PaperPDA

By: Edward Bilodeau
February 9, 2002


There is only one person that I know that needs an electronic PDA. He works as a project manager for a big computer company, and is often in the field, driving around, overseeing installations. The ability to carry around a lot of information in his pocket, to be able to view and edit spreadsheets, review old email messages, makes him more productive.

I may be forgetting someone, but I don't really know anyone else who needs an electronic PDA. I know that I don't.

Or at least I don't think that I do. Every year, for as long as I can remember, I've purchased myself an agenda of some sort with the hope that it would help me get organized. Big or small, more structured or less structured, fancy or simple. None of them every worked, and were eventually abandoned after a few months.

Four or five years ago, when I was a project manager at Generation.Net, I decided to make the leap and get myself a Palm Pilot. It was neat, and I used it for a while. At some point, the batteries ran out (as they often did), and I didn't bother to replace them. Back then, the unit did not recharge automatically in its cradle, and having to make sure I had batteries on hand just in case was a major pain. So, for whatever reason, I stopped using it.

In the end, I had spent a few hundred bucks to learn, finally, that there was nothing I could buy that was going to get me organized.

Fast-forward a few years. Today's PDA are nice, feature-packed, but expensive as hell. Expensive to me, since the risk of it turning into shelfware are pretty high.

So I came up with a plan. Get organized first, and then look into purchasing some technology to make the job of staying organized even easier.

What do I need?

I thought a bit (i.e. about 5 minutes) about what I need to stay organized. My thinking, as vague as it was, was that I needed some way of keeping track of what I had scheduled for a particular week, and to keep a "to do" list. I also want to be able to carry a few bits of important information with me (a handful of phone numbers, server names, room numbers, etc). Also, I should be able to carry it on me at all times.

I had a few ideas about how I should go about fulfilling these requirements, so I set to work. I had a prototype ready in about 20 minutes, and though I've tweaked things a bit over the months, the basic solution has served me well. So I though I'd share it with you. Let me tell you about...

The PaperPDA

The PaperPDA is essentially piece of paper. I maintain a plain text file using a text-editor, and print it out as a four-page booklet using the technique I mentioned in my essay on the ideal ebook. I then fold the piece of paper and put it in my pocket.

As you can see, the form factor of the PaperPDA has several advantages to it. It is highly flexible. You can bend it, fold it, crumple it up, and it still works. It weighs almost nothing. And it fits perfectly in a pocket. If you encounter a smaller pocket, you can just fold it over again. Power consumption is zero.

The text display is a crisp 600 dpi, much clearer then that offered by most PDAs. Some people may find the text a bit small to read, but I prefer to think of that as an anti-snooping feature. Right now, the PaperPDA display is black & white. However, if you had a color printer, color display would be non-trival to implement.

My current model can hold four pages of plain text. I have never in many months of use gone over that limit. Also, if you look at the picture above, you'll see that I leave a lot of white space on the page. It would be possible to increase the capacity of the page by playing with the margin settings and condensing the layout of the text. Having a duplex printer would double your capacity, as would printing out a second sheet (although the latter solution does double the weight of the unit).

Data Entry

Data entry can be accomplished in a variety of ways. My typical use of the PaperPDA goes something like this. I begin by preparing a text file containing all the information I need. I could use the stylus to enter the information, but I prefer using the PC to enter large amount of data. Once I'm done, I print out a PaperPDA, fold it up, and put it in my pocket. During the course of the day, I use a stylus (i.e. a pen) to enter additional notes into the PaperPDA, cross off to do items, etc.

Then, I begin every day by updating the text file on my PC with the notes taken from the previous day. Aside from updating my data file, I find that this helps me to remember what needs to get done. Once I'm satisfied that the text file is up to date, I print a new PaperPDA, and I'm good to go.

One of the great things about the PaperPDA is that it uses a non-proprietary, open, low-cost stylus technology. The picture below shows just a few of the other colour styli that I use.

As you can see, these are all fairly inexpensive and easy to come by. There is, of course, nothing stopping you from purchasing a higher-end model.

Accessories

I'm still in the process of coming up with a catalog of accessories for the PaperPDA. The only one I've developed so far is the ContactClip. The ContactClip is the most efficient way I've found to date to store business card information [1].

This may be a bit bulky for some, but it fits fine in a desk drawer, and the cost can't be beat.

Conclusion

I realize that the PaperPDA is not perfect. It lacks a backlit display. It can't store MP3s. It has no wireless or communication features. I can't use it to drive a PowerPoint presentation. But it keeps me organized, and it didn't cost me a lot of money. I suggest you try it out for yourself before you drop a bunch of money on a fancy model. It won't cost you anything but a bit of time and some paper. And the PaperPDA is fully recyclable.




[1] I got the idea for the ContactClip idea from David Harries, president of Ryan & Deslauriers, although I can't say for certain whether or not he was the original inventor.[back to text]