The Zen Done Gone

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The Zen Done Gone Palm OS developers often speak about “the Zen of Palm,” a mystical philosophy based primarily on design simplicity. It’s a worthy philosophy for handheld devices, and it’s helped Palm to achieve extraordinary success. All the more disappointing then that its current flagship model, the Tungsten T, has lost sight of this approach. Which leads me to wonder: What’s happened Palm?

Now, the “Zen” of handhelds isn’t just casual conversation around Palm’s office water coolers. Palm’s website even includes a lengthy document describing what that means in detail, covering everything from “Design Philosophies” to “Basic User Testing”.

But did the Tungsten T’s hardware and software designers actually read this holy writ? I wonder. Let’s look at few of the design guidelines (shown below in bold italics) taken directly from the “Zen” document and see how well the Tungsten T achieves handheld Nirvana.

The Rules of Zen

You get pragmatic innovation started by identifying the problems that your handheld product needs to solve. Determine what the users of your product need to do

The Tungsten T’s most distinguishing feature is its sliding bottom. When pressed closed, this sliding part covers the Graffiti area; pulling it open exposes the Graffiti area. It’s a clever and innovative feature, but do users need to collapse and expand a small electronic device? Did users ever nag Palm to add this option, or suggest that they would pay more to have it?

No doubt some customers somewhere on some occasions have said something about the size of handheld devices. Something like, “smaller is better.” I’m even willing to assume that somebody said something like “It’d be great if a PDA could fold down and be small in my pocket, and then open up bigger when I needed to use it!”

But I’m not willing to assume that any real customer ever really said “You know, I’d just love it if my PDA could collapse by seven-eighths of one inch in length, at the expense of greater weight and mechanical complexity for rails and sensor-equipped sliding gizmos, and the higher costs that accompany that mechanical complexity, not to mention the fact that I now have to take yet another step–this one requiring TWO HANDS to open the thing before I can do what I need to do with it.

But that’s what Palm built with the Tungsten T. I’ve used one for a couple of weeks, and so far the collapsing feature is nothing but a nuisance. Countless times I’ve pulled out the stylus and started to write, only to stare in puzzlement because I couldn’t find a place to write on. Sure, I’ll eventually start remembering to slide it open before writing. And sure, all things being equal, a smaller PDA is a better PDA. But at what price?

For me, “size” means primarily this: does the thing fit comfortably in my shirt pocket? The answer to the shirt-pocket question is either yes or no; and if it’s “yes,” then that’s the end of the size issue. After that, I care about weight, features, convenience, and other things. I would happily buy a longer-but-lighter non-collapsing unit, than a shorter, heavier collapser. To put it bluntly: this feature looks like the classic answer-to-a-question-that-customers-aren’t-asking. Even worse, it’s a pointless bother.

Handhelds must be so small and light that a person can carry one everywhere, in a pocket or a purse, without even thinking about it.

The Tungsten T gets half of this right. When it’s collapsed, it’s very small indeed. It’s not especially light as Palm units go, but the weight is acceptable. Where the Tungsten goes wrong is at the other end of the guideline: when you pull the unit back out again to use it. Here are four reasons why.

Reason number one: It’s too wide. The shape is slightly too wide for hands that aren’t pretty wide themselves. My hands aren’t pretty wide, and holding the Tungsten T feels slightly awkward as a result. It’s a subtle effect, almost imperceptible. But I’ve compared holding the Tungsten T to holding a Sony Clie SJ33, and the narrower, longer body of the Clie makes all the difference in the world. The Clie feels good in your hand, like it wants to be there. Not so the Tungsten T.

Ironically, the feel is worse when the Tungsten is collapsed: the resulting squarish shape lacks balance and a sense of stability. (And the blocky design looks silly, too, like someone sawed off the bottom of a perfectly good PDA Screen and then stretched a metal Band-Aid over it so the bleeding diodes wouldn’t leak out.)

Reason number two: It’s too slippery. Leaking diodes aside, the Tungsten T’s gray metal case exudes a sense of strength and competence. That’s great! Why, oh why, then, did Palm make the case so slippery? The smoothly cold and dry metal wants to start sliding out of your fingers before you even touch it. No wonder that when you don’t really have to take it out, your instincts to avoid dropping a multi-hundred dollar object overcome reason: you just say “no.” (Maybe Palm should have brought out the unit at the beginning of the summer, when hands are damp, instead of November, when they’re dry.)

