Features - Cache and Carry: Staying Connected Wirelessly

 Chris Hayes is CEO of CourtEXPRESS, a national and international court access and document retrieval service using leading-edge Internet and telecommunications technologies.

It seems like an oxymoron, but in a world gone wireless, it is actually easier to stay connected now than ever before. A veritable buffet of software products and hardware devices exists to make it easier to move around the planet and take your data with you. Here are just four ways to make your travel life easier.

Solution #1

Load an Electronic Briefcase. When it comes to toting your files from office to home, carrying your laptop is one remedy. Unfortunately, it’s also one way to get the travel version of a file and the network version of a file out of sync. A convenient solution exists already right on your PC Desktop: the Microsoft Briefcase program. The Briefcase program, available on Windows 98 or later versions, tracks files between the network and a special folder on your laptop called, appropriately, the Briefcase.

To use the Briefcase, you drag and drop your files onto the briefcase icon on your laptop to copy them from the network to the laptop. When you work on your files on the laptop, you always save them back to the briefcase folder. The next day at work, you “unload” your briefcase by letting the Briefcase program sync the briefcase files with the network files. The tedious task of remembering the home directory of each file, accessing that directory, comparing modification dates and saving the changed file to the network is done for you automatically. Also, the Briefcase warns you if the network version has changed since your put it in your briefcase—something you might easily overlook when syncing files manually.

Using Microsoft Briefcase

Create a Briefcase:
1. To create a Briefcase, right click anywhere on the desktop, and select New – Briefcase from the pop-up menu.

Load the Briefcase:
1. Drag and drop your files from Explorer onto the Briefcase icon on the Desktop. (The Briefcase keeps track of the home directory of each file.)
2. Disconnect your laptop and go (or drag the briefcase icon to the diskette, CD-ROM or Flash Drive that will travel with you).

Work out of your Briefcase away from the office:
1. Connect your laptop (or insert the diskette, CD-ROM or flash drive into your home PC) and click on the Briefcase icon.
2. Open and work on any file you like. When you save the file, it automatically saves to the Briefcase.

Unload a briefcase when you return to the office:
3. Connect your laptop and click on the Briefcase icon on the desktop (or insert the diskette or CD and click on the Briefcase folder on the diskette or CD-Rom in Explorer).
4. The Briefcase lists each file and its status: Up-to-date, Needs Updating, Both Changed, or “Orphaned” (i.e., new with no home directory on the network).
5. Click the Update-All icon to sync the files.

Viola! Your laptop version and PC versions are back in sync. That is, the modified briefcase files are saved to the correct network directories, and the modified network files—if someone has changed them since you loaded them into your briefcase—are saved to the briefcase. You are warned if both the briefcase version and the network version have changed; you must resolve the differences. Now your briefcase is up-to-date and ready to travel again.

 


Solution # 2: Flash your files. To make the process of caching and carrying files even quicker, you can “flash” your files. That is, save your files to one of the new portable memory cards, called a flash drive. About the size of a Bic cigarette lighter (remember those?), this little $40 device holds 128MB and houses a memory chip and a USB drive that plugs into a USB port on your laptop, desktop or server. Larger sizes are available, and newer desktops and servers have USB ports on the front to make using this type of device and various camera and recording devices easier to attach.

Microsoft Explorer sees the flash drive as just another hard drive, without loading any software, drivers or programs. The flash drive pops up in the menu just like a disk or CD drive would. When you drag your briefcase icon to the flash drive, everything is copied in an instant. It is much simpler and faster than burning a CD, and flash drives can be password protected. Clip the flash drive to your key ring and you’ll be unlikely to leave your files at home.


Solution #3: Re-purpose your old Palm. For short trips away from the office, a PDA can lighten your load by serving as a repository for reading material. Even a vintage 1990’s Palm III from palmOne (called a “Palm Pilot” way back then) offers a convenient way to read on an airplane without hauling the laptop or bundles of paper.

To turn your PDA into an electronic library, download Adobe Reader for Palm OS, a free application that lets you view and read PDFs, magazines, and e-books. You can turn Word documents into PDFs with a single click using Adobe Acrobat 6.0 ($299 online) and then “hot-sync” them to your PDA. You can also download e-books and magazines in PDA version from Adobe’s online Digital Media store.

