Wireless Worker: Lone Warrior

I am a freelance writer and therefore a sole proprietor. I run my business out of my pocket, using a personal data assistant, a Palm T3 to be exact, although I have used many PDA models in the 16 years since I bought my first Casio B.O.S.S.

This doesn't mean that I don't have an office (a spare bedroom in my house in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley) or a computer (a T42 ThinkPad). But the operating end of my business -- my schedule, my contacts information, the front-end to my financial software (Quicken), and many other things -- resides in my PDA. And while I can certainly access this information on my laptop, I use the Palm Desktop and specifically do not use Microsoft Outlook -- although Palm provides free software with its PDAs that allows owners to share data with Outlook.

PDAs have several disadvantages compared with laptops. Their screens are smaller and can be harder to read, particularly in bright sunlight. Data entry is harder. They have less memory and slower processors. They are, in general, less capable, and when something goes wrong, it's often harder to find service than it is for Windows or Macintosh computers.

And they are vulnerable to breakage and loss, although certainly laptops are stolen often enough. These disadvantages have limited the pure PDA to a niche market, although smart phones that combine cell phone and PDA functionality, such as the various Treo models, have gained a much larger market and can be used in much the same way as a pure PDA.

Access is key

So, why do I use a PDA? In a word: access. My PDA is always with me, 24 hours a day, wherever I happen to be, whatever I am doing. More than once an alarm from my PDA has reminded me of a forgotten meeting. And when I'm working on a project, I can rely on my PDA to give me adequate warning of an upcoming appointment, so I don't have to constantly check the clock.

If I am walking through New York City and have forgotten the address of my next appointment, I just pull out my PDA. When I need to jot down an address, check my schedule, jot down a business expense, check the time in any city worldwide or calculate whether my diet allows me to have a dessert, I can do that anywhere -- in a cab with a business associate, over a business lunch, in a store, in the hallway of an office or during a business call on my cell phone.

I can and have read and answered important business e-mail while on the road using my T3 and a Bluetooth connection to my cell phone, when I couldn't find a Wi-Fi connection for my laptop or simply didn't have it with me. Last January, I negotiated an important business contract totally through e-mail on my PDA while on vacation in California. And in the confined spaces of an airplane or train, the PDA is much easier to use, has longer battery life and turns off and on instantly (although on an airplane, PDA users need to turn off their built-in Bluetooth radios).

The PDA has other benefits as well. Organization is a key to business success, and the PDA is first and foremost a supreme organizational tool. With the right software, you can organize yourself at least as effectively on your PDA as on your desktop or laptop computer. And because the PDA is your personal machine, you can combine your personal and business lives on it without concern, when you might not want to have your personal appointments, for instance, on your business calendar on your computer, to which business associates may have access.

PDA discipline

Proper use of PDAs requires discipline. First of all, no organizational method does any good without good habits. This starts with adding information as soon as it becomes available. I am always pulling out my PDA to add something to my to-do list, shopping list, etc. When I make an appointment, I put it in my PDA immediately. When I incur a business expense, I capture it at that moment and code it so that at the end of the year when I run my tax report for my accountant, it will be there.

That requires time and can be interruptive, but it yields a major payoff. I can be confident that I will not be blindsided by a forgotten appointment or task, not come home from the store only to go back for some important thing I forgot simply because I became distracted before I had a chance to enter it on my desktop. This is particularly important for the sole proprietor, because organization can make the difference between success and failure.

The other part of general discipline is consulting my calendar information regularly. First thing every morning, often before I dress, I plan my day, checking my calendar for appointments, reading my list of tasks for the day, planning my diet. I check these regularly throughout the day to be sure I don't forget anything. As a result, I always know the next thing I need to do.

The PDA requires two other important disciplines: data backup and recharging. You cannot back up your data too often. I back up to two memory cards several times a day. One of those stays with my PDA; the other is in a separate case so that if I lose my T3, I have the valuable data ready for the replacement machine. Every morning I also do a hot sync, which synchronizes the data in the PDA and in my laptop and updates data from the Web, including weather forecasts and the latest news.

Battery charging is a daily issue for all my gadgets. I do my charging overnight usually, although if I use my PDA heavily, I sometimes need to recharge during the day, and when I travel I carry a battery-powered recharger for that purpose. The last thing I do before going to bed at night is to be sure all my gadgets are on their chargers.  

Picking the device for you

When selecting a PDA or smart phone, keep in mind that every device is a compromise. For instance, a smart phone combining a cell phone and PDA, such as Palm's Treo line, combines two devices into one. But it has much less memory and a smaller screen than a pure PDA and is larger than many cell phones. Many people love their converged smart phones, but for some of us the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Which will work best for you depends on your needs.

One major issue with PDAs and smart phones is finding help when something goes wrong. Of course the manufacturers, including Palm, provide dial-in support, but only for the device and software that comes with it. And the quality of that support is often spotty. Fortunately, Palm PDAs are much simpler devices than desktop or laptop computers, and many of the problems they experience have fairly simple remedies.

One place to look for help is in online discussion groups. Most PDA models have their own online groups on Yahoo or Google, and you also can find groups like "Writing on Your Palm" (woyp@googlegroups.com ), which cover a wide range of devices. There are also a couple of dedicated news and views sites for Palm and Windows Mobile systems, where you can find hints and people willing to try to diagnose your problem.

Finally, if you use third-party applications, often the developers -- typically one-person shops --can help you with problems, even if those don't involve their software directly. People like C.E. Steuart Dewar, the man behind Datebk5, and Jeff Mitchell, who developed and supports ShadowPlan, just to mention two of this dedicated and very approachable group of experts, will go out of their way to help users of their products.

Third-party software

That brings up one of the traditional strengths of the Palm devices: the very large community of third-party software developers. While I like Palm's hardware overall, I don't use any of the software that comes with it. Below is a list of some of my favorite third-party applications, with some notes:   

  • Datebk5 from Pimlico Software is the ultimate unified calendar and assignments list, with many advanced features. I particularly like its ability to link appointments, assignments, addresses and notes. So, for example, if I have a business call in my appointment calendar, I can easily link it to the person and number I need to use, and to a note outlining what I want to discuss.

  • SuperNames from Stand Alone Inc.allows me to collect a huge amount of information on business and personal contacts ranging from the names of their personal assistants, associates and family members to information on their pets and cars.

  • UTS (UTrack Systems) provides an excellent tracker for basic health measurements such as blood pressure, weight and exercise. My doctor loves it when I show him a chart of my blood pressure readings for the past month on my PDA. It also offers a specific package for diabetics.

  • CalorieKing's handheld Diet Diary is an excellent diet and exercise tracker. It also has desktop software, but I prefer the handheld because I can use it at the table. It has a large and ever-growing searchable database of foods and tracks calories, carbohydrates, fat, fiber and protein, plus fluid intake and calories burned through exercise.

  • ShadowPlan is an excellent outliner, list-maker and personal project tracker. I use it for my daily, time-stamped diary, for lists of all kinds and for planning activities. One of its nice features is its ability to link with the Palm's built-in assignment database so that if you use it to manage projects, you can import specific assignments and their due dates into the to-do list.

  • WordSmith (from Blue Nomad Software) is still the best and most stable Palm word processor (and I have tried them all). As a journalist, I often take notes in my Palm and occasionally write articles in it. While WordSmith doesn't use native Microsoft Word files, it does include a desktop component that makes the conversion either way very simple. And the things it does offer that the others do not include keyboard formatting commands (very handy when I am typing notes) and an extension to the Palm's limited native Notes application.

  • PocketQuicken is a password-protected front end for Quicken on the desktop that also can be used as a stand-alone PDA financial management program. As a Quicken front end, it lets me capture financial transactions as I make them, at the store counter or restaurant table, and categorize each expense properly both for my professional expenses and tax records and my personal budget. Then, when I hot sync, those entries are automatically copied into Quicken on my laptop, so I never forget to enter a transaction, regardless of how distracted I may be when I get back to my desk.

I am not naturally detail-oriented. My strengths lie in understanding complex technical subjects and, of course, writing about them. My PDA frees me from the constant distractions of having to remember assignments, meeting times and the many other details on which any business runs. With it, I can go forward confident that I have things under control, that I will get my assignments done on deadline, that I will be on time and fully prepared for my business meetings, and that I have my tax records correct, complete and accurate.

It may not be perfect, but along with my cell phone and laptop, it certainly is one of the basic tools of my business, without which I would be unable to succeed.

Bert Latamore is a journalist with 10 years' experience in daily newspapers and 25 in the computer industry. He has written for several computer industry and consumer publications. He lives in Linden, Va., with his wife, two parrots and a cat.

See the complete Faces of Mobile IT special report.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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