PalmPilot reading

Is that little black box just "fashion technology" -- or the future face of computing?

Published March 10, 1998 6:33PM (EST)

"Damn fashion technology." That's what a friend of mine says when someone whips out a Pilot to jot down a phone number. The Pilot (or PalmPilot; its name changed recently) is what all the geeks are carrying this year: a palm-sized digital organizer that you can write on with a little plastic stylus. My friend sounds a little contemptuous of it, like he'd die before he'd keep his addresses in his little black box. But press him and he'll confess: He's got to have one.

This could just be trendiness among the geeks. A Web designer I know says that whenever she goes to a meeting, out come the Pilots. (Including hers, of course.) The style-driven hunger for new toys that keeps the Sharper Image catalog in business may account for the Pilot's success. If so, it will pass. Next year at this time, the toy of the moment will be something else, and you'll find Pilots for sale at garage sales, stuck in the back of desk drawers or as found objects in multimedia art exhibits.

But I wouldn't put money on this. Something profound is going on with the Pilot. A year ago, the Pilot retailed for $300. Today's model, with nearly the same features, retails for $240. In the mad Moore's-Law world of computer hardware, where capacity-per-dollar doubles every 18 months and yesterday's high-speed disk drive is today's doorstop, a product that loses only 20 percent of its retail price over a year is on to something. (Success like this is catnip to Microsoft, which is readying a Pilot-like computer of its own.)

Without selling it as anything more than a nifty personal organizer, 3Com (nee U.S. Robotics) has snuck a new kind of computer into our lives. It's a truly personal computer, one that you can carry around everywhere you go and use whenever you need to. Other manufacturers, notably Apple, have promised to change the world with portable computing before. 3Com hasn't promised anything of the kind. But the Pilot doesn't know that, so it's delivering anyway.

The Pilot's secret is that it just plain works. And it works for the simplest of reasons: There's nothing seriously wrong with it. Any photographer will tell you that the essence of making a good photograph is not doing any one of 20 different things wrong: Keep it in focus, set the aperture properly, don't jiggle the camera, watch out for backlighting and so on, and the end result will be a decent picture.

The designers and engineers responsible for the Pilot have done the same thing. It's not too expensive. It isn't too big. It doesn't try to do too many things. It doesn't have a keyboard that's too small to use. It doesn't eat batteries. Dumping all of the information out of a Pilot into your computer isn't an ordeal -- it's almost effortless. It's not hard to learn to write on it, and once you've learned, the Pilot tends not to make silly mistakes. And if the built-in address book and notepad don't work for you, you're not stuck with them: There are hundreds of third-party programs available for the Pilot.

The Pilot is a portable computer that works because there's no reason for it not to work. And this makes it useful in ways that computers have never been useful before.

I know an advertising copywriter in New York who just got his Pilot a couple weeks ago. He's spent those two weeks calling acquaintances all over the world looking for friends' phone numbers. "For years I've been living on Post-It notes and gum wrappers," he says. "I figured that if I couldn't find someone within two phone calls, I really didn't need to talk to him."

This is a guy who doesn't own a computer. Not because he's a technophobe -- he uses computers all the time, has one on his desk at work. He just won't buy one. "Hardware has a use-by date, like milk," he says. Dropping two grand at Christmas for something that's just going to go bad before Labor Day makes no sense to him.

But now he has a Pilot, and he's using it for everything, not just phone numbers and addresses. He's dumped subway maps into his Pilot, and restaurant guides, and odds sheets that he reviews on the way to his regular poker games. Even a smutty video. Granted, as he points out, it's just a loop of a few grainy black-and-white frames, barely recognizable on the Pilot's liquid-crystal display. But it's also a hint of the future. "People at my agency laugh when I show them this," he says. "But think about it, I tell them. This is palmtop video."

Uses like these go well beyond the "personal organizer" that the Pilot is sold as. An editor of science-fiction books that I know fell in love with the Pilot when he realized that he could put an entire manuscript into a box that weighs 4.7 ounces and fits into his jacket pocket. "You really have to have spent a decade of your life schlepping 600-page manuscripts around to understand how attractive this is," he says. He admits that he wouldn't use the Pilot's tiny screen -- it's smaller than an index card -- for major editing. But, he says, "An enormous amount of what an editor has to do day in and day out is just reading. These days, if I can get an e-text version of a big document I have to read, the first thing I do is hot-sync it onto my Pilot."

Carry a computer everywhere you go, and you start using it for things you never would have bought it for in the first place. Like keeping your grocery lists, which a surprising number of Pilot enthusiasts do. Explains one, a philosophy professor, "I can enter needs as I note them during the week, and I'm sure to have a list if, say, I want to stop at the store spontaneously on the way home instead of planning a trip." One can be a little too cutting edge, though: A tech writer who shops with his Pilot said, "Someone saw me looking over the products, glancing from the Pilot to the shelves and back, and asked me if we still had the quarts of Langer apple juice still on sale."

These Pilot users are enthusiastic the way that early Macintosh users were. "It's so easy to use, so fun to play with," says my Web-designer friend. "OK, it's also a time suck," she says, acknowledging that while in between jobs she's spending a little more time than she ought to scoping out Pilot Web sites and trying out new programs. Fans like her have taken hold of something that, like the Mac in its youth, is appealing largely
because it's so easy to take hold of.

At the same time, the Pilot (as was said of the Mac) doesn't seem to be a "real computer." It doesn't even pretend to be. Even if you buy the wireless modem for your Pilot and use it to pick up your e-mail, it doesn't feel like what you're doing with it is at all the same thing that people do with the computers on their desks.

But it is a real computer. And the more you use one, the harder it is to shake the feeling that the Pilot is closer to what the next computers are going to be like than the contraption on top of your desk is.

By Robert Rossney

Robert Rossney shops for groceries in Boulder, Colo.

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