Were PDA’s more flexible than phones?

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This week I linked to an article by Tom Munch which he wrote 17 years ago. In it he described how he used his Palm IIIc to do many things and Vince popped up with a question-

I enjoyed the walk through memory lane reading you article Tom, thanks a lot! I am curious of what we could do on the PDAs that we can’t do now? I would have thought the opposite!

Tom’s response made me think-

Wow! Lots of things. I could back up my Palm devices to an SD card and could restore in a few minutes. I could selectively back up and restore different apps. I could do a quick lookup of a contact from any app that supported the lookup feature. I could export calendar and memos very easily as well as move data from app to app. I could do quick alarms like I showed in the article with a screenshot. There were apps that had much more sophisticated database functions. With Hackmaster hacks there was quick access to all kinds of things that still aren’t supported in the widgets on iOS or share sheet even with IFTT and Workflow. I’m sure I can think of a dozen more things if I put my mind to it. It just seemed like the sky was the limit. I had to simplify greatly when I switched to a Blackberry and then to an iPhone. I’ve adjusted, but I miss the endless customizations that could be made. Of course it lacked the connectivity and communications. I even miss Graffiti and still cuss at the onscreen keyboard daily when it makes errors.

To me, it would appear on the face of it that Tom should be using an Android phone. When it comes to deep-level flexibility, iOS struggles. Besides apps like Workflow, there is little that the user can do to automate things and customers how the phone actually works.

And then Vince appeared to make the same case-

Apart from the quick contact search from any app, I was looking at my mobile and I can do all of those. I used to use a back up app to back eveything up to my SD card and I could pick and choose which apps to reinstall (I don’t use it any more because the cloud has become good enough to meet my needs now!) I can import and export anything to and from my agenda.To move data from one app to another, I just highlight something, select “share” and I can choose an app or send it in any way I want. I have an app installed which I can call up either last used apps, back, home or (my preferred option) I have selected the apps or actions I use the most. You can choose how many. I just swipe my thumb to the centre, and go to the option I want. It’s a super quick way to get to the app I want. I sort of feel like I still have the flexibility to make my phone what I want!

I haven’t spent too much time recently looking at Android apps, but if there is one thing that iOS is poor at, it is letting you do things in the exact way you want.

For me, the upsides easily outweigh this and we have many, many wonderful app options, but I do get Tom’s argument that the humble PDA from so long ago could do much that has not been explored in modern smartphones.

Vince also said-

I like the music you make btw, Shaun is right, you’re very talented!

Categories: Articles

3 replies

  1. Originally, computers were open. They had to be. And you had to know your way around in order to use them. By open I mean that you had access to everything and you had to know what used what. UNIX, DOS, Windows, and MacOS are like that. So is Android. Palm was like that as well, although they tried to hide it unless you really wanted it. So most of us grew up with the idea of file first, application second.

    What I mean is that files weren’t necessarily associated with apps. That came later. When you launched an app and opened a file, you had to be able to navigate the file system in order to find the file you wanted. Later came the ability to associate file extension with specific apps or types of apps. But the files and apps were still separate.

    Then came iOS. Apple totally hid the file system. Files weren’t just associated with apps, they were part of each specifics app’s environment. There was no way to open a document in one app, save it, and then open it in another. Gradually things have opened up a bit. There are apps like GoodReader that can sort of act as file servers. And some things like the photos are shareable. And gradually, some things have opened up. But generally, the file system is still closed. And no one puts anything near an operating system file or directory. The upside is supposedly stability. If the masses can’t play with something, they won’t break it.

    So we have file-centric and app-centric. And if you want, you can mostly use a modern operating system as if it were app-centric. MacOS has specific places where apps can default to looking for files, and Windows has copied that. We are still looking for files because that’s what we grew up with. The next generation will grow up with app-centric as computers and smartphones become appliances, not to be fiddled with.

  2. What I’m thinking about now is that using app-centric systems, makes it easier to track everyone’s moves, because they know exactly when you go into it, and what you are doing with it, where as using a file-centric system means you share and reveal only the bits you want to.

    I guess for the powers that be, an app-centric world is a trackable one, where as my folders and files are easier to keep private if I want.

  3. For me, the Palm environment lent itself better to my information flow. Granted, a part of that involved using a PC to manipulate the information.

    I was an IT manager at a large furniture store, and would be on the floor a lot getting random inputs for requests.

    The information flow went like this.

    Write the requirement in the Memo Pad.

    If I couldn’t deal with it directly, sync it to the desktop, and create a To Do.
    My To Do list had an intricate prioritizing matrix that allowed me to assign a value of 1 to 5, 1 being the highest. I would re-prioritize this value weekly based on changes reflected in my priority matrix.

    Once the item was complete, there was a clever app that looked at the completion date on the To Do and created a calendar item with the To Do and posted it on that date. That way it cleared my To Do list and added a calendar item when it was completed, if I ever needed to refer to it.

    I have not been able to duplicate this in the iOS universe.

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