A Digital Diatribe

There’s a corner of hell reserved for time management gadgets, and I’ve visited it often these past few months. Conceptually, the ability to manage appointments and to-do lists is so simplistic that 40 years of programming should have made this a no-brainer by now.

The scenario: I want the ability to keep my calendars and tasks in sync between my home, work and mobile gadget. Adding an item to one should propagate it to the others. I should be able to add simple notes, get access to info almost anywhere, and take advantage of the domain to copy and paste data from multiple digital sources. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love me my paper planner, but there’s only so much you can stuff in it at a time.

My Palm Tungsten E (a.k.a., “Crashy McCrashALot”) bordered on this multi-location functionality, but: a) frequently incurred extra changes to sync with my home and work Macs (the Mark/Space sync program was needed after Apple and Palm pulled out of that horse race); b) my hand would cramp up trying to enter more than a few lines of text; and c) stability was a pipe dream, often leading to not only crashing but slowly and silently corrupting data over many weeks till it was too late to do anything about it. In fact, the frustration of the latter provided the final straw that led to the creation of the D*I*Y Planner project.

When my Palm died again last month, taking yet data with it, I was faced with the decision to get another Palm (which, really, don’t seem to have advanced much in the past five years) or seek another platform. Then I noticed a shiny new iPod Touch (iTouch) for roughly the same price as the Palm, and I harkened back to the siren call of Apple and its promises to provide calendars, applications and other information synced from the desktop. A friend showed me the calendar and contact apps, which while a little primitive seemed to do the job. The great built-in web browser and WiFi clinched the deal. And –let’s face it– those things are very sexy. (I should note that it isn’t possible to get an iPhone in the Canadian Arctic. That’s many years away, at best.)

A few days after introducing the iPod Touch, my results did vary. The data entry using the on-screen keyboard was about as fast as using Graffiti on the Palm (which is to say, rather slower than handwriting, much slower than regular keyboard typing), but I got used to it. To my chagrin, there was no to-do list application on the machine, and no way to incorporate any third-party application with iCal’s task list. I could use OmniFocus, but let’s say I don’t want to spend another $100 right now — I have high hopes for Things, a GTD-style app that works close to how I think, but a syncing version isn’t released yet.

Not only does the Calendar not have a weekly view, but adding an item might or might not propagate to my Macs, which use Apple’s MobileMe (formerly known as .Mac) for syncing. After downloading a couple dozen apps from the Apple AppStore, my daily syncing process takes nearly two hours because it does a full back-up of data, even though I have back-ups turned off! Sorry, Apple, I may be a fan-boy but that’s ridiculous. There’s no way of syncing notes (that is, without a third-party app like PhoneView, which provides a decent kludge), and even if there were, the Notes apps is fairly brain-dead. And I still don’t understand why Apple places such a low priority on copy/paste on the device. Clearly, the device isn’t meant for information management of any kind.

The browser, the media player and a number of the neato third-party applications almost –but not quite– made up for this, and I briefly explored a few online options like Remember the Milk paired with Google Calendar before I realized that most of the time when I’m out and about there is no WiFi connection.

And then it got worse. Yes, I actually pay for MobileMe (formally .Mac) as a way of keeping all my Macs in sync, and while it’s never been perfect and occasionally it refuses to sync till one of the machines has its data wiped, I can usually overcome any difficulties within a few hours. The convenience is usually worth it. But when one of my laptops refused to sync, even a “nuclear reset” wouldn’t solve the problem — back-up, unregister all computers, wipe all data, re-import the data, re-register the computers, do full sync on one, replace sync on the others. Long story short, it finally did work, but lost my last two weeks of iCal calendar entries, all my to-do items, and everything that was in one category. Score one for the paper planner: all my important items were written down and could be re-entered.

Apple NewtonSo, here’s the sad conclusion to my diatribe. Of all the devices, applications, gadgets, cell phones, flotsam and jetsam that I’ve used over the past 15 years, the closest I’ve come to my ultimate digital time management solution has been a ten-year-old Newton MessagePad 2100 with MoreInfo and a few other non-Apple applications. The handwriting recognition rocks, I can combine drawings with text, the attachable keyboard works fine, the notes app has full outlining and checkbox functionality, the alarm is loud enough to wake me up, there’s nearly 30 hours of usage before needing to recharge, the copy-paste works perfectly, the word processor with spell-checker/dictionary/thesaurus is no-frills but works well, and the various time/contact management features (especially in MoreInfo) are what I consider to be best-of-breed for my uses. Yes, the thing is a little large and heavy, but it’s a good size for entering and manipulating text, and while Apple doesn’t provide syncing services for Mac OS X, some volunteer projects have stepped up to the plate and do an excellent job. I wouldn’t want to use it for web browsing or serious email usage, but I have other machines for that.

Now, if Apple were to finally create an iTouch about three times the size with handwriting recogition and all the flexibility of the Newton, my digital time management woes would likely be solved. But that’s not going to happen any time soon.

Anyone here like to jump in with their mobile digital time management solution? I’m looking for ideas….

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