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my little electro friend

palmpilot things

Software I use

Apart from the pre-installed Palm apps, I have spent a lot of time investigating various shareware and freeware things. Here's a list of what I've ended up using most.

BigClock is an excellent general timing device, combining clock, world times, stopwatch and countdown, all in a very easy to use and nice-looking program. It's freeware, and I have yet to come across a shareware alternative that matches it. File size: 32K

If, like me, you have the memory capacity of a fish, BugMe is a must-have bit of software. Even though it costs USD12, it's well worth it. The idea is simple - write yourself little notes, and BugMe will bug you with them so you don't forget. You can set it to bug you every minute or once a year, and it's very effective. I have always had a problem remembering to look at my built-in ToDo list, and BugMe gets round that by demanding attention. Superb stuff. File size: 23K

Edward Keynes, head programmer at Daggerware, deserves a place in PalmPilot, nay, computer history for his Hackmaster program. Put simply, it acts a bit like the Windows control panel, allowing you to manage parts of the Palm Operating System that would otherwise be out of reach.

Hacks are little add-ons to the OS that enable you to do extra things. Hackmaster (file size: 10K) allows you to manage them, and the USD5 registration fee is a small price to pay for what you get.

Actually I have only two hacks installed - Lighthack, (2K) which inverts the backlight to show bright green on a black background, rather than vice versa (and allows you to change from one to the other); and Hackdelete, (2K) a simple safeguard utility that prevents you accidentally deleteing any active hacks, something bound to cause a crash.

Keynes and Daggerware are also responsible for Dinkypad, a simple drawing pad program, shareware that's yours for just USD5. I like to use it to sketch people sitting opposite me on trains. File size: 25K

HandyShopper is another superb freeware app, that simply manages all your shopping lists, although you can adapt it into a kind of to-do application as well. File size: 39K. [Download here]

LauncherIII is an excellent app launcher by Benc Software which allows you to put apps into different folders. It also offers various other enhancements, like shortcuts to memory app, off-and-lock, that sort of thing. Highly recommended, and a big improvement on the basic OS app launcher. File size: 34K.

AportisDoc is invaluable for reading selected web pages and documents offline. Not just because it's a standard for Pilot e-texts on the Net, but also because there's fantastic utilities at Web2Pilot and Pilot Screwdriver that convert anything - HTML pages, RTF or TXT files - into Doc format for reading on the go. File size: 26K
UPDATE: Now I have installed CSpotRun, which is a much, much better Doc file viewer.

Talking of the web, AvantGo is a wonderful free app which sucks specially-made web content from news channels on the Web into your Pilot, although it also acts as an offline web browser for almost any site. The C|Net channel is great, really useful to have on the move, although I do wish more stories were added each day. Also handles graphics if you want it to. A desktop application ensures you can control channels on your PC desktop. If you ever want to read the web on the go, but can't or don't want to use a modem with your Pilot, get this software. File size: 111K. (Varies according to how much content you get it to download)

Snapshot is a fab, tiny little screenshot taker for the Pilot. It's very easy to use, and easy to get screenshots into your PC, where they will appear as bitmaps. As long as you then have a utility to convert bitmaps to something more useful, you can begin to make use of them properly. Written by the very clever Joseph Strout. File size: a piddling 3K!


My preferred games are MahJongg (file size: 19K) and Pocket Chess (file size: 29K), two very simple but very addictive games that are good to play while travelling.

Then there's Star Trek fun with Tricorder. Scan for alien lifeforms, check the composition of the air and rocks, and generally enjoy yourself.Great larf for Star Trek fans. No interest whatsoever for anyone else. File size: 16K

Grouper is a challenging brain-bender that demands concentration and a sharp eye. Frankly it's really bloody difficult. Try it out. File size: 17K


I invested in a GoType keyboard. It is by far the best bit of hardware I could have spent my money on - I had it shipped over from the States. If I'd waiting another couple of months I could have bought one here but I'm just too impatient. Full review and comments here. The hardware comes with a small (19K) software driver, which is optionally available as a Hackmaster hack as well.


There's so much software out there, I doubt I'll ever get to find out about it all. But I'd really love to find a game similar to Harvest Moon for the Nintendo Game Boy (FAQ about it here).

Software I've tried, but don't use

Not everything has gone smoothly - I've had my fair share of Pilot nightmares and programs that just didn't quite do what I thought they would.

One day, I experimented with the web-Pilot-desktop synchroniser TrueSync to get my address book, datebook and to-dos into my Yahoo account. Big mistake. All three databases were corrupted and I had to call the help line. Read all about it here.

I tried Oblique Strategies [info and downloads] which is supposed to be a tool for artistic types who find themselves with writer's block, or the equivalent. The idea was created by Brian Eno and others back in the 70s. It provides single-sentence ideas in a list, which you can pick at random. In effect it's just a database of text snippets, and something to view them with. After playing with it for a couple of weeks, I couldn't see anything in it other than novelty value.

Before I came across LauncherIII, I downloaded Commander [details here] for use as a security and application launcher. I was somewhat disappointed. Although it provides a little bit more protection, I found the launcher too fussy and messy for my liking. It provided a view of all apps installed which I found myself using all the time - so there seemed benefit in using it over the standard Palm OS launcher. So I un-installed.

I had a few goes at Rescue Lander,, written by Michael Baker. Battle the laws of physics to bring a spacecraft to a safe landing on a number of different planets - it's a lot harder than it sounds. Well worth a go. Note that you need Pocket C to make it run, a freeware version of this (for running programs only, not writing them) is available at Orbworks. Pocket C requires 39K, but Rescue Lander only 2K.