Similarly, PalmOne offers e-Reader, a free application, and e-Reader Pro ($19.99) for e-book access, too. E-Reader Pro lets you set font size, bookmark pages, enter notes, and automatically scroll at a pace you control. You may find you read faster with the short lines and steady scroll it provides. Try both readers with the 9/11 Commission Report, available free in Adobe or palmOne format, at Fictionwise, another online digital media store.

If you don’t have an old Palm Pilot lying around, you can invest in a basic PDA for $99 - $199. A basic PDA runs either the Palm OS or the new Microsoft Pocket PC operating system and has calendar, contacts, to-do list and notepad applications. Usually it has 8 MB or more of memory, connects via a USB port to your PC for synchronizing, and has an expansion slot so you can add document editing or music later. Of course, the more bells and whistles it has (color screen, longer battery life, more memory, attachable keyboard) the higher the cost. Palm Zire 21, and Sony Clié TJ27 fall into this category
.


Solution #4: Move up to a new PDA or Phone-PDA combination. Once you are used to using your PDA as an e-book, you’re a short time away from craving more power. First you will find yourself making notes on the documents you are reading and next you will find you have a deep, preternatural desire to email them back to someone in the office. That’s when you’re ready for a really powerful, turbo-charged, fully tricked-out, high-end PDA, smart phone or pocket PC.

But how do you know which device you want or need and which one will work with your system? It is confusing without a little history and an overview of the basic functions and limitations of each type of device.

PDA History

The term “Personal Digital Assistant” (PDA) was first used in 1992 to refer to the Apple Newton, a small device for keeping a calendar, scheduling appointments and making notes when you were away from the office. The Palm Pilot, invented in 1996 by Jeff Hankins, founder of then-called Palm Computing Inc., was the first commercially successful “data organizer” or “handheld.” Today, PalmOne devices run the Palm OS system which supports some 23,000 applications available through PalmGear, Inc.

The term Pocket PC refers to any device running the Microsoft Windowstm for Pocket PC operating system. A Pocket PC running the Pocket PC operating system is a data-oriented PDA. One running the Pocket PC–Phone Edition is a data-and-voice PDA. Motorola and Samsung manufacture Pocket PCs.

In 2002, Research in Motion (RIM) came out with its data-and-voice device under the brand name BlackBerry®. PalmOne followed suit with its Treo 600 data and cell phone device in 2003. Both manufacturers opted to avoid labeling their products as PDA, cell phones or smartphones, and people today generally call these devices by their brand names.

The term smartphone refers to a device using the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system that integrates Outlook and MS office suite functions. Microsoft applies the name smartphone to devices that are “phone-centric” and can be operated with one hand. However, the term smartphone—along with the term “mobile wireless,”—is increasingly used in a generic manner to mean any device with data and phone capabilities.

As the capabilities of the devices broaden and overlap, as people use brand names as generic descriptions, and as generic names are applied to broader categories, the only way to know what a device can do is to ask the owner what the device can and cannot do.

An Overview of PDA functions. The morass of overlapping PDA products is most easily understood by separating them into two categories, data-only and data-and-phone devices, and describing the available features for each category. With that basic framework in mind, you can more easily decide what type of device will serve you best. Whether you want a data-only PDA or a data-and-phone PDA is really a personal preference. Some people feel like geeks carrying a PDA and a cell phone, while others are very uneasy having their data and cell phone in one, easy-to-lose device.

