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Palmless in Las Vegas

Lessons of the permanently misplaced PDA

by Shawn Barnett

Posted May 23, 2003

I'd planned everything just so. It was the first time in a long time that I was bringing only one main device for all my data needs. Usually I have several devices along, to review either the device itself or an application or two. This time I would avoid the madness. Or so I thought.

The flight went fine, but the crowds gearing up for the beginning of CES had made the Las Vegas airport taxi line quite long. Universal Studios-on-a-holiday long. No problem, though. I had both my Palm i705 and my Treo 270 along, so I switched between the two for entertainment. I'd only loaded the i705 with my current data, though; I brought the 270 only to test the new GPRS data features. So I read some news on AvantGo, sent a few emails, browsed a site or two. The line moved quickly, but by the time I got to the front, it was already an hour later, and eleven minutes into my first scheduled meeting. When I finally got into the cab, I chatted with the driver and responded to a few more emails. The cabbie was fast, which I appreciated. I got there in only ten minutes, so I wouldn't be too terribly late for the hour-long meeting.

That's when it must have happened. CES was rolling into view and I got my wallet out. I must have put the i705 down on the seat to get the cash from my wallet. In appreciation for his quick service I gave the driver a good tip, requested a receipt, and shuffled out of the cab. I shouldered my backpack and went around the back to get my suitcase. The well-tipped cabbie did not join me, however. He was talking with another cabbie in front of the cab. So I flipped the trunk open and grabbed my bag. As it crossed the lip of the trunk, he appeared and offered to help. I declined.

With all my stuff on the curb, I checked my watch and mentally prepared for the next phase of my journey. That would require my Palm, because I'd been careful to write the room number for the meeting right there in the Palm Date Book.

I patted my left front pocket, where it ought to be. Empty. Back pocket. No. I frantically checked all of the pockets in my Carhartt jeans, and then my backpack. No i705. I turned to where the cab had been, and it was gone; a group of cabs was pulling away, and they all looked about the same. I wouldn't know which to run after if I could. I grabbed my cell phone and dialed the number on the receipt I'd received, remembering that Nevada's area code was 702 statewide. The driver hadn't put an amount nor a cab number on the receipt, so there was no way to identify him to the company. The dispatcher tried to raise him on the radio, and I even offered a US$100 reward (a bribe in this case) for return of the device, which was also broadcast by the dispatch. Nothing. Nothing 15 minutes later. Nothing an hour later. And nothing turned up in the lost and found the next day. My Palm i705 and all my appointments, plus a nice 128MB SD card were gone. I had no idea what room my meeting was in, but that was solved easily enough by my familiarity with the Las Vegas Convention Center and some helpful people at an information desk. It was the rest of the show that would be a challenge.

It wasn't so much the loss of the device itself as it was the functionality I've grown accustomed to with my Personal Digital Assistant always at my side. I learned some important lessons that day, some of which I already knew. Other important principles were reaffirmed. I'd like to share some of them with you.


One thing I don't have a problem with is regular HotSyncing. I'm always installing this software or that, and I really like the AvantGo service for reading the news when I have time, so I HotSync daily, with the exception of weekends. Fortunately I was able to move into the Handspring Treo by HotSyncing it when I got to my hotel room, but it was an incomplete solution. Because I mostly HotSync with a notebook PC, but travel with an Apple iBook, I was left without most of my appointments. I synced with my PC before I left, but hadn't synced with the iBook for a week, so the data was a week old. That was my first mistake, and I knew I'd made it even before I synced. I had meant to, but decided to wait until I got to my hotel room. So though I did have a nice, pristine copy of all my Palm's data on a PC, I didn't have that PC with me, and there were four more days before I'd see that particular PC again. Lesson: HotSync with the one you're bringing as well as the one that stays behind, just in case.


