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Death of a Palm

by Chris Halsall

For a Linux geek, it was the dream assignment: "We want you to look at all the Linux handheld devices currently available, and tell us what you think." -- who knew it would lead to a tragedy?

I've been a Palm user for several years now -- I plan my life with the device; my wedding couldn't have happened without its help. So, it was only natural that I would be using my trusty Palm, "Paw," to keep track of the contacts made at the various Linux handheld manufacturers, shipping details, and article notes.

After a while, the Linux handheld devices started appearing. The first to show up was the Agenda VR3, very Palm-like in many ways but running a true Linux and X environment. I didn't think anything about it at first, but Paw started to act a little strange, bringing up its screen-lock program, "LockMe," when it shouldn't have, for example.

Next to appear was the G.Mate YOPY, the first color Linux device to arrive. Fast, 65,000 colors, 3.4 times the display pixels of a Palm -- it was an immediate hit around the office, with co-workers lining up to try it out. I thought I heard Paw whimper, but figured it was my imagination.

Then the iPAQ was delivered. Wow! Like the YOPY, but even smaller and lighter. Coming pre-installed with Windows CE, there was another office line up to play with the new toy ... err ... tool. WinCE was quickly blown away and replaced with the Familiar distribution of Linux, and co-workers were even more excited about the possibilities.

I was thrilled -- finally all the devices were in hand, ready for the "Linux on Handhelds" series. To evaluate the devices as "personal digital assistants," I carried each unit around with me for a week trying to use it as my primary PDA. I always had Paw with me as a backup, however, as none of the other devices were able to completely fulfill my needs.

Comment on this articleWhat do you think? Did Chris' Palm see the graffiti on the wall choose to end its own life, or was there foul play?
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The Agenda VR3: Real Linux in a PDA

Linux on an iPAQ

Bootstrapping the YOPY PDA

In hindsight I realize that this was putting a great deal of performance anxiety on Paw, and it started acting even weirder. I woke up one night to hear, in a tiny little voice, "OK, Lets try this again ... Context switch! And again ... again ... again ... No! Don't try to access that memory location! Oh, look what you've done." It needed a reset the next morning.

Finally, Paw gave up -- I had no idea it was so depressed! I was out celebrating the upcoming wedding of a good friend of mine, and took Paw out to check the time. It squeaked "I'm sorry. I can't multitask!" and leaped from my hand. Performing a one-and-a-half somersault, it landing face down on the floor.

My heart skipped a beat. "Paw!" I screamed, as I scooped it up and turned it over. My worst fears were realized: Paw's display was smashed -- the touch screen blinded to input. My Palm was dead; it had committed suicide! (The fact I had had three beers at the time had nothing to do with it; that's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

Fortunately, I had recently made a complete backup of Paw, so I held a séance using the Palm OS Emulator (POSE). This was to extract some critical data from apps like "Strip," but it also let me ask Paw why it had done what it had.

"I just couldn't stand it any longer!" the resurrected Paw explained. "Those Linux handhelds are just so intimidating, with their fancy protected memory and pre-emptive multitasking. I tried a few times, and got so confused; I don't know how they do it!"

Trying to calm it down, I pointed out its impressive collection of software and large user base. Unfortunately, Paw had been reading the news clippings I had been caching on it for offline reading: "Then how come so many of my cousins and siblings are sitting unwanted in warehouses? No ... I understand: We're getting too long in the tooth."

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All I could do was nod. Paw was right, after all: The Palm platform is showing its age. Not much innovation has been seen from Palm Computing for quite some time, and sales numbers for Palm devices have been quite disappointing lately.

"Well, thanks for all the hard work and good times," I said. "I'll launch POSE and visit from time to time." At this point, I shut off POSE, ending the conversation. I didn't want to let it slip that Paw might next be brought to life under POSE running on an iPAQ -- I wasn't sure how Paw would, or will, react.

Even though this happened several weeks ago, I'm still quite sad Paw is no longer my PDA. No other handheld currently available does quite as well as the Palm platform for simply helping me keep my day organized. Even the iPAQ running WinCE doesn't make the grade. Its inconsistent GUI often leaves me furious -- I consider that a serious design flaw in something which can so easily be thrown across the room.

I've decided not to replace Paw, though. I'm going to work with the Agenda VR3 and the various distributions for the iPAQ until one or more of them can handle all my day-to-day needs. There's nothing like a driving problem, after all.

At the same time, I recommend the Palm to any non-technical users who ask my advice about a PDA, and I likely will continue to do so for some time. Despite, or perhaps because of, its minimalist approach, the Palm platform remains "good enough" for most people.

If only it could multitask ... Oh, well. That's what Linux is for.

Chris Halsall is the Managing Director of Ideas 4 Lease (Barbados). Chris is a specialist... at automating information gathering and presentation systems.

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