The Boston Phoenix
July 22 - 29, 1999

[Features]

Cult of the Palm Pilot

When the Internet invades our shirt pockets, it's time to worry

by Dan Kennedy

I'm sitting on a plane bound for Austin. In my left hand is a Palm Pilot, the shirt-pocket-sized computer that's become a cultural phenomenon (nearly three million sold) since its introduction in 1996. And I'm reading from it -- not just a to-do list, not a few short notes, but an entire 12,500-word article.

Now before I go into the obligatory boilerplate about the coolness of this experience, let me first explain how profoundly silly it is. I could have dropped by the library, found the magazine in which the article was published, and photocopied it for less than a buck. Instead, I

1) downloaded a program onto my Macintosh that lets me read long text files on a Palm Pilot;

2) moved the program from my Mac to my Palm Pilot by connecting the two machines with a special cable and pressing a button to do something called "hot syncing";

3) downloaded the article I wanted to read onto my Mac from Lexis-Nexis;

4) ran it through a utility program that reformats text for the Palm Pilot;

5) installed the article on said Palm Pilot through another hot-syncing operation.

None of this was particularly complicated, but it did require more time than a trip to the library (of course, I won't have to install the software again), plus the use of some $2000 worth of technology. And, at the end of all this, I was stuck with tiny black type on a grayish-green, two-inch-by-two-inch screen.

As if this process were not perverse enough, the article I had put so much effort into obtaining was a piece Barbara Ehrenreich wrote for the January Harper's about trying to survive economically -- and failing -- as a low-paid waitress, the sort of work that typically awaits poor mothers who are losing their welfare benefits. In fact, I actually ended up finishing the article at a Denny's just outside of Columbus, Texas, while impeding my blood flow with a chicken-fried steak with white gravy. I even showed my Palm Pilot to my curious, and no doubt grossly underpaid, waitress.

It was also something of a postmodern moment. I had done this, at least in part, so that I could write about sitting in Denny's while reading Ehrenreich's first-person account of attempting to make ends meet as a waitress at a restaurant very much like Denny's -- on a device no Denny's waitress, presumably, could afford.

My waitress was momentarily interested. But then she had another order to pick up.


Postmodern ironies are one thing; enjoyable reading experiences are quite another. Thus, I can't honestly recommend the Palm Pilot as an electronic book. Getting the stuff you want downloaded and installed is too much of a hassle, and reading it on the miniature screen is too grim an experience.

I can, though, recommend the Palm Pilot for its intended use: organizing and simplifying your life. In the six months since I started using one, it has not only helped me keep better track of my contacts and my schedule, the two most logical functions for which you'd get such a device, but it's also changed the way I think about information. I began with the premise that the Palm Pilot was little more than a Day Runner for affluent technogeeks, but I quickly came to realize that it can do things no pen-and-paper system ever could.

First, the Palm Pilot is small enough to have with you during just about every waking moment. On several occasions when I've been driving and had a brainstorm or heard some useful bit of information on the radio, I've whipped it out in the middle of traffic to jot down a few words, rather than try to make a mental note that will be forgotten as soon as I've made it through the next red light. Yes, this is dangerous, but there is a simple solution: if you see a blue 1989 Toyota Tercel weaving back and forth, assume it's me, and stay the hell out of the way.

Second, because the Palm Pilot is a fully functioning computer, you can search its contents as you would with a "real" computer. Recently, for instance, I was trying to find the name of a company that transcribes audio tapes. Even though I had used the company within the past few months, the name escaped me. But when I entered the keyword "transcribe," it popped up immediately. (Granted, I had to have the foresight to append that keyword to the entry in the first place.) This same capability makes the Palm perfect for capturing sources for possible future stories. If I'm reading, say, the New York Times and I come across a political-science professor in Iowa who thinks Dan Quayle has a chance of beating W, I can enter her name, where she works, and a couple of keywords in the Palm's address book. I can always track down her phone number on the Web when I need it. The real difficulty, as any reporter knows, is finding fresh sources on deadline.

Perversely, though, these capabilities raise some thorny questions. If information can always be available, it's a small leap to arrive at a cultural assumption that information must always be available. One of the most significant stories of the past decade is how technology has simultaneously made life easier and more difficult: easier in the sense that computers make people more productive and eliminate much of the drudgery; more difficult in the sense that e-mail, cell phones, laptop computers, and fax machines mean we're always "on," we're always connected, we're never supposed to be unreachable or unable to deal with a boss's or a co-worker's or a client's problem right now, dammit.

With the rise of the Palm Pilot, it's not at all difficult to imagine a scenario in which you're hiking in the White Mountains when your combination hand-held/cell phone rings. Someone suddenly needs a report that wasn't due until next Wednesday. You peel off your backpack, sit down on a log, pull some data off the Web through the device's cellular modem, finish the report, and, an hour and a half later, e-mail it off to its destination. Magazines that specialize in what might be called business erotica, such as Fast Company and Wired, often describe such futuristic moments in rapturous, almost orgasmic tones. After all, work will no longer keep you from hiking in the White Mountains. The gruesome underside of that, though, is that hiking in the White Mountains will no longer keep you from work.