Yes, for most of us, HotSyncing is backing up, and too few do it. But those of us with experience like to have that redundant backup along, just in case of a catastrophic crash that erases all data. With a program like BackupBuddy VFS, you can quickly restore lost data to a compatible device, either in full or one file at a time. It writes to a memory card on devices with the requisite slot, and the latest version can even encrypt data on the card so people can't hack it if the card is lost. But I didn't have this version, and because I had the card in the device when I lost it, it wouldn't have done me any good for recovery; but the data would have been encrypted, at least. I had never lost a Palm device, so I only think about backup as recovery in case of program failure or accidental deletion. An obvious solution would have been to store a backup in another bag. I'm not sure I could be that redundant, but it makes perfect sense. Palm's slightly overpriced Backup Card would also be a solution. Lesson: If it's important, be redundant.


One thing I did do right was keep most of my valuable and vulnerable data, mostly passwords and account numbers, locked up tight in a secure file. I've had eWallet on my Palm for some time now, and I've also played with Cloak. Both of them offer a simple interface on pretty powerful 128-bit encryption for snippets of data that you wouldn't want to trust to your Palm Address Book. I am extremely happy that I had my data in eWallet, because I am assured by Ilium Software that my data is most likely completely untouched. I may be a bit too impressed with the capabilities of "fences" as portrayed in Hollywood, but I think a determined person could crack the database eventually. I look at products like eWallet as a good impediment to allow me some time to get all my passwords changed. As Ilium Software's Marc Tassin put it, "Even if someone DID have the capability to [break in], the fact of the matter is that until they invest the massive amounts of time and effort to somehow get into the wallet, for all they know they'll get nothing more than your pants size and your yahoo email password. A lot of effort for uncertain results." Lesson: If it gives access to your money or your important data on other computers, make sure it's secure.


Security is built into the Palm OS. Though it's limited, it can be of value if set up right. Because it would be a drag to have to enter a password every time I pick up my Palm-which is at least once an hour-I've set mine to lock down after two hours of inactivity. When on a trip, I can make that time any number of hours or minutes to make it more secure or less cumbersome. You can also set the full screen upstroke to lock and turn off the Palm, or you can just have it lock every time the unit shuts down. It makes as much sense to enable security on your Palm as it does to enable it on your notebook or even desktop. Lesson: Your desktop can be hacked from around the World, and your notebook is an attractive and profitable commodity that thieves love for its resale value, and we usually password-protect these items. But it's primarily the data on your Palm that's valuable to a thief. After all, if it weren't important, you wouldn't have put it in your Palm so you could have it with you.


This doesn't apply to all Palm devices, but the i705 has a permanent number assigned to it so that it can be identified on the network. Within minutes of losing the Palm and the driver's not responding to my pleas, I called and had the unit quarantined. I lost the remainder of that month's service subscription (which sucks), but at least no one will be able to use that device as it was intended. And they won't be able to send or receive email from my friends and colleagues. What would have been really cool would have been a trojan horse or self-destruct program that could have been sent from the Palm central office to purge all my data, but the danger and liability of such a program is clear. Sure would have been cool though. Lesson: Limit your liability when possible.


Though I did offer a reward, and though I did have my name and phone number on the back of the unit, the person in question didn't turn out to be honest enough to return the unit. No amount of preparation can help in that situation, but one can increase the odds that an honest person will be able to do a good deed by signing up with a company like BoomerangIt or StuffBak. Both of these companies offer a labeling, retrieval, and reward service for just about anything that can get lost. Right before I left, in fact, I ordered a BoomerangIt kit that had just arrived before I departed. I looked at it briefly before getting on the plane, but I didn't use it. The kit-which I am indeed now using-included three stickers and three tags. Two of the stickers are for small devices and the larger one is for a notebook computer. The tags are a luggage tag and two key tags. They can be mixed and matched, you just go to the website and enter the description of the device with the corresponding sticker or tag number. Easy, and in the case of BoomerangIt, it's good for 10 years. Chances are I'll have very different computers by then, but it's a small investment for good potential to recover some very expensive items. Lesson: Give people both a reason and a method to get your device back to you.

That last lesson may save you having to do what I did: After exhausting all avenues to get the unit back, I took a cab ride to the nearest Office Max and slapped down another US$200 for a new device, plus another US$50 to re-activate. I also spent several hours changing various passwords on many important Web-based accounts. No fun at all. I also now know what to do every time I get out of a cab: get a receipt, get the cab number (and even the driver's name), and make sure I have my Palm Pilot. - -Shawn Barnett

-Shawn Barnett

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