Reason number three: It’s difficult to hold. Only one of the Tungsten T’s four sides is psychologically “safe” to touch. The other three all have something that does something, usually something unexpected and bad. For instance, you don’t want to grab your Tungsten T by the top and bottom, certainly not if it’s fully open, because–LOOK OUT! THE BOTTOM’S GOING TO COLLAPSE AND YOU’LL DROP IT! And if your psyche is too numb to perceive that threat, then you’re exposed to countless top-side hazards: Uh-oh?secure digital card popped out! Uh-oh–stylus popped out! Uh-oh–power button got pressed!

Nor can you pick it up by the left and right sides, because you’ll inadvertently start audio recording when your finger or thumb presses the too-exposed voice recorder button.

Reason number four: It’s got an impractical screen cover. Palm’s failure to provide the Tungsten T with a useful, rigid screen covering is disappointing. The first Palms (“Palm Pilots”) came with a vinyl slip-into case. Not deluxe, but quite functional. The Palm III’s came with a very functional flip-up hard plastic cover. I never had a Palm V or 500 series, so don’t know what they came with, but I was very surprised to find that the Tungsten T comes only with a curvy piece of transparent plastic that is not attached to the body of the handheld. It “clips” to both sides by mechanical pressure.

That means that when you want to get your Tungsten T out and use it, you need to fumble around with it so you can pry–yes, pry–the cover away from the sides. It takes at least two, and ideally three, hands (which are often in short supply when you’re on the go) to remove this piece of plastic nothing. And then you’re left holding it, for Pete’s sake. The Tungsten T manual–which I only read in order to write this review, or I would never have discovered it–says that you can clip the plastic cover to the back of the unit. And you can. But having to do that is another nuisance and just another occasion to drop the whole thing on the sidewalk.

Trying to fit a full desktop application in the palm of your hand is the worst mistake you can make. It will ultimately lead to failure.

Let’s see, what additional software does Palm advertise as being essential to the use of the Tungsten T? So essential, in fact, that it’s included as part of the Tungsten T package on a CD-ROM labeled “Software Essentials”? Why, nothing less than DataViz’s Documents-to-Go package. Documents-to-Go is a set of programs that includes a Microsoft-compatible Word-like word processor called “Word-to-Go”; an Excel-like spreadsheet called “Sheet-to-Go”; and a PowerPoint-like presentation package called “Slideshow-to-Go.”

DataViz stakes the reputation of this package on how close it comes to providing “a full desktop application in the palm of your hand.” Take what the company says on its web site about Word-to-Go, for instance. According to DataViz, Word-to-Go’s key features include:

  • Embedded graphic support
  • Insert, delete and edit tables
  • Character formatting (bold, italics, underline, colors, font type & size, superscript, subscript, ALL CAPS, etc.)
  • Document formatting (tables, indents, paragraph alignment, line spacing, page breaks, bullets & numbering, etc.)
  • Multiple Text Select Options (drag-scroll, select all, double & triple-click select)
  • Find & Replace
  • Multiple Undo & Redo

That’s a pretty heavy load. To make matter worse, Palm itself trumpets the fact that with Documents-to-Go, “users find it easier to use familiar applications on a Palm handheld than on a PocketPC” (my emphasis). Please note, readers, that the term “familiar applications” refers precisely to those familiar, full-featured, complex, bloat-gushing desktop PC applications from Microsoft that the Zen of Palm says developers should religiously avoid. (See http://www.palm.com/products/handhelds/tungsten-t/.)

[Handhelds should] be fast and easy to figure out.

I don’t have the heart to say much about how “easy” it is for users to figure out memory expansion cards, a feature that Palm added to its handhelds long before the Tungsten T. Expansion cards are supposed to give users “quick access to, and Storage of, large amounts of data.” (See http://www.palm.com/products/accessories/expansioncards/.)

They do provide Storage for large amounts of data, and that’s a wonderful feature. But when you have to work with files–not just store them–on an expansion card, you’ll quickly find that the process is far from “easy to figure out.” Here’s one example. When my Tungsten T arrived, I was able to install several large files on its 32-megabyte SD card. I don’t remember how I did it, but I did it and that seemed good.

But then I discovered that I could not delete the same files that I had installed. the Palm OS would not even show the files to me. All I could do was bring up a screen that said the expansion card was completely full, but that showed only a blank space on the screen where I expected to see the files listed. I took this to mean that, though full, the card contained no files whatsoever. Curious–and certainly no way to make a handheld “easy to figure out.”

So Palm, what’s happened? You used to make such great products because you were smart about handhelds, and the people who use them. You followed the Zen road and it worked, but now you’ve lost sight of the road. How sad. The Zen done gone, and we’re all the worse for it.

About the author

Trotter Hardy is the Associate Dean of Technology and Professor of Law at William and Mary School of Law, and is the Founder and Editor of the Journal of Online Law. He specializes in Computers and the Law, Economic Analysis of Law, and Intellectual Property.

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