Knowledge & Handhelds
I’ve been using handheld computers for nine years now (not counting an earlier stint programming for the Newton back in ‘94, nor writing packages for the TI-89 calculator, which has some symbolic mathematic features that MATLAB doesn’t, nor using my Casio Data Bank wristwatch). First a Palm III, briefly a Visor Prism, then a Kyocera 7135 and a Treo 650. I’ve had to handle tech support for several Windows Mobile devices, and have handled an iPhone just enough to be intrigued. (Sorry, Symbian, you just never came my way here in the States.) While I like gadgets as much as the next guy, I try to maintain an engineer’s perspective: what does this allow people to do, what does it let them do better? Much as we compare devices to each other, it’s still not clear that handhelds are gaining ground on the 900-pound gorilla: paper and pencil.
For years, I kept a paper planner. It was fine for recording dates of upcoming events, it traveled with me, unlike a wall calendar, and was a useful place to scrawl notes that I might need later that week or month. (I still use datebook applications this way – no other program I’ve used made it easy for notes to drift out of sight as they became obsolete.) When my Palm III arrived (just before the Viking millennium – but that’s another story) I was thrilled – I’m often so into my work I lose track of time, so I might know I have a meeting in an hour, but by the time to leave, have totally forgotten about it.
When Verizon replaced my Kyocera 7135 with a Treo 650, an email application was included, so I gave it a try. It was irksome to configure, and (since I wasn’t willing to pay Verizon’s extortionate rates for data, irksome and slow to use dialup, too) but I kept plugging away, thinking “there must be a use for receiving email when I’m away from a computer”. One factor retarding its usefulness was the fact that many emails were of little value if you couldn’t follow the URLs contained in them, and the Treo’s web browser was not adequate for viewing most of the web (which, yes, is largely the fault of the web, but I was at the short end of that lever). This spring, a colleague pointed me toward Michael Mace’s blog post “The shape of the smartphone and mobile data markets”. Market research he did for PalmSource revealed three distinct groups of users (and a big chunk of non-users). It was an “aha!” moment – that’s why there were people excited over capabilities I didn’t care about. The group he calls “information-centric users” (a commenter suggested knowledge-centric users, and that describes them a bit better) describes my use to a T. We use handheld devices to record knowledge, and retrieve it again – a backing store for our brains. While it’s nice if our handheld can hold a whole reference manual (or access it online, these days), the key thing is our notes on the manual. So the old PDA-without-a-phone was fine for us, and we’re disappointed that our needs have been shuffled aside in the rush to pour more data through handhelds.
In this blog, I’ll focus on knowledge and handhelds (with excursions into any topic that grabs my fancy). I close with the motto of Richard Wesley Hamming’s book “Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers”:
The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers.