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Knowledge and Handhelds
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reeder29
I've been using handheld computers for over ten years now.   While I like gadgets as much as the next guy, I try to maintain an engineer's perspective: what does this allow people to do, what does it let them do better?  Much as we compare devices to each other, it's still not clear that handhelds are gaining ground on the 900-pound gorilla: paper and pencil.

For years, I kept a paper planner.  It traveled with me, unlike a wall calendar, and was a useful place to scrawl notes that I might need later that week or month. (I still use datebook applications this way - notes gracefully drift off into obscurity as they became obsolete.)  When my first Palm Pilot arrived,  I was thrilled!  I tend to lose myself in my work.  But the Palm's alarm drew me back to reality in time for meetings and appointments.  (And my wife is delighted—I remember her birthday now.)

I would also write to-do lists in the paper planner, but I was continually copying items to the current date.   The simple to-do application on my Palm III was not much better - I accumulated  a lot of items, but it was work to tease out which items I should work on next.  I haven't yet found an app that really does what I want: tell me what I can do, here and now, to advance various projects.

When Verizon replaced my Kyocera 7135 with a Treo 650, I gave the email application a try.  Irksome to configure (and slow to use over dialup, since Verizon's data rates were too high for me), I  plodded along, thinking "this must have some usefulness."  Many emails were of little value if you couldn't follow the URLs.  The Treo's web browser was not adequate for viewing most of the Web (which is largely the fault of the websites, but I was at the short end of that lever).

A colleague pointed me toward Michael Mace's blog post "The shape of the smartphone and mobile data markets" (http://mobileopportunity.blogspot.com/2007/01/shape-of-smartphone-and-mobile-data.html).  His market research for PalmSource revealed three distinct groups of users (and a big chunk of non-users).  It was an "aha!" moment -- that was why people were excited over capabilities I did not find particularly useful.  The group he calls "information-centric users" (a commenter suggested "knowledge-centric users", and that describes them better) describes my use to a T.  We use handheld devices to record knowledge, and retrieve it again -- a "backing store" for our brains.  While it's nice if our handheld can hold a whole reference manual (or access it online, these days), really we just want to store our notes in a handy place.  So the old PDA-without-a-phone was fine for us. But our needs were seemingly shuffled aside in the rush to pour more data through handhelds. 

So my blog will focus on handhelds and knowledge, and software and techniques that help us toward real-world understanding and making real-world decisions  (with excursions to any topic that grabs my fancy :-).  So I close my first post with the motto of Richard Wesley Hamming's book "Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers":

The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers.


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Indeed, no one has built a device targeting the information centric user, and this frustrates me to no end. We know there is a market for it, but it has been sadly overlooked in the rush to build email-centric or media-consumption centric devices.

So we keep waiting...

- Chris

PS: I was the Director of Competitive Analysis at Palm & PalmSource, working for Michael Mace most of my five years there.

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