Loose Wire — All-in-One Gadgets: Compact But No Cure-All: The Sony Ericsson P800 is an Internet-enabled PC, hand-phone, digital organizer and camera rolled into one; But some things are better kept separate
Take my new hand-phone, for example. I needed something that didn’t keep switching off mid-call, where the keys didn’t stick, and which had some extra features such as a decent calendar, contacts list and whatnot. After much deliberation I settled for the Nokia 7650, a beast that combines camera, digital assistant and phone.
Two weeks on, I like half the features and am somewhat disappointed over the other half, but in most cases the things I like about it are not the reasons I bought it. I’ve had to abandon synchronizing my data with Microsoft Outlook because the Nokia slows to a crawl with all my contacts aboard, while the short messaging (or SMS) feature, while comprehensive in terms of storing and displaying messages, is actually more fiddly than its predecessor. On the other hand, I’m addicted to taking pictures of people and linking the picture to their contact details, so on the rare occasions they call, their visage appears on the screen. Completely pointless, I know, and certainly not why I bought the thing, but it makes me happy.
I suspect similar problems with Sony Ericsson’s P800 (about $650). As I’m sure you know, Sony Ericsson is a trial marriage of Japanese electronics-giant Sony and Ericsson, the Swedish hand-phone manufacturer. They’ve been dabbling for a while in handsets and with their most recent model appear to have hit something near the jackpot. It looks a lot like a normal phone, but flip open the keypad and you get a screen the size of Hungary, an interface to die for and an almost fully fledged digital organizer. It’s a marvel of engineering, delightful to hold and look at, but sadly it’s still vulnerable to Feature Disconnect.
It’s like this. The P800 is out to replace your hand-phone and your personal digital assistant. It has handwriting recognition and will synchronize with Outlook and Lotus Notes; you can write and read e-mail and surf the Internet on it. Flip the keypad back into place and you have a normal phone that’s no larger than most existing hand-phones. Oh, and it takes pictures. For many folk it’s what they’ve been waiting for: a convergent device that means they can leave their Palm or PocketPC at home, as well as the digital camera. Lighter pockets all round. Out of the 100-or-so user reviews I read, only a handful said bad things about the P800.
My experience was different: While the handwriting recognition (scrawling letters on the screen which are then interpreted by the phone into digital text) is no better or worse than its peers, it’s one thing to tap away in your spare time and another to try to enter notes or phone numbers while you’re on the road taking a call from the boss. Errors creep in and frustration mounts. The software aboard the P800 is a departure — it’s neither Palm- nor Microsoft-related, instead drawing on the Symbian platform — and is nicely designed, but has its quirks. There are some treats — tap on a phone number and a menu appears, allowing you to phone, SMS or add the number to your contacts directly.
But there are also some oddities — I could not find, using a keyword search, any of the folk I had added to the contacts directory, and was horrified to discover that the phone does not support the “predictive text” SMS function used by everyone and his dog (predictive text anticipates what word you’re trying to tap on the keypad, allowing you to press keypads once to form words instead of several times). To not include this is, in my view, like selling a car without a steering wheel. My verdict: The P800 is a very impressive device but it’s too limited to replace my Palm — making it just a very expensive phone, albeit a full-featured one.
The problem as I see it is this: As all these gadgets get better, we demand more out of them. Then we want all those features in one device. Seeing the P800 — the closest anyone’s come to an all-in-one gadget — I can’t help wondering whether we’d be better off keeping some things separate. With a keyboard and Bluetooth, today’s Palm or PocketPC can, under certain conditions, do a very good job of mimicking a laptop, something that wasn’t really intended when they first appeared in the mid 1990s. Hand-phones now are messaging devices — transmitting not just voice, but messages, pictures and whatnot, storing music and taking photos — something that certainly wasn’t envisaged with the launch of their brick-sized ancestors in the early 1980s. All these features, in my view, make it less likely — and indeed, less preferable — to have an all-in-one device. So long as they communicate well with one another, I think manufacturers should focus on combinations of devices, allowing us users to mix and match according to our whim, however quirky. That way we might get what we want and not lose the features we like every time we upgrade.
