Tag Archives: Pocket PC

The Demise of the Handheld Interface

Am I the only person depressed by the idea that Treos are now going to be Windows Mobile-powered? (It remains to be seen whether there’ll be Palm versions too; it would make sense, at least for a while.)

First off, feel sorry for all the third party developers who came up with great Palm software over the years. Mourn the small file sizes. Mourn the simple interface.

For sure, Palm and the OS had their weaknesses. They never seemed to really improve on the software that was in the Palm IIIs except add some colour. They missed more opportunities than your average Premier League club. And my Treeo 650 still crashes on a regular basis. But Windows? Why has nobody ever questioned the wisdom of mimicking a Windows environment and GUI on a screen the size of a cigarette box? The whole idea of Windows is to have lots of programs open that you can see on your screen and move stuff between. When did anybody ever do that on a Pocket PC?

I hate everything about Pocket PC Windows. I really do. There’s no style, no grace to it. Too many unnecessary lines. Big clunky scroll bars. Silly start menus that are at the bottom or top of screens, making for awkward stylus (or finger nail gestures.) Why is the only serious innovation in this field done by outsiders such as the great University of Maryland-developed Datelens? And what’s so Windowsy about Pocket PC Windows anyway? Why, for example, has Microsoft (nor Palm, for this matter) not figured out how to throw up status messages that don’t take up the whole screen?

Sorry, I’m cranky today. But while I long ago lost hope in Palm turning its software into more than a colour version of its mid 1990s original, I have never been a convert to Windows on a handheld. Is there no vision out there about how we use our portable devices that isn’t just an ugly, stripped down and clunky version of what we have to put up with on our desktop? Why haven’t these wonderfully simple new ideas about interfaces from, say, 37signals spread to the handheld? Or is the future Apple shaped and we haven’t seen it yet?

Getting Excited and Depressed About Scalable Interfaces

This isn’t new, and it’s not even supported anymore, but it’s a great Outlook add-in that is both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring because it shows us what we could be doing, depressing because there’s nothing really like this out there that fulfils this kind of potential. It’s Datelens – A Revolutionary Scalable Calendar Interface:

Calendar applications for small handheld devices such as PDAs are growing in popularity. This led us to develop DateLens, a novel calendar interface that supports not only PDAs, but a range of devices, from desktop computers to Tablet PCs. It supports users in performing planning and analysis tasks by using a fisheye representation of dates coupled with compact overviews, user control over the visible timer period, and integrated search. This enables users to see overviews, easily navigate the calendar structure, and discover patterns and outliers. Moreover, DateLens takes advantage of each device, running quickly on PDAs and supporting ink on Tablet PCs.

To get a proper sense of it download the movie/screencast on the page. What impressed me is not the graphics, which are clunky, with too many lines and not enough charm, but its malleability to the user. Or what is called ‘scalable user interfaces’. For example

  • By zooming in on the entry, day or month you’re interested in you can see more of what you need, right down to the half-hour segment itself, but with lots more context;
  • Search for events doesn’t throw up a boring list of matches, but a colour-coded range of matches, plus more colour markings on the scroll bar to show you what else is matching offscreen;
  • Easily assign more space or less to weekends, or months, or weeks;
  • The video/screencast (actually it’s not really a screencast) shows how even something as complex as these features can be explained really easily in three minutes.

Oh, and it’s free. I would love to see this kind of thing introduced into ordinary software. I’m not an Outlook user, which it plugs into directly, or a PocketPC, which it also works well with. But hopefully Microsoft are thinking along these lines. (All this reminded me of the late Jef Raskin’s zoomable user interfaces. What a shame no one ever got that kind of thing onto the desktop computer in his lifetime.)

Pocket PC’s Backdoor

Symantec say they’ve found the first Windows CE (PocketPC) backdoor Trojan, which they’re calling Backdoor.Bardor.A: “Once installed, the backdoor allows full control of the handheld system when it is restarted. When the infected handheld is connected to the Internet, the backdoor sends the attacker the IP address of the handheld device. It then opens port 44299 and waits for further instructions from the attacker.”

There are some limits: The backdoor only affects Pocket PC devices with ARM CPUs.

