″ touchscreen, a Family Calendar, a message center, integrated TV tuner, webcam and microphone, and wireless keyboard, mouse and stylus. It runs Windows Vista, so it has the Media Centre functionality built-in. The shopper thought it was cool, but asked “Why would they make something like this?”. The Best Buy guy said that laptops are outselling desktops 6 to 1, and that most people are buying laptops as a personal item, no different than a PDA, cell phone or music player. He also said that even though some families have a laptop for each family member, they still wanted a “Family PC” for keeping shared files and media, so HP designed something that could go on a kitchen counter or family room table to fit those requirements plus more.

The funny thing is, I recognized the truth and implications of that right away, because I’m going through a similar situation right now. I’ve built every PC I’ve ever owned from parts I’ve researched and found to meet my needs, so I get everything I need, and nothing extra I don’t. So, when my old desktop needed upgrading, I did the same thing, and just moved my Windows 2000 installation “as-is” to the new machine (it wasn’t quite that simple, but you get the point). And it’s a nice machine: Asus motherboard, 2GB OCZ RAM, AMD X2 2.6GHz processor, SATA II drive. It’s powerful, fast, and… I maybe get to use it a couple of hours a week if I’m lucky! Family life with two young kids does not lend itself to going to the home office and getting some stuff done on the desktop. That can only happen at nap times, or when they finally go to bed (at which point I’m so tired I probably want to go to bed too!). So, most of the time I use my Treo for computing work I need to do (which is what it’s intended for); for when I need more horsepower, I use VNC to my server, and run those applications there. It can get a little tedious after a while though, working with desktop applications running in a resolution of 1024×768 or higher, on a display 320×320 in size!

Sadly, I’ve come to the realization that I need portability and mobility… for in my house! The Treo does everything I need it too while I’m out-and-about, but I’m really tied down at home using the desktop. I could get a laptop, but I don’t find them as portable or as ergonomic as they could be. So, being a long time Palm user, I’m thinking a convertible Tablet PC is the way to go. It has the pen interface I’ve always liked about Palm handhelds, with the power and flexibility of a portable PC. A convertible tablet is one that has a keyboard like a conventional laptop, but turns into a “slate” tablet with a “twist-and-flip” of the display. The only disadvantage to the Tablet PC is price; they’re still considered a “niche” item with some pricey components in them, and you do pay a premium for that. So, I may end up having to settle for a resonably priced laptop and using my Wacom Graphire 4 tablet with it; after all, I’ve got a mortgage to pay and kids to feed, so something has to give somewhere. Decisions, decisions, but I digress…

As far as the “Family PC”; I think it’s a concept that will work well. As more and more of our daily interactions become digital, and the pace of our lifestyles increases, the calendar on the fridge just won’t cut it anymore. We’ve had a home server running in the house since 2003; it’s the central repository for all shared media and files, the mail server, HTPC recording backend, and a VNC terminal server (for access by my Treo, or for long running operations on a desktop application). It’s the hub of our home systems, as it’s accessible from everything from my Treo, to my desktop or my wife’s work laptop, to devices like the HTPC and the MediaMVP we use for viewing various media like TV programs and movies, family pictures and videos. I’m too much of a DIY person to run out and buy something like the TouchSmart (it’ll be more fun to try and replicate the same functionality using Open-Source components and my choice of hardware). But I can honestly say I can see it as the hub in many a household, tying together laptops, UMPC’s, PDA’s and smartphones, keeping the family organized and in touch in the coming digital era. Having something like this allows you to have a common repository for family information, as well as a common message centre. Imagine being able to forward VoIP voice mail (or Video voice mail), voice or video messages from family members, ink notes, or even the grocery list to a family member’s Treo, with just a few taps of your finger. Or how about making dinner arrangements, and having it entered into each family members calendar automatically, available when they next sync. The possibilities are endless; think your group calendars at work, but applied to the home and combined with the power of Internet Calendars.

Apple could easily make something similar to the SmartTouch PC with a Multi-Touch iMac, an umbrella package like SmartCentre, and many of their existing software packages (iCal, Front Row, iPhoto, iTunes, Inkwell, etc). The desktop as we know it is dying in the home; it will become a niche market for power users, system builders, and gamers with the need for speed. Evolution is happening in the home, and the Family PC won’t look like it’s boxy brethren of old; slick new fashionable designs, combined with powerful user interfaces and family organizational tools will make this a pleasure to use, and more interesting than sticky notes and the calendar on the fridge that nobody bothers to read. This new class of “Family PC” is huge; this may be a big step towards the Jetson’s home of the future.

Originally posted to Palm Addicts here.