Such theoretical drawbacks have certainly not stopped the Palm Pilot from being an enormous hit -- even though the devices cost between $300 and $400. A whole Palm Pilot support industry has sprung up, too. There are books, magazines, Web sites, and user groups devoted to all things Palm. There is a dizzying variety of models to choose from. The latest entry, the Palm VII, brings us one step closer to the Total Connectedness scenario of the future: it has an antenna that lets you send and receive e-mail and jack into the Web through a wireless network.

In fact, it would appear that the Palm Pilot has been such a success for two reasons. The first is that it is a rare example of well-designed, well-implemented computer technology. The second is that it's an emblematic fetish object for the work-obsessed late '90s.

For business fetishists, it's a status symbol, advertised in national magazines with a classy-looking nude model ("Kate Hunter, Dancer") strategically holding her Palm V (which costs more and has less memory than the Palm IIIx, but looks way cool) in front of her nether regions. "The idea is to make it a `badge product,' " says John Carroll, managing editor of WGBH-TV's Greater Boston and a long-time advertising executive. "The logo itself, the name itself, says something about you." Not surprisingly, the Palm V is selling like End of the Century. In fact, Palm Pilots have captured more than 70 percent of the market for hand-held computers, even though they're up against mighty Microsoft, whose Windows CE software powers several Palm competitors.

For technology fetishists, the Palm Pilot represents virgin territory, the first completely new opportunity to tinker since the early days of the personal computer.

Call it the Cult of the Palm. As with any cult, what's important is not what it does, but what it means. And the full answer to that question is not likely to become apparent until it's too late to do anything about it.


The Palm Pilot belongs to a class of small computers known as personal digital assistants, or PDAs. It is not the first PDA. In the early '90s, Apple, with much fanfare, introduced the Newton, which was big and bulky and, more to the point, didn't actually work. You input data by writing on the screen with a special stylus, and the Newton was supposed to recognize your handwriting. The results were nearly always unintelligible, and sometimes hilarious. Doonesbury had a field day. Later versions of the Newton operating system reputedly got somewhat better at handwriting recognition, but by then no one was buying it. Apple quietly pulled the plug a couple of years ago.

The Palm Pilot differs from the Newton in two important respects: it's small enough to fit into a shirt pocket; and you enter data via a simplified handwriting system called Graffiti, which the Palm already understands. Graffiti takes only about 15 minutes to pick up, and it works pretty much flawlessly. Until handwriting-recognition software improves, Graffiti is a more-than-adequate stopgap. (Heavy-duty inputting can be done on your computer, and then hot-synced to the Palm later on.) Still, it says something interesting about technology that we are expected to adapt to its needs rather than the other way around -- and that many of us are perfectly willing to do so. There are times when this can be inconvenient. On several occasions, I've caught myself jotting notes on a piece of paper in Graffiti.

Then there are those who are perfectly capable of bending technology to their will -- such as the New England Palm Users Group. It's a spring evening, and several dozen of us gather in a bland, windowless, fluorescent-lit room on the IBM campus in Waltham. This is a hard-core techno crowd, dedicated to the proposition that no matter how simple and straightforward a piece of technology might be, it can always be futzed with to make it do unusual, complicated things.

Before we get down to business, I exchange pleasantries with Wayne Bovi, a sales rep for Puma, who's here to show off IntelliSync -- hot-syncing software that goes way beyond the basic Palm software. He whips out his brand-new Palm V -- much oohing and aahing all around -- and tells us that he's used it to catalogue his 2000-record-plus collection of old 45s. Why? "Because I can," he replies with a laugh, adding, "To impress my friends and confound my enemies." Several of us zap each other our electronic "business cards," using the Palm Pilot's infrared send-and-receive capability. It works flawlessly. "Nerdvana," to quote the great philosopher Dogbert.

The Palm comes with seven basic applications: an address book, a date book, an expense ledger, a memo pad, a to-do list, e-mail, and a calculator. All are remarkably easy to use. For an entire subculture, though, this is just a starting point. During the course of the evening, we watch and listen while Bovi explains why plain old hot-syncing is not enough. We lean forward, awestruck, as Howard Samuels of Analog Devices demonstrates a motion-sensitive chip you can install inside your Palm Pilot. He passes around a Palm running a marble-in-a-maze game; you actually tilt the device to make the digital marble move. (A possible use, Samuels explains, might be "gesture-based text entry" -- which someone else immediately dubs "Physical Graffiti.") He even hands out free chips. I pass, having no intention of performing electronic microsurgery.