Another good game is Galax, from Pilotfan. It's a superb re-creation of teenage memories of Space Invaders, and well worth downloading. I found the controls a bit fiddly, which is something I have found with a lot of action games on the Pilot platform. The GameBoy is much better suited to this sort of button-pounding fun.

. . . 200 dead Pilots a day

My Pilot screen died on me suddenly in mid-September 1998. It was like the invisible man was playing with the contrast control, at random. Sometimes it would work fine, and sometimes it just faded from view. I sent it for repair at 3Com. They tightened up a few loose wires, replaced the screen, and now it works fine.

The odd thing was, the man from 3Com said during our conversation: "The techies do their best you know, but they are dealing with 200 units a day..."

200 a day? Does that strike anyone else as being too many...?

. . . My favourite Pilot story

I found this fantastic article about connecting the Pilot to the Net in the MEME e-zine. I challenge anyone to read this and not be (a) completely dumbfounded, and (b) insanely jealous.


From MEME 4.03...


8:30 am, mid-April, standing on the platform of Track 3, waiting for the Times Square shuttle to take me to Grand Central Station. About six hundred people are queued up, clustered in blobs along memorized spots where we know the subway doors will open. Most are just standing. Some are reading the morning papers.

I'm downloading email through a metal ventilation shaft in the ceiling. I point my wireless modem like a diving rod toward the breeze coming down from the street above. I can see people's feet criss-crossing the grate. If wind can get down here this way, I figure packets of data can too.

I spent a month toting around an eight ounce wireless modem, which strapped on to my five ounce Palm Pilot (, which serves as a hand-held date book, address book, and now Internet mail reader and Web browser.

Built by Novatel, the Minstrel modem ( sells for US $399 and was released in late March. I received a review unit, and, with little expectation, attached it to my Palm Pilot. I was suspicious of the device's claims-- that it could receive and send Internet packets at 19 kilobits per second using what's known as CDPD, or Cellular Digital Packet Data network, maintained by AT&T.

CDPD, in principle, is far better than a traditional cellular telephone system when it comes to sending digital signals. Because the networks sends information in packets, as does the Internet, a persistent link isn't needed. In other words, to use a CDPD modem you don't make a "phone call" the way one does when using a land-line telephone. A CDPD modem only communicates with the network in rapid bursts at the moments when data is either being received or sent. That means it's a lot less expensive, and lot easier to have many people using the network at once. In AT&T's case, they offer unlimited monthly CDPD use for around US $50, a price far below US $4,750 which is about what AT&T would charge to run a cellphone for 43,200 minutes a month-- the equivalent of "unlimited use" in time.

So what happens when you strap on a wireless modem to a Palm Pilot and access the Internet? You get a peek at the way many of us will experience cyberspace by 2000. Much as the Web unleashed a multi-billion dollar global industry and new cultural forms, so too will cheap, ubiquitous wireless datastreams, what I call Cellspace.

When the Times Square shuttle pulled in, I'd received sixteen email messages from all over the world. Sated in between two commuters on the bench, I paged through the messages using MultiMail Pro, a program that takes up about 79K of memory. Transferring to the Uptown 6 train (I was off to my dental hygienist, for a bi-annual teeth cleaning), I found another seat and began replying to a few messages. Getting off on 77th street, I reemerged on Lexington avenue and tapped send. A few seconds later my messages were routed onto the Net, and to their final destination.

In the waiting room, the one copy of the New York Times was being read by an elderly woman. I tried to shoulder-surf, but she sensed my parasitic intentions and demurely tilted the page out of view. Fine. I tapped on HandWeb, the Web browser on the Pilot, and entered the Times' Web site. A click later, and I was reading the paper too. At sixty cents a day, the Times adds up, and reading it for free this way felt different in way that reading the paper at my computer, sitting at my desk, never had. I was on the move, reading the paper the way papers are meant to be read-- between moments during the day, here and there, on the street, in a cafe, or wherever you are. The pilot's tiny screen felt surprisingly intimate. I held the Times close to my eyes, maybe 10 inches away, just as I do when reading a paperback book. Best of all, the Pilot stripped out all the banner ads and graphics, leaving me what mattered most-- the words, just the words.


Technological breakthroughs don't come from "eureka" moments in the lab.

Breakthroughs come from incremental change, often in ways few can predict. Mosaic, a group-hacked piece of software coded by students at the University of Illinois in 1993 flipped the Internet from an obscure research network into the global phenomenon we have today. Lotus 1-2-3, in the early 80s, flipped the home computer from a hobbyist's toy into a tool for work, propelling millions of PC sales. The Palm Pilot, in 1996, flipped the Personal Digital Assistant market, from a clumsy obscure niche, into a mainstream platform. None of these inventions, taken on their own, were profound ruptures with the past, instead they served as catalytic engines, bringing together several currents of innovation into a new, powerful direction-- a breakthrough.

The Minstrel is no different. Taken on it's own, it's a somewhat clumsy, ungainly piece of hardware-- a little too big, a little too hard to configure. But, much as Mosaic was, it's just the first generation, and it points to the arrival
of a new system.

When I came home later that day (with extremely clean teeth), I headed for my laptop, picked up the phone, and was about to stick the plug into my computer when I thought-- why tie up the telephone when I can use the Pilot? So I logged in again, and downloaded new messages. "Look ma-- no wires!'' I thought, happily, flopped on the couch, Pilot in hand. This is the way the Internet was meant to be used-- whenever I want, wherever I want-- not tethered, stuck in some room, unable to move.

What happens when you get mobile? Well, one thing is certain, it's going to make a whole bunch of unknown people millionaires, eventually. Maybe a few billionaires too. It's also going to create new hybrid forms of media, with all the attendant creativity, exploration and excitement that comes with a new territory of the mind.

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