Posted in Inter-operability, Open Source Software, Palm, PalmAddicts, PC, PIM, Productivity, Time & Task Management, Windows | Leave a Comment »

Keeping in Touch with Contacts

Posted by Michael Brown on August 10, 2007

Contacts is another of the Core applications on Palm OS devices that is under-appreciated by some folks who use it. It’s not merely an address book, it can be a light form of Customer Relations Manager (CRM) application as well, with only a little bit of work from you.

Categories are a great way of grouping contacts into larger batches, like clients, prospects, family, services, etc. Using one of the “user fields” as a keyword or tags field is another way of searching through batches of contacts. Simply use the Palm find feature while inside the contacts application to find people that have a certain keyword or tag associated with them. The same tricks could be used to keep track of services; input the details of your favourite restaurants, and then tag the contact with stuff like the nationality of the food, the atmosphere, or other criteria of interest to you.

You can also use the other user fields for stuff like spouse’s name, children’s names, account numbers or order numbers, or whatever you need. The notes field is a great place for contact history or logging, as it can contain up to 32000 characters; if you need more history than that, you can use an external application like DayNotez, which links to records in the Contacts database. To make it easy to use, and to keep your keywords consistent, think of using an application like ShortCut5 to allow you to enter commonly used terms quickly and painlessly. Consistency is key when tagging information; either use the same abbreviation, or the same phrase, every time to ensure you find everything you’re looking for.

Originally posted to Palm Addicts here.

For some good tips on Tagging, check out this post.

Posted in Palm, PalmAddicts, PIM, Productivity, Technology, Treo | Leave a Comment »

Palm OS, freedom of choice is the cornerstone

Posted by Michael Brown on August 9, 2007

The Palm OS platform has long been about the freedom of choice. If you don’t like the built-in applications, you can either replace them totally, or you can use another application that works with the existing databases. If you don’t want to use Palm Desktop, you can use Outlook, or Lotus Notes, or Act, or any of dozens of other Personal Information Management applications. If you don’t like the Palm conduits, you can use PocketMirror or Intellisync or any one of several other sync conduits.

Don’t use Windows as your desktop OS? No problem! You can Sync to Macs, Linux PC’s, Solaris, and even the Amiga! Your data is available to you on the desktop platform of your choice, using the conduits of your choice, in the applications you want to use. And it’s like that with the majority of applications on the Palm OS, with one notable exception. Most of the major “mobile office” suites insist on using Microsoft Office formats as their data format. So, that makes it more difficult for people using platforms other than Windows, or those who can’t afford MS Office, to access mobile documents.

If your data is important to you, and you want the freedom of choice to use other formats like the OpenDocument format, then it’s time to remind the manufacturers of those office suites that choice is the cornerstone of the Palm Platform. If they don’t choose to support Open standards, or at least support software like OpenOffice writing to MS formats, then we as users may choose to take our business to those who will support our choices.

Originally posted to Palm Addicts here.

Now, if you want to be able to work with Open and inter-operable document formats on you Palm or Treo, you need to let the manufacturers know. Write them an e-mail, or use the forms I’ve linked to below to tell them you’d like support for the OpenDocument format (ODF) built into their product. DataViz, the makers of the Documents to Go suite bundled with many Palm and Treo devices, are building in support for Microsoft Office 2007 formats, known as OO-XML. Since it has some of the same technologies (XML) that are used in ODF, it should be straight forward to add support for ODF into the Docs to Go suite. Feel free to tell them you’d like to see them do it!

The DataViz general feedback page can be found here. Let them know you want to see ODF support on mobile devices.

If you use QuickOffice, their feedback site is here.

For users of the MobiSystems OfficeSuite, their contact page is here.

Posted in Inter-operability, ODF, Open Source Software, Open Standards, Palm, PalmAddicts, Paperless Office, Productivity, Technology | Leave a Comment »

Memo to Self: take a memo…

Posted by Michael Brown on July 23, 2007

The Memo Pad, or Memos on newer Palms, is one of the most underappreciated applications on the Palm OS platform. It’s simplicity is it’s power; it’s the one place where you can put a lot of unstructured information, and then define your own structure and methods for organizing it. At last count, I’ve got over 700 memos on my Treo, and climbing daily. I write blog posts in Memos before posting them, capture quotes and other pieces of reference information, record meeting minutes, and make lists of things to do or buy.

I use psMemo as my main “front-end” to the Memos database, since it has some nice features like quick search, time and date stamps, and copy/cloning of memos or memo titles. Memoleaf also has some nice features like the keybank (tags), bulk operations like re-categorizing or marking search results private, and templates. daMemoPad gives you pop-up access to your memos from other applications, allowing you to copy and paste between programs. daMemoPad hasn’t been updated for a while, so you need to be aware that it will only access the first 4k on Memos (and not the full 32k on newer devices). Be aware that if you edit a memo that is larger than 4k using daMemoPad, it will truncate (delete) everything after the 4k point.

