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Palm Column

The Palm is on top, but there's room for improvement

by Shawn Barnett
April 2000, issue 33

Gadgets are my thing. Palm gadgets are by far my favorite gadgets of all. So every issue I spend time in this column singing their praises, and typing out the gospel of Palm. But is that all there is?

I wish I could say yes. But the truth is, no company or platform is perfect. While Palm OS computers are very easy to use, there are some problems to overcome before they are truly ready for non-tech people to integrate them into their lives like pen and paper.

Address Book management

One of the simplest improvements to make is improving the Address Book. First on that list is increasing the number of fields to match the fields in Outlook. Because Windows CE was developed later than the Palm OS, the Contacts manager has this functionality built in; its only problem has been that it's as slow as an old dog. Jeff Hawkins' original vision was to make the Pilot as simple as possible and he accomplished that by having it sync with the Palm Desktop software. His vision was obviously a clear one, because here we are, discussing this ultra-popular computing platform in a magazine where he's on the cover. But it is beyond time to integrate complete Outlook compatibility, or perhaps even user-configurable fields, allowing the Address Book engine to serve as a multi-purpose database. It could be configured by either the user or a user's program, like Puma's Intellisync, to have all the fields the customer needs. There might even be multiple copies of the Address Book for different purposes.


This whole idea of customization is a risky one, and it explains why change occurs so slowly at Palm. I myself am loath to suggest many ideas, just because the Palm OS's beauty is that it's so simple. Just like Graffiti, it forces you to work the way it does, and doesn't try to be everything in the world. Like Popeye, it is what it is, and it kicks butt. But how about a checkbox now and then?! Allow me to decide on the way just a few more things work on my little computer. Yes, every checkbox represents a few more lines of code, but we're no longer working with a 128K machine. The discipline of the early days for the Pilot, as articulated by Hawkins himself, was, "Do we really need that? No? Take it out." That's serious wisdom for a brand new product if you want it to succeed where others have failed with too many bells and whistles.

But as I've said a few times in these pages, the Palm OS is successful for a few reasons, not the least of which is all the third party programmers who've made it so much more than an organizer. The organizer model got it into people's hands just like Visicalc got the Apple II and IBM PC into businesses. But it was the Palm's limitations combined with its open architecture and portability that inspired programmers and hardware manufacturers to make it the portable computing masterpiece it is today.

Clearly Hawkins himself has embraced the idea of gradual improvements to the OS, because he's seen fit to include DateBook 3 in the Visor, as well as an enhanced calculator, not to mention the Springboard slot that allows me to make my Visor into whatever electronic device I want. But its time for some improvements to the basic applications, including the Palm Desktop.

Binary pocket

One of the other things I really want the Palm to have is what I call a Binary Pocket. If I were a programmer, I would have already tried to create it, but since I'm not a programmer, I'll pitch the idea to my readers, many of whom are. I want the ability to load absolutely anything I want onto the Palm, and use it as a disk to transport files from my office to my desktop computer. I want to be able to beam it to other Binary Pocket users. I even want to be able to beam the Binary Pocket's program to other users, so I can give anyone my document, or picture, or .wav file. They don't need to be able to view a given item, they just need to be able to HotSync it and view it on their desktop. This would turn the Palm into a disk that could store, transport, and beam any kind of data I need it to, and do so with greater relative security than email. As it is, the Palm OS will only take files that are programmed to run on a Palm. With the TRGpro, for example, you're able to play .wav files off of the Compact Flash card, but you cannot copy the files to the Palm for storage or playback. We need a programmer to fix this for us, and make the Palm that much more useful.

Ideas on how to improve the Palm are plenty, and I've only expressed the first few of the items on my list. Let me know what's at the top of your list. Email me at, and I'll compile and publish a list of the best ideas in the magazine. Also, if you want to do a little customization of your own regarding how you use your Palm, check out the three reviews of database programs for the Palm in this issue. From simple to comprehensive, one of the three programs could help you make your Palm work a lot harder for you or your company.

Now get prepared, because if the Palm IIIc isn't exciting enough for you, this upcoming season could see a lot more announcements of new products and new alliances from Palm and its licensees. Shawn Barnett can be reached via e-mail at

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