Presiding over this is Michael Steinberg, a genial, oxford-shirt-and-chinos-clad technology-marketing consultant who bought his first Palm Pilot in late 1997, after he'd seen a friend's. He describes it as love at first sight. "He gave me about a five-minute demonstration, at the end of which I was like, okay, that's it, I'm going to buy one," Steinberg recalls. "I went out the next day and bought one, and immediately became hooked. It replaced my five-part date book." Five months later, he started the New England Palm Users Group (located on the Web at www.ne-palm.org), which has grown to more than 500 members.

The Palm Pilot has spawned a tinkering culture reminiscent of the one that grew up around the Apple II nearly two decades ago. The uses to which the Palm Pilot has been put are truly astounding. Go to the user group's Web site or to the official Palm site (www.palm.com) and you will find numerous other sites and online magazines offering hundreds of different programs and ideas. One of Steinberg's favorites allows him to display a number of common phrases, such as "Can you get me a taxi?" or "The heat doesn't work in my room," in five foreign languages. A friendly foreigner can tap out the answer in his own language, and it will be displayed in English. I even found one webzine that published instructions on how to attach velcro to your Palm Pilot and the inside of your shirt pocket so it won't fall out when you lean over. I scared myself by actually considering it for a moment.

You can install a stripped-down Web browser and plug in a modem. You can buy some sort of plug-in device that will convert your Palm Pilot into a cell phone. You can, with the right software, program it to act as a remote control for your TV. (This same capability can reportedly be used to defeat a car's anti-burglary system as well, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "computer crime.") You can view pictures, draw, play games -- I've got Klondike and Pac Man. You can buy a keyboard that the Palm Pilot plugs into. You can download hundreds of games, applications, and utilities.

In short, you can -- just as with a regular computer -- take a device that was designed to save you time, and instead let it suck hours upon hours out of your life.

"More than most realms, technology tends to breed fetishistic dedication, I think," says Washington Post technology reporter Mark Leibovich, a Boston Phoenix alumnus. "Early technology adopters seem far more likely to parade their beliefs, because the stuff is new and lends itself to evangelism. Users tend to trumpet themselves more proudly than, say, people who eat Cheerios every morning."


In a recent issue of Food & Wine, contributing editor Nina Griscom offers up some "Floral Notes." Among her nuggets is this: "A spectacular florist is the ultimate find. My Palm Pilot holds the phone numbers of four in Manhattan."

Obviously the end the Palm Pilot as fetish object is at hand. David Pogue, in his 489-page doorstop PalmPilot: The Ultimate Guide, writes, "The PalmPilot is the ultimate conversation-starter. On the train, on the plane, in the hallway -- if someone's using a Palm Pilot, you've got a friend." Kurt Vonnegut Jr. called such artificial communities "granfalloons." When Palm Pilot references start turning up in a flower column, it's pretty clear that this particular granfalloon has gotten too big to mean anything at all.

In other words, as is typical when trying to explain cultural phenomena, by the time generalists in the media get around to looking at them, they're pretty much over. The Palm Pilot is already one of the fastest-selling consumer-electronics items ever. According to the Framingham-based International Data Corporation, the number of hand-held computers will grow from the current three million to something like 13 million by 2001. At that point, there will be no Cult of the Palm Pilot. It will just be something people buy.

Something changes when technology moves from the fetishist/tinkering stage to mass acceptance. I remember pecking out my master's thesis in 1983 on a souped-up Radio Shack Color Computer -- trying to get the four-stroke key sequence exactly right so that a footnote reference would appear a half-line above the text, then entering another four-stroke sequence to make it go down again. The experience makes me appreciate modern computers' ease of use a lot more than, say, a person whose first computer was a Win98 multimedia machine with a scanner and a 56K modem thrown in. But today's computing ubiquity has led to a change in cultural expectations. Sixteen years ago, buying a cheap computer made my life easier. Today, it's understood that of course you'll use a computer, because it makes other people's lives easier -- or, more accurately, it enables them to maintain their manic pace.

I wonder today how many thesis advisers would even accept a student's work if it were banged out on a Smith-Corona manual typewriter, which is what my kludgy Radio Shack set-up replaced. After all, you wouldn't be able to
e-mail your paper to your professor while she was away at a conference, and she wouldn't be able to e-mail it back to you instantaneously so you could revise it before she got back. And thus has technology trod a familiar path: from useful tool for a few to a requirement for all; from something that saves you time to something that speeds up time and leaves you feeling harried and breathless.

As the Cult of the Palm Pilot grows from sect to movement to mainline religion, the danger is that it, too, will make the transition from time-saver to time-speeder-upper. I like having information at my fingertips at all times; I don't like the prospect that, a few years from now, I will be expected to have information at my fingertips at all times.

I love my Palm Pilot. But the first time an editor e-mails a marked-up story to me while I'm on a mountain trail so that I can answer "a few questions," the love affair is over.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com.

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