All of these programs work with the standard Memos database, keeping all your information in one place, meaning that your conduits will sync all that information to your desktop, where it can be backed up and searched using your desktop’s search tools. Try it, you’d be surprised how handy it can be having so much information at your fingertips, just a global find away!

Originally posted to PalmAddicts, here.

Posted in Palm, PalmAddicts, PIM, Productivity, Treo | Leave a Comment »

Steve’s 33 rules

Posted by Michael Brown on May 2, 2007

I’ve been reading Steve Pavilina’s blog on and off for a couple of years now, and he’s posted a good one defining some 33 rules to boost productivity. Many of these can be applied using a Palm or Treo…

#2 Daily goals – can be done as an un-timed appointment in your calendar
#4 Peak times – schedule stuff in your calendar (which should be sacred)
#5 No-comm zones and #10 Cone of silence – turn the radio off on your Treo; you’ll still have full pda functionality to get what you need to done, and it’ll be a quick sync away from your desktop.
#7 Timeboxing – There are a multitude of minute-timers available for the Palm platform. This is something Fly-lady also advocates (setting a 15 minute timer for a task).
#17 Deadlines – set due dates on tasks
#33 Optimization – a Palm handheld or Treo can help eliminate duplication of effort. Just make sure that you don’t spend too much time playing with software instead of getting things done. Start with the built-ins, and only make changes if something really isn’t working for you. Do what Steve suggests and model your workflow on paper if you have to.

Posted in Productivity, Time & Task Management | 1 Comment »

The Treo can make the Paperless office more of a Reality

Posted by Michael Brown on February 19, 2007

Here’s another PalmAddicts post, one that I’ll probably turn into a series here at some point (hence the new Paperless Office category).

In the early 80’s people were saying that computers would make offices paperless by the year 2000. Well, that prediction didn’t hold true, mostly because those making the predictions failed to take into account we don’t spend our whole lives in front of the computer. Fortunately, that’s where my Treo and a sizable memory card comes in. With Docs To Go and PalmPDF, I don’t have to print documents in order to have them handy. Meeting minutes get logged right into my Calendar’s event notes or Docs To Go, and after HotSyncing to the desktop, can be saved to PDF on a network drive. Many of the documents and reference information I work with now never has to be printed. I don’t even buy newspapers; Plucker and the Blazer browser keeps me informed, wherever I may be. So, before you hit ‘print’ next time, maybe you could help save a tree by finding ways to go paperless, and make the 80’s prediction come true for 2007. was the original post.

Posted in Eco-friendly, PalmAddicts, Paperless Office, Productivity | Leave a Comment »

The Treo as a Ubiquitous Capture Tool

Posted by Michael Brown on February 19, 2007

Here’s one I posted to the PalmAddicts website back in November. I’ve added links to some of the products listed here, as I use and like them, and would happily recommend them.

Practitioners of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”, or GTD for short, are aware of the need to capture things as they happen. The Treo can be a perfect Ubiquitous Capture Tool, since it’s as powerful as it is portable. For me, I use mVoice as a voice recorder to capture things that I don’t have time to process properly. I also use DateBk 6’s Daily Journal feature, combined with a customized Journal template and ShortCut5’s text shortcuts to let me capture events at work for time tracking. Those Journals sync nicely to Outlook, where I have filters defined to let me see stuff that has to be entered into our time tracking application. Natara’s DayNotez is my personal Journal and collection of random history, and the Memo’s application captures all my other tidbits of reference information (693 memos at last count). All this, and a phone too! was the original link

Posted in GTD, PalmAddicts, Productivity, Time & Task Management, Treo | Leave a Comment »

Task Oriented, not Tool Oriented, and the Where, When, and How…

Posted by Michael Brown on August 4, 2006

Today, looking around while waiting for the O-Train, I really see how effective Media, fads, and other factors have become in today’s society. People have to get certain things because “they’re cool”; not necessarily useful, but “cool”. One girl in particular made that point: laptop backpack, Motorola Razr cellphone, and an MP3 player. She was busy looking up something (or SMSing) on the Razr, while also juggling her MP3 player in her other hand. So, there she is standing at the O-Train platform juggling a bunch of gadgets; watching her, you’d figure she needed more hands! She got the Razr presumably because it’s slim and cool looking, and I’m sure she got the model MP3 player she had because it was small and slim too. What I’m sure she didn’t think about when she got them was the “how” and “where” and “when” would she be using them, hence her juggling act at the train platform.

Sitting on the bus or train really shows you how people pass the time. Some read novels or news, others listen to music. Some people try to get work done, either on paperwork or a handheld computer like a Blackberry, Palm or Treo. Many people will also try to make phone calls at transfer points, and I’ve seen kids calling or SMSing while on the bus. All of those tasks require a set of tools that fit the environment, which can be a rapidly changing one. Case in point; a laptop really isn’t usable on a crowded bus or train, although you might be able to use a Tablet PC. So, some real thought has to be given to how and where you’ll be doing what you want to do, so that you’ll actually be able to do it when you have the time.

