April 2, 2006


I grew up in the 1980s, the decade of the yuppie. Mention the 1980s to a random sample of people today and a significant number will mention two things - mobile phones and Filofaxes, the two iconic objects which no self-respecting red-braces-wearing yuppie would have been seen without. I even have to admit that I had a Filofax myself for a while in my late teens - the cheapest one available from WH Smith, with a plastic cover that soon started to peel away to reveal the cardboard underneath. But it was useful for keeping addresses and notes in.

Time moved on, and in the early 1990s the hunk of paper was superseded in both the yuppies' and my eyes by the developing market for Personal Digital Assistants. The PDA was a revelation, models like the Psion 3 and, later, the Psion 5 providing nifty handheld computing power and storage for addresses and appointments. The Psions even had a built-in programming language so you could code for them without needing an external development platform. I had one, and a lot of people I knew had them as well. Most of these were upgraded in time with the stylus-based Palm machines that swept all before them towards the end of the decade, and today Windows-based and Palm-based PDAs rule the universe, with the more recent additions of the Blackberry and the Treo combining cellphones and PDAs to make what should be the ultimate life-management tool. All the information you need stashed away in a nifty slab of electronics you can fit in your pocket, which synchronises with your desk machine to keep everything up to date. Perfect!

But here's the problem - the PDA isn't perfect. In many cases they're hardly usable, mostly because the much-vaunted synchronisation between PDAs and the desk just doesn't happen. Software is flaky, Bluetooth often just, well, just plain doesn't work if you look at it the wrong way, and the upshot of this, in my experience, is that unless you have a very, very simple setup with one piece of software managing your contacts and such on your desktop with one PDA syncing to it then you might as well not bother as the whole setup will be flaky and unreliable at best.

I've gone through so many PDAs over the years - the Psions, my Palm V, and sundry later Palms and Clies leading finally to my Treo 650 - always thinking that maybe this latest gadget would be the one to iron out the bugs and actually become the life-organisation tool that their proponents claimed it would be. But it's never happened - every one's just ended up being a fun and expensive toy.

It doesn't have to be this way. It shouldn't be rocket science to come up with open and robust protocols for exchanging things like appointment data and address books among computers and PDAs (after all, a PDA's just another computer). There are already standards such as Vcard (for address data) and iCalendar (a widely supported standard for appointment data) but nothing to glue it together. As far as I know, the interfaces and USB protocols for connecting PDAs to host machines aren't standardised either, so everything's reliant on either proprietary vendor-specific software or reverse-engineered third party implementations. I might be wrong and there are actually are standards for these things - in which case, well, it's maybe time to improve the quality of the implementations, eh? The whole area today is basically a dog's breakfast, and doesn't show much sign of getting any better in the immediate future.

So now things are going full circle. A growing number of people are losing patience with trying to get their whizzbang PDAs to do what they promised to do and going back to paper. A co-worker told me a while ago that she'd had a PDA for a while, but it eventually just turned into an expensive thing for sticking Post-it notes to so she gave in and went back to her Filofax. I laughed at the time.

You can guess what happened next. A couple of weeks back I went out and bought a Filofax. The one I bought wasn't the cheapest available at £35, but that's still a lot cheaper than the cheapest PDA and a lot more functional. If I want to make notes, I can just scribble on the notepad in the back and insert the page somewhere convenient (as it were). I can maintain a To-do list and tick things off when they're done, and see my appointments for the next few weeks at a glance. If I want to annotate something I can write in the margin, or stick a Post-it note to the page or use a Jot Pad sheet (they cost a lot less here than in the US, mercifully - £1.75 for 3) and slip it onto the rings.

I can look up streets in London or the Tube map, or find someone's address, and it'll never run out of battery power. If I don't have it with me I can make notes on an index card or whatever else comes to hand and keep them reasonably organised as well, as my Filofax has a little pocket to keep things like that in (or you can just poke holes in them and put'em on the filing rings). It's flexible, intuitive and expandable. There are even cheaper options out there as well, of course, but I'm not nearly Web 2.0 enough to carry a Hipster PDA.

The only thing I can't use it for is checking my email on the train, looking up train times or playing Solitaire, for which I'll be keeping the Treo around at least for the time being until I lose patience with its habit of rebooting itself or turning the phone bit off for no reason and replace it with a smaller, lighter cellphone with better battery life.

Posted by mpk at April 2, 2006 2:57 PM | TrackBack

In it's own small way, a tale reminiscent of the classic Sirius Cybernetic Corporation's problems with lifts - and their eventual resolution by the re-invention of the staircase!

Posted by: Dadidadidad at April 3, 2006 7:40 PM


Posted by: Oksana-sz at January 19, 2008 6:31 AM


Posted by: Oksana-sz at January 19, 2008 6:31 AM
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