My vintage Palm PDA makes workplace iPhone users jealous
Handheld Technology

My vintage Palm PDA makes workplace iPhone users jealous

In the late 1990s, a Gartner study found that the TCO of a business PDA (Personal Digital Assistant, the forerunner of today's smartphone) was around $5,000. Today the figure for a phone in the workplace is much harder to pin down, due to greater variability in use cases, blurring of the line between business and personal use, and the difficulty of calculating productivity gains (or losses). The most frequently-quoted statistic I've seen puts the actual hardware purchase cost of a business smartphone at around 10% of its TCO.

Even allowing for inflation, that's a major increase in TCO. Is it worth it? Has productivity really increased in line with expense? Can that PDA of the last century teach us anything about the use of devices in the workplace today?

A typical PDA in 1999 would have been a Palm device, such as a Palm IIIxe. By luck, I have one; hoarding old technology sometimes has its benefits. Compared to an iPhone or Android-based device it feels rather toy-like. It's light, but the moulded plastic construction lacks elegance. Nobody would look at it today and think, "That's beautiful."

Still, beauty is only skin-deep. What are the enterprise pros and cons of a Palm IIIxe compared to, say, an iPhone? That sounds like a ridiculous comparison to make and perhaps it is. But let's see what conclusions can be drawn.

First, let's deal with the iPhone's obvious advantages. It's sleek and elegant, it has a colour touchscreen, a powerful processor, huge amounts of memory and the ability to connect to the entire world's resource of information. By contrast, the Palm runs on a 33MHz Motorola Dragonball CPU and has 8MB of RAM. It has a monochrome touchscreen and the only connectivity is via infra-red to an antique phone, or by using a cradle to connect it to a host PC. So far, so obvious. There's no comparison. The iPhone is just better in every way.

Or is it?

I'm writing this article in a café in Berlin on a Palm IIIxe with folding Palm keyboard, amongst a group of professional writers, programmers and entrepreneurs. I'm surrounded by svelte laptops sporting the glowing Apple symbol, plus a couple of security-hardened Lenovo/IBM Thinkpads. iPhones and Android devices lie casually strewn on the tables next to them.

Yet there are gasps of awe as I unfold the Palm's keyboard and connect it to the IIIxe. If done with sufficient flourish, this unfolding process is similar to the way the Nazi torturer in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark unfolds his coat-hanger.

"Wow, what's that?"

Me: "It's an antique, almost 20 years old. A Palm PDA. The precursor of the smartphone, in a way."

"Seriously? That's amazing!" and "I want one!"

Even random strangers start talking to me about it. A man with a dog wanders over and talks to me in German. I explain my embarrassing linguistic limitations and he says, "Das ist... folding?"

"Ja," I say, and demonstrate again. "Sehr clever!" he says, and calls his colleague over for a look. This inevitably reduces my productivity, but it demonstrates that good design endures.

During the half-time break, this archaic piece of technology gets still more attention. I explain that it has 40 hours of battery life and no internet connection. Understanding dawns. People nod their approval and tell me their own stories of trying to pare down the distractions in their lives, from using dumbphones – or no phones – to stripping their laptops to the bare minimum, to using pen and paper. A couple of them head to eBay to check prices of other vintage tech I've suggested to them, such as the AlphaSmart Neo and Dana.

Distraction is increasingly the enemy of productivity, in the enterprise as elsewhere. Even the most capable multitasking mind has trouble focusing amid a multitude of notifications pinging constantly for attention. And the rest of us, who find even single-tasking a chore, are fighting a losing battle against competing demands on our attention. From this perspective the Palm IIIxe definitely beats the iPhone.

What about applications? Here the iPhone is miles ahead, or so it first appears. There's a phenomenal number of business apps available for it, so you can pick and choose whatever you need. But the Palm had no shortage of apps in its day too, over 40,000 according to some sources. It was even possible to buy a GPS plug-in for the III series, with mapping and route-planning software.

The Palm IIIxe also had near-perfect PIM functions built in. In particular, the Datebook and Contacts functions were masterpieces of their art, and remain so today. Their elegant functionality is, according to some die-hard Palm enthusiasts, unmatched by anything offered for today's devices. A great deal of thought went into their design and development, and they sync'd perfectly with the Palm Desktop software, which itself became the default PIM for many business users. The iPhone syncs to the cloud, of course, but even in the late 1990s it was possible to sync the Palm over a phone line using a modem. In terms of the business applications that really matter, I'd call this one a draw.

Connectivity is where the iPhone really forges ahead. There were web browsers available for the Palm, but even in the early 2000s it was a painful and expensive experience to 'surf' on such a machine. Email was reasonably slick and pain-free, though. Common behaviour amongst business users was to download mail to their Palm directly from a host PC using the cradle, write replies while on the move, then sync back to the PC when they were back in the office. It worked well at the time, but if your workplace is one in which always-available communication is vital, it would be woefully inadequate now.

Again, though, there are pros and cons to this. Internet connectivity is the biggest source of workplace distraction today, and arguably puts a big dent in some people's productivity. The iPhone's impressive connectivity is a double-edged sword.

It also contributes to its poor battery life. It's rare for a business phone to get through a full day of heavy use without at least a partial recharge. This is often required at inconvenient times, thereby contributing to anxiety. By contrast, the Palm IIIxe will last for around 40 hours on two AAA batteries. In terms of real-world use, that's anywhere from two weeks to a month. The batteries give plenty of warning before they expire and it's easy to carry a spare set.

Surprisingly, the Palm also scores fairly well when it comes to data input. There's a small on-screen keyboard that can be tapped with the stylus, but of far more use is the Graffiti handwriting recognition system, with which many users could achieve impressively high 'typing' speeds. It took a while to learn, though, and wouldn't fare well against an experienced iPhone thumb-typist. Still, for both devices an external keyboard is the ultimate data entry solution, and here there's little between them. The folding Palm keyboard is one of the best I've used, but there are good Bluetooth keyboards for the iPhone too. Another draw.

I mentioned that the Palm's applications are in ROM, and that it has limited connectivity. These two factors are directly responsible for this device's final victory over the iPhone: security. As far as I'm aware, no malware was ever written for the Palm. By contrast there are significant quantities lurking in wait for unwary smartphone users. In some ways that's more a sign of the times than of the hardware, but ROM-based OS and applications are hard to beat when it comes to security toughness.

The overall winner in this somewhat contrived contest? Well, it would be a brave IT manager who mandated the use of Palm PDAs over business iPhones. But that's not what this article is really about. The purpose is to show that there were ways in which older devices offered greater productivity than today's. In the Palm IIIxe's case, it did a small number of things exceptionally well, it was robust, its batteries lasted a long time and its limited connectivity was, for some workers, a real boon.

The big factor here isn't really the device: it's the human mind. Gains made by technology bring us increasing numbers of distractions and support issues. Without a strict IT policy that limits the apps available to employees, those distractions and issues increase TCO and may negatively affect productivity. Sometimes, simpler is better.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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