So, the real trick to being mobile is to look at what you want to be able to DO while you’re on the go, and THEN find the tools to make it happen. Ideally, you want to choose tools that serve multiple tasks, since this will help you reduce the number of gadgets you have to carry and handle, as well as the number of accessories like power adapters you have to cart with you. If you’re a heavy cell phone user and you like listening to music or audio books, why not get a cell phone that does both? The same goes for e-mail and text messaging. What about other things? Here’s where a device like the Treo really outshines a Blackberry or a Razr. Another possibility is a Palm handheld paired with a Bluetooth-enabled phone. So, what else could you be doing?

Here’s what I do on the bus or the O-train. I use my Treo for all of these tasks, using either built-in features, or with 3-rd party add-ons of software and/or hardware.

  • Read, compose and reply to e-mail
  • Work on PowerPoint presentations or Word documents
  • Listen to music, podcasts, and audio books
  • Watch digitally-recorded TV shows
  • Write these blogs or content for my website
  • Write journal entries
  • Review and action voice-recorded notes
  • Look at pictures or video clips of my kids (digital “brag book”)
  • Send SMS messages (usually to my wife), and make phone calls at transfer points (I personally think it’s impolite to be making phone calls on the bus)
  • Do my weekly planning and reviews with the PIM applications

Just one device for all those tasks, and just a few accessories that fit in a folding bag the size of a hardcover book (my mobile office, the subject for a future blog). The real beauty is that I can be doing any of those things, yet put the Treo into my beltcase at a moment’s notice and hop on or off the bus or train. No juggling involved. With the Treo, I can be listening to music while I am writing in another application, so it’s still only one device for multiple tasks. Sure, the Treo isn’t as well advertised as the Razr or the iPod, and it isn’t as “cool looking”, but you sure can DO a lot with it. And that’s really the point; I can stay productive or entertained with a minimum of stuff and hassle. Function can be more important than form, when you know what is most important to you. So, make sure you don’t fall victim to the latest fad; do you homework and make sure you know what you want to accomplish before you buy, rather than try to find uses for something you bought “because it was cool”.

Posted in Productivity, Technology, Treo | Leave a Comment »

Expectations, discipline and habits…

Posted by Michael Brown on February 13, 2006

People tend to look for quick fixes, something that will make things better now. So, people tend to buy technology solutions (both hardware and software) that will fix their life NOW. Sometimes those solutions get shelved when they don’t meet the person’s (unrealistic) expectations. It may have been the right solution for the person, but their need for a NOW fix for their problem meant that they would not build the habits nor the discipline to make the solution really work for them. So they either go back to “old way” of doing things, or worse, look for yet another quick fix that will likely get shelved for the same reasons.

The tricks to making technology solutions like smartphones and handhelds work are to apply three elements: discipline, expectations, and habits. You have to take a disciplined approach by determining what your solution should accomplish, and by having realistic expectations as to what it can really do for you. After all, it’s a tool, not a miracle. Once you have obtained your solution, you have to be disciplined about using it, thus building habits. You also need to have realistic expectations as to how fast you can incorporate your solution into your daily life. It takes a minimum of 21 days to build a habit, so you should persevere for a month to see if something is or isn’t working for you. If something’s not working for you after the month, try to identify where it’s not working for you specifically, in comparison to the work you did previously determining what it should be doing for you. This is what we call “gap-analysis”; finding the little differences between what we expect and what we have. Often what’s wrong is something small, something that can be addressed without having to trash the whole solution.

Handhelds and smartphones are productivity tools, and as such we have to build habits to use them effectively, and that requires discipline. All too often the quest for productivity enhancing tools can turn into a productivity draining black-hole, simply for the reasons I mentioned earlier. It’s very easy to get lured into spending time and money – both very valuable resources – pursing the siren song of the quick fix. The way to avoid that trap is to have realistic, clear expectations of what you want your solution to accomplish for you. It needs to fit into the big picture of your life, providing maximum integration and benefits, while minimizing disruptions. The way to ensure that is to do your homework.
Define your NEEDS and your WANTS by figuring out what you need from the device, and what would be nice to have. Look at all the tools you currently use (computer, software, phones, planners, etc.) and see how you can reduce the number of items to carry, while maximizing how you use them together. A Palm handheld or Treo Smartphone can “plug into” a lot of the computer-based tools you are already using, and with the right set-up, the right software for your needs and some good habits, it can make your life a whole lot more productive and enjoyable. Just don’t expect it will happen overnight… It will take a month of determined effort on your part to make it a life management tool.

Next time, I’ll be talking about my upgrade from the Treo 600 to the Treo 650, and the differences I found between them.

Posted in Change, Habits, Productivity | Leave a Comment »