Friday, July 11, 2008

The descent of the PDA: Newton, Palm, Blackberry and iPhone

I turned into the parking lot of my small neighborhood AT&T outlet this morning, and there was a long line.

I didn't expect that. So, no iPhone today. If Apple is true to form they'll run out soon, and I'll have several weeks to wait. Not all bad, since Apple's initial hardware releases almost always have significant defects.

Apple is not a reliability company, just in case you didn't notice that they've cratered their .Mac service in a fumbled transition to Of course Gmail was out of order too a couple of days ago. I've got to get over my boomer fetish for reliability, and remember how I lived in Bangkok in the 80s.

My pending iPhone transition means I've been working out how to transfer hundreds of notes and tasks, thousands of calendar items and contacts, and hundreds of encrypted passwords from my Palm Tungsten E2 to some combination of the iPhone and the Cloud. My preliminary investigations on the task side have had grim results.

This is going to take a while. A few years ago I confidently pronounced that I was done with my Tungsten E2. Then, after the initial iPhone disappointed, I figured I'd buy one more E2 -- but that was it. Well, now that the E2's power switch has died exactly like every Palm I've bought in the past 6-7 years I'm thinking there may be another cheapo Palm in my future. Maybe their very lowest end device.

The problem is that from a classic PDA/productivity perspective, the incredibly powerful iPhone is a shadow of my first 1997 PalmPilot/Palm Desktop, much less the uber-geek DateBk# Palm productivity app.

Which says something interesting about the nature of elegant design -- it's always contextual. From some perspectives the iPhone is a brilliant design, from other perspectives it's an empty shell.

No joke. Recently I wrote: "Both tasks and global search were well supported in the very first PalmPilot I bought around 1997 or so. From the perspective of native applications that I need all the time, the iPhone is a large regression from 1997."

Which brings me to the interesting bit of this post. The Palm/iPhone regression is part of a longer trend. The Apple Newton was a very serious productivity/calendaring/task platform. The Palm was an elegant but simpler solution to the same problem set. The endlessly incompetent Microsoft Mobile/etc products tried to tackle the same space, but suffered from truly lousy design. The much-worshiped Blackberry is significantly less elegant and competent than the Palm, and today's iPhone is yet another drop down -- even when combined with the Cloud.

I knew that the 1997 Palm Desktop/Palm device combination was exciting and impressive, but I really didn't think it was the best I'd see for the next decade!

We've just about hit bottom, but things aren't quite hopeless. Even with its currently crippled sync connector the iPhone is a powerful software platform. There once were millions of people who loved the Palm approach to basic calendar and task management. There's a niche for a small but (alas, this is essential) brilliant group of people to reverse engineer DateBk4 (for example), fully understand what it does and why, then to create a truly native iPhone/Cloud equivalent. The people who need this functionality this will pay $200 a year for a combination of iPhone and Cloud software and services. (Free hint, think about the work/personal and calendar overlay problem from day one.)

There are a million of us in the english speaking nations alone. $200 million/year, guaranteed, isn't a bad revenue stream for a small company.

Hmm. Maybe I can find a frustrated billionaire who wants a solution ...


Scarr said...

I'm with you, as a frustrated former Palm user. My best personal bet is OmniFocus at the moment, but I'm still somewhat floored at how intentionally limited the iPhone / iPod Touch has been thus far.

Apple pushed all this R&D towards desktop productivity with iCal and the improvenents to Apple Mail but I haven't seen them translate smoothly to the iPhone at all.

I'm really hoping that what we're seeing is just the stuff that's filtering out at launch, and the real killer PDA apps are around the corner. I mean to be fair it's been two days or so since they officially launched the app store.

The lack of good calculators is troubling me already though. Some no-brainer apps are conspicuously missing (a good multi-format eBook reader for example). I'm personally going to see what pans out in 3 months.

Anonymous said...

Great article, and although i use the palm tungsten w i really can not see what all the fuss is about the iphone. The elegance of the interface is a big price to pay for the lack of functionality...But more importantly...How do I get all my contacts and calendaring from the palm desp onto my iphone...I need help...Any suggestions?

Peter said...

How do I get my palm desktop data onto my iphone...I use a palm tungsten w and I loved it!

John Gordon said...

I love the comments.

I've read of some very good calculators, I think Daring Fireball mentions one. So don't worry about that.

I'm confident I'll figure a way to get my address and calendar info the iPhone, though I expect sync problems.

There's no way to move tasks though, so I'll still have to carry a Palm! Yes, this is ridiculous.

I'm not sure about notes. I might try the Evernote online service but I doubt they can import existing data.

Sure is frustrating for old Palm veterans. My theory is the young-uns developing the iPhone have very simple lives, since they work 100 hours a week, have no children, and never leave the office. So they don't see the need for a task list or a collection of notes ...

Paul said...

Yes, I'm a long time Palm user with a new Iphone also trying to figure out how to navigate between the two. I love my Iphone but find it totally lagging in text capture and search. I was just at a conference and attempted to take notes on my Iphone. Went pretty well until the third talk...I realized I was starting to get a headache because I had to be constantly looking down at my Iphone keypad. I ended up switching back to the palm to imput the rest of the lectures with graffiti. I don't have to be constantly looking down at the palm. Also how do you search text on the Iphone? I too think I'm going to have to use both my Iphone and Palm.

John Gordon said...

Yes, it's totally heads down data entry for the iPhone. Graffiti One with WordComplete is hard to beat -- much faster for those of us willing to learn Graffiti.

The iPhone team is a good ways from being able to replace a Palm. I still carry my Palm, though it's usually in my bag rather than my pocket. Next is to migrate my Contacts.

Anonymous said...

I agree so much about your description of the ever degrading PDA user interface as we keep integrating all the gadgets we used to use into fewer less capable ones. About 4 years ago I spent days during winter holidays transfering contacts, tasks and notes from my Palm V onto a Blackberry. Since then, I sort of abandoned usage of tasks because all other task managers compared to Palm look like a joke to me. It's never been the same with the ability to only back up the device but not to seamlessly work on its contents and sync from a PC. Now I'm going though the same hell with iPhone and I had to create an Outlook profile, import via IntelliSync from Blackberry, synchronize to iPhone, and I was only able to sync the contacts, but not the memos (UGH!), so with this "upgrade" iteration it seems I will be abandoning my memos and keep emails instead. Having in mind that it might take a lot more work to complete this data migration from my Blackberry to the test iPhone and the gradual degradation of the tasks, notes and the synchronization between the PC and the phone/PDA, I crave the days when I had a plain cell phone and a Palm. Every day I'm getting so much closer to returning this thing and getting a Treo. It will not be only me, because the others in my organization are waiting for my research results.
Deputy CIO

John Gordon said...

I have been able to migrate my tasks, but probably not in a way that would be useful for a department. My most current summary is here.

The iPhone is a year away from being business ready.

Anonymous said...

I am happy to find that I am not the only one who thinks the PALM was so much better as a PIM than the iphone. It seems like most people just don't care about the very things the PALM did so well. Man do I miss my Palm, the simple IIx was my favorite digital tool of all time.
anyway, again, thanks for even talking about this issue. everyone i know either still uses paper (which i am again doing), does not remember the palm, loves their smartphone, or is so organized they really do not need a PIM. good to know i am not alone!