The toys that feed my obsession

Aug 2, 2009 • alan


I have always been a bit of a gadget freak, with a real interest in personal computing devices. I discovered early on just how useful it could be to have a lot of information at your fingertips.

Way back in 1992, when most people were running Windows 3.1 and Novell networks were cool, I bought a Zeos Pocket PC, a small DOS-based PC about the size of a VHS videotape that ran off of 2 AA batteries. It had Microsoft Works built into ROM, and 384k of battery-backed RAM to store my files. That was a sweet little PC, and I used it to store lots of convenient stuff, from my stock portfolio to my personal address book and calendar. You really can store a lot of data in 384k — if it’s all text.

In 1996, my wife (trend setter that she is) bought a Palm Pilot. The built-in apps were very clean and polished, and there were thousands of third-party apps that could be downloaded. I followed right behind her with one of my own. Moving from DOS to PalmOS was a bit of a shock — it was like suddenly moving into a nice neighborhood where someone else cleaned your house (but sometimes you could not find where they stored your stuff). I quickly grew to love that platform, even writing a few simple apps of my own. Over the years, we upgraded Palm devices several times.

The next year, I started working for Ericsson. This was in the early days of digital cellular (in the US), and I was excited about trying hand-held devices that were also wireless. But Ericsson never managed to fill this void with one single device. Instead, I carried a “Bat Man utility belt” of gadgets: a Palm PDA, an Ericsson GSM phone, and an Ericsson IrDA adaptor. Bluetooth was still under development at the time… still called MC Link, but eventually I upgraded my utility belt.

At one point, I got fed up with PDA’s. In the battle for pocket space, the phone always won over the PDA. And most of the time, I was either at home or at work, so I almost always had a PC nearby. I also started to worry about security — what if I lost my PDA, what would a thief know about me? So I gradually weaned myself from all of my “must have” Palm applications and I moved my portable data to the hot new thing… a thumb drive. I encrypted the whole darned thing, plugged it in at work or at home, backed it up often, and never worried about losing it. The only time that I found myself missing the PDA was when I needed my calendar. So once in a while, I would print it out and keep it in my pocket… on paper… old school.

It made sense to start moving some of my data to the web. There are nice web apps for doing calendars and address books and lots of stuff like that. Some use Google. I chose to host it on my own server, where I knew it was safe from prying (and marketing) eyes.

When it was time to get a new cell phone, my wife secretly bought me an LG vx9900 “enV” phone. It was one of the first phones that flipped open to reveal a QWERTY keypad. It had a pretty good WAP web browser that allowed quick retrieval of some type of info: weather forecast and radar, geocache hints, and my personal stuff (address book, etc) that I had moved to the web already.

In the summer of 2007, known around my house as “the summer of toys”, I found myself with a new mandate: I wanted portable internet access while we went to China in the fall. Looking back at my great experiences with Palm devices, I bought a used Palm Tungsten C on eBay. This is one of the few Palm PDA’s that sported an 802.11 wifi link. However, after a few weeks of pre-China tinkering, I decided that the screen was too small (in pixels), the email access stunk, and the browser was only suitable for the absolute simplest of web pages. I relegated it to my geocaching bag, where its only job was to occasionally look up geocache hints. Within a month, I had cracked the screen. C’est la vie.

About a week before we were to leave for China, I spotted a clearance sale on Woot where they were dumping the Nokia 770 as Nokia geared up for their new model. I snatched one up, and it performed flawlessly on our trip, accessing the internet wherever we were (using either free or “borrowed” wifi). I accessed email through a web mail app on my server at home, and we looked up dozens of things online, from local attractions to pharmaceutical advice. I did not have to worry about virus-laden PC’s in internet cafe’s and hotels (or at my in-laws’ house) and I did not have to navigate through a Chinese version of Windows XP. Best of all, since the N770 runs Linux under the hood, there are a lot of nice tricks that you can do, like running a VPN, or syncing via SSH over wifi.

The next year, I attended a hacker conference. Like a flashback to the Zeos Pocket PC 1992, I encountered a guy using the Asus Eee PC. Within a week, I had one of my own, and it became my primary computer for the next year. I immediately wiped the solid state disk and installed Ubuntu. The flash disk is pretty modest, so I did not store any of my stuff on it, preferring instead to keep that on my encrypted flash drive. Being small enough to keep in a bookbag meant that it went everywhere I went. And on the rare occasions when I needed more screen real estate, I simply plugged into a VGA monitor.

This month, I enter a new chapter in my long series of relationships with small machines. I bought an Apple iPhone 3G S. I am extremely excited about this device. Like the Palm, it has a ton of third-party applications. Like the Nokia 770, its browser is good enough to make it an effective “vacation PC”. Like the Nokia 770, It uses either the open wifi of your generous neighbors, or the cellular network. But unlike the “Ericsson Bat Man utility belt”, this device does it all in one, very small and sexy unit.

To summarize:

  • 1992 Zeos Pocket PC – PC? yes… pocket? that’s a stretch
  • 1996 Palm Pilot – a very nice PDA with a lot of third party apps
  • 1999 the Ericsson “Bat Man utility belt” – no one ever called Bat Man a geek
  • 2004 thumb drive – where most of my stuff lives
  • 2005 the web – where a lot of my stuff lives
  • 2007 LG vx9900 “enV” phone – a nice phone with a simple browser
  • 2007 Palm Tungsten C – not really worth it
  • 2007 Nokia 770 – the web in your pocket
  • 2008 Asus Eee PC – big enough to be a full PC, small enough to carry everywhere
  • 2009 Apple iPhone 3G S – we shall see