Now keep still while I take a picture of you in case you call.
Loose Wire — Organize Me: Give us some software that really makes the information age meaningful
As I gaze over the software shelves nowadays, empty but for yet another minor update of word processors or system utilities and (admittedly rather cool) games, I wonder: What happened to software innovation? Where are all those great promises of what we could do with our computer beyond using it as a glorified typewriter or calculator?
Sure, folks can now do some interesting stuff with video, pictures and music, but is that what the information revolution was all about? I’ve got a tonne of stuff on my computer — letters, novels, memos, Chairman Mao-type thoughts, mortgage calculations — but what good is it if it just sits there, hidden behind arcane file names I’ll never remember, even under threat of torture? I fear the information revolution — at least on a personal level — has come and gone.
This is all very disappointing. I’d love to see our data made accessible for all sorts of imaginative things that make use of the power of our PCs. A program, say, that goes through all your e-mails and tells you, based on some fancy algorithm, how many Christmas cards you should send this year and to whom. A program that looks at your finances and, while you’re shopping for furniture, works out whether you need a second mortgage and finds the best one for you.
OK, I’m getting ahead of myself here. That we still can find something more easily on the Internet — or in the attic — than we can on our computer is a depressing reminder of how far we have to go. Indeed, in 1999 a small California start-up called Enfish produced the most revolutionary piece of software I’d seen in years — a search program called Tracker that allowed you to search rapidly and easily through everything on your computer. It was magical in its simplicity, elegant in its design, and suddenly made having a hard disk full of all your stuff a sensible idea.
If you could check in a flash what and when you last wrote to Aunt Edith, all the previous litigious letters to your tenants, the last time your country declared war on another country, life really suddenly could get a lot easier. The index would update itself while you were asleep, so you didn’t have to do anything beyond installing it. You could save complex searches with simple names, so that you could exclude letters about Aunt Edith from nosy Cousin Connie, or include only those that referred to her pet poodle Alfie but not to Phoebe the cat. It was fab. And as with all things fab, it didn’t last (the software, not the cat).
Well, that’s not strictly true. Enfish is still going, doing its best to convince a sceptical public that this kind of thing is actually useful. But in the meantime their subsequent software has never approached the quality of Tracker, which sadly won’t work with Microsoft’s most recent version of Windows XP, and that effectively renders it useless. But at least Enfish is hanging in there: Version six of its software ($100 for the basic product, from www.enfish.com) is released this week and to me it’s the closest the company has got to its old Tracker.
I can only guess why such a great idea hasn’t caught on. There’s no great learning curve involved: Once you’ve explained to users that Enfish is essentially a Google search engine for your computer, there’s not much more to say. Sadly Enfish is not yet a household word. But Enfish does have competition, and perhaps they’ll be more lucky.
One is the Australian company 80-20 Software, which has this month released version 3.0 of its 80-20 Retriever software ($50 from www.80-20.com). While previous versions of 80-20 Retriever will do pretty much what Enfish does — index your documents, e-mails and whatnot, let you search quickly through them — only this version lets you view the documents without having to launch the program you created them in (say, launching Microsoft Word to view a Word document). This is a vital feature, since you can quickly scroll through documents retrieved by your search, all in one place.
In fact, Retriever does a fine job but falls down, in my view, by trying too hard to integrate itself into Outlook, Microsoft’s calendar, contact and e-mail behemoth. My advice to 80-20: You’re nearly there, but drop the Outlook interface and just be yourself. It should be a stand-alone program.
Both are worth trying (Enfish Find and 80-20 Retriever can be downloaded and used for a month free). For the heavy lifters, I’d recommend dtSearch Desktop. Although a pricey $200 from dtSearch (www.dtsearch.com), this is a super-fast, super-reliable program that tells you a lot about what’s on your computer. By launching your search from a viewable index of words, you can see how many misspelled words you are missing in normal searches. The interface isn’t particularly friendly, but it’s a workhorse for the serious searcher. Now if only it could help me on my Christmas-card list.