This follows the discovery of the first PocketPC virus, Duts, last month.

Another Way To Meet Via Bluetooth

Further to a post last week, here’s another piece of software that uses Bluetooth to as a social thing, allowing folk to find and communicate with one another.

It’s called BuZZone, it’s made by Exion Systems Company, based in Novosibirsk, Russia and although it’s been around for a few months, it now comes in a free version. Since the whole idea of the thing is to look for other people using the same program, I guess that makes sense, unless you fancy some very lonely walks around public places.

BuZZone, for now, works only with PocketPC PDAs and Windows laptops. Exion says it’s working on developing versions that work on other systems.

I’m a bit skeptical, to be honest. I know that toothing is supposedly taking off in a big way in the UK. But you’re going to need a lot of people to download this kind of thing before it really starts to be worth it. But hey, I’ve been wrong tons of times before!

News: Microsoft Launches Voice Recognition for the Pocket PC

 Microsoft has launched new voice recognition and control software to allow mobile phone and handheld computer users to control most functions of their phones without fiddling with tiny controls. Microsoft Voice Command, Reuters reports, will be sold as a $40 add-on for the Windows Mobile Pocket PC software for PDAs and mobile phones, allowing users to call up a contact on a device by simply asking for a person’s name. It will also launch applications, control phone functions and look up and read back calendar appointments.

Column: backing up

 Loose Wire — Just To Be on The Safe Side

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 30 May 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how to back up your files in the case of disaster, theft, stupidity or a combination of all three. But as several readers pointed out, nearly all the methods I suggested have flaws: Backing up to another drive is no good if you don’t take the drive with you — assuming your computer is eaten by Godzilla or your mother sells it in a garage sale while you’re at the mall — or if the drive remains connected and gets eaten by the same virus that destroyed your original data.

 
On-line drives, where you upload all your documents to a Web site, are fine but a bit slow, and you can never be 100% certain the on-line-drive company won’t go bust, or that someone won’t hack into your data and learn all your darkest secrets. Backing up to a CD-ROM is cheap, but they have a habit of corrupting data without telling you.
 
When my laptop was stolen a year ago, I was fairly sure I hadn’t lost much data until I found my back-up to CD-ROM was a melange of zeroes and ones. Not my idea of a safe back-up.
 
My answer to all these gripes is: All true, but maybe we’re addressing the wrong problem. Unless you’re a real data dude, chances are your most important data — ignoring all those thousands of company letters, ageing CVs, letters to old flames and what-have-you that are clogging your hard drive — could be limited to about 100 megabytes. (Doesn’t sound like much? Remember that 10 years ago that was a big hard drive for most people.)
 
What I suggest is this: Work out what your most important documents are and save them to one easy-to-remember folder. Weed it out ruthlessly. Don’t worry about contacts and calendars and stuff like that if you have a Palm or Pocket PC, since they’re already duplicated on PC and hand-held devices (and if they aren’t, you should be ashamed of it, at your age). If all this weeded data comes to more than 100 megabytes, you can always compress it into a zip file, which works particularly well with bloated document formats like Microsoft Word. For this try WinZip from www.winzip.com, or the more complete PowerDesk from Ontrack International at www.ontrack.com that I mentioned a few weeks ago.
 
Now for the neat bit. A couple of years ago a Singaporean company called Trek 2000 International (www.thumbdrive.com) started selling mini-drives about the size of your little finger, which they called ThumbDrives (don’t ask; probably they all have small thumbs down there at Loyang Industrial Estate). These sleek little gadgets look like a small lighter and slot into your USB port. After installing some software, depending on what kind of operating system you’re using, you have a new drive.
 
When they first appeared they were pricey but now with competition from elsewhere they’re pretty reasonable: I picked up a 128-megabyte M-Drive from Taiwan’s Star King Technologies for about $80. And Britain’s Targus does a more expensive 64-megabyte model, which retails for $120 and looks more like a magic marker.
 
All models, however, are well designed and fit easily onto a key ring. Which is exactly where I suggest you put it once you’ve backed up all your important data. Now you have a copy of all your most important stuff with you at all times — as long as you don’t lose your keys or get amnesia.
 
There are other options: If you have a gadget that hooks up to your PC, such as a camera, MP3 player, Pocket PC or Palm, chances are you can store data on the flash card that comes with it. Hook the gadget up to your PC and you should be able to read the contents of the flash card as a separate drive. In most cases you can now put anything you like on it.
 
In the future this will be how most of us store all our stuff: M-Drive promise a 2-gigabyte version in the near future, and while it may not be that cheap, knowing that a back-up of everything you hold dear is locked into a little finger in your pocket may be worth the expense.

Column: the future of the PDA

Loose Wire: The Future’s in Your Handheld
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff , 6 December 2001 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Okay, so my track record as tech visionary isn’t flawless, but bear with me. After all, I’m the guy who thought fold-out keyboards for personal digital assistants, or PDAs, wouldn’t catch on. (In its first year of shipping, United States-based Think Outside Inc. sold more than one million of its Stowaway keyboards, offering 24 different versions and making it the most successful new product for handheld computing ever.)

I’m also the guy who last February described the credit-cardsized Rex personal organizer as “the future.” Its latest owner, Intel Corp., stopped producing them in August. Oh, and I thought installing Windows XP, the latest version of Microsoft’s ubiquitous operating system, was a good idea; I removed it earlier this month when it slowed my programs to a crawl, was fickle in connecting to the Internet and — although I have no concrete proof of this, I’m convinced — invited aliens to take over my PC.

But I’m sure I’ll be proved right on this next prediction: that the PDA represents the future of computing as we know it. These gadgets represent our best chance to make computing an activity that isn’t wed to the environment — from hunting for a power outlet or phone socket to being stuck in the office next to the guy who coughs up fur balls all day. PDAs offer us the chance of being always on, always connected, always updated and, at least in theory, always on time for meetings.

PDAs, however, aren’t quite ready for us yet. Wireless connectivity is still only available to the lucky few. Only a handful of manufacturers have combined the PDA with the handphone and most of those are still operating at the laughably slow speeds provided by the popular Global System for Mobile, or GSM. But this will change — more slowly than we’d like, but it will. New handphones hitting the streets in coming months will make use of 2.5G and GPRS — a halfway house between what you’re used to — GSM — and what you were promised — 3G, or Third Generation wireless telecommunications — which will speed things up.

This will help make the PDA much more than just a toy. If you are able get a decent connection to the company network or the Internet, you won’t just be able to check e-mail and surf. You can synchronize company spreadsheets, contact databases, and update inventories, price lists and orders.

Right now there’s a mismatch between what people want from these things and what they can actually do — and this undermines our faith in them. I packed up my Hewlett-Packard Jornada and its keyboard and headed outside last week to write a column, only to find I couldn’t read the colour screen in bright sunlight. And, unless you’re vaguely techie-ish, chances are you don’t back up all that often, either to your PC or to a flash-memory card, raising the likelihood that you lose all your data on the road to a crash, or you drop it in a nearby swamp.

Still, what really matters is getting software that’s tailored to your needs, however specific. One very useful tool, for example, is a program developed by U.S.-based Firepad Inc. (www.firepad.com) which converts most PC or Mac formats of image and video files to something that can easily be downloaded or viewed on a Palm. This is great for professionals, from engineers to estate agents, who don’t want to lug diagrams, technical manuals, catalogues or blue prints around with them.

There are other reasons PDAs might be about to take off. Screens are getting better — the Palm m505 has an excellent colour screen — while peripherals are getting more useful, from plug-in cameras to GPS tracking devices. Battery life is improving, too: the Compaq iPAQ 3870 is supposed to run for 12 hours or more. Handwriting recognition is also getting better: Microsoft’s Transcribe software comes preloaded on the latest Pocket PCs, allowing users to write longhand on the screen and their scribblings to be interpreted into digital text on the fly.

This isn’t going to happen tomorrow. And because it’s me predicting it, it may well not happen at all. But if we can get our heads around it, we may find that the humble PDA may end up being more productive than our desktop PC by doing what we want it to do, when we want it to. Especially if you have to abandon your desktop PC to aliens.