Data-only PDAs

The important things to know about a data-only PDA are:

  • It does not provide cell phone services.
  • It syncs your PDA files with your PC files via a cable with USB plug. (Older PCs do not have USB plugs, so you will need an adapter.
  • It has basic organizer functions (calendar, contacts, to-do list, and notepad). It can run office suite tools (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) but software may not be included. Ask.
  • It can have a built-in flash drive, MP3 music player, MPEG4 video player, camera, built-in or add-on QWERTY or keyboard, or voice recording capabilities. You’ll need to decide which things you want. The more functions the higher the cost.
  • It can have an expansion slot(s) to add-on functions later.
  • Some can connect (or be upgraded to connect) to the Internet using either (1) the Bluetooth protocol and a Bluetooth-enabled phone as a modem to connect to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) provider or (2) the Wi-Fi protocol (IEEE 802.11) and a Wi-Fi access point (or hot spot) to connect to your ISP or DSL. You can send and receive your email by going to your ISP or DSL webmail site. Your email is on your PDA until your sync with your PC when you are back in the office.
  • It costs between $350 and $400, plus the cost of the Internet and email services of your ISP or DSL. The term smartphone refers to a device using the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system that integrates Outlook and MS office suite functions. Microsoft applies the name smartphone to devices that are "phone-centric" and can be operated with one hand. However, the term smartphone—along with the term "mobile wireless,"—is increasingly used in a generic manner to mean any device with data and phone capabilities.
  • To see a list of popular palmOne PDAs, click here; for a list of other data-only Pocket PC, click here, or check the websites of specific vendors.

    Data-and-Phone PDA

    The important things to know about a data-and-phone PDA are:

  • It offers cell phone and text messaging services and, thus, requires a contract with a cell phone provider, such as Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, or Cingular Wireless. Some models of PDAs work only with some cell phone providers. Call or check the web site of your cell phone provider before you buy to see which manufacturers and models are supported. Note also that some cell phone providers sell data-and-phone PDAs at a discount price as an incentive for you to use their services.
  • It uses either the Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) to communicate with cell phone towers or the Code-Division Multiple Access system (CDMA) to communicate with cell phone towers. Your cell phone provider will tell you which system it uses. (Hint: if your current cell phone has a SIM card, you are using the GSM system.)
  • If you travel abroad, ask your cell phone provider about its oversee coverage. CDMA, which is a newer technology, is more prevalent in parts of Asia but GSM dominates in both U.S. and Europe. However, the U.S. and Europe use different frequency bands, so you may want a dual-band or tri-band phone if you plan to use your device in Europe.
  • If you are not currently locked into a contract with a specific cell phone provider, talk with people who have used their cell phones or PDAs successfully in the countries you visit and ask who their cell phone provider is and what type of phone they have. Some cell phone providers offer better coverage in some countries than other providers do.
  • Also, be aware that your cell phone provider may have to activate international calling for you--even when it is listed as part of your cell phone plan. International calling is not activated automatically as a safety precaution to reduce the possibility of theft and abuse.
  • It connects to the Internet using General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), a non-voice protocol that allows digital information (include web sites) to be sent and received across a mobile telephone network. Alternatively, an upgrade of GPRS, called EDGE or EGPRS, is now available on some phones. You will need this additional service from your cell phone provider.
  • Many are operated with one hand but require two hands for operating a “thumb pad” keyboard. Some have a touch screen or small QWERTY keyboard.
  • It can send and receive email to your PDA and to your PC so they stay in sync. To do so, it requires messaging software on your network server at the office. Messaging software receives email and data requests, fulfills the requests and stores or sends the results back to your PDA. Microsoft Outlook Exchange, Lotus Notes and BlackBerry Enterprise software perform this function so you may already have the capability in-house. Before you buy anything, ask your IT people if your law firm already has messaging software in place, whether the SMTP email protocol is supported, and find out which devices are supported. If you do not have the messaging software in-house, your DSL provider may be able to offer the service. If you don’t use Outlook, ask specifically if your DSL provider supports the email application you use.
  • To sync files with your PC, your PDA-phone may come with a cradle and cable, a cable alone, an infrared beam or no physical connection at all. If no cradle, cable or beam is required, the PDA syncs wirelessly by phone, that is, by using its wireless and messaging software and services even when you are in the office.
  • It has basic organizer functions. It can run office suite tools (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) but software may not be included or may need to be loaded, so ask.
  • It can have a built-in camera, but you may want to forego this as cameras are not permitted in many courtrooms.
  • It can have an MP3 music player, speakerphone, or expansion slots to add devices later. Ask about expansion capabilities.
  • It can have a screen resolution as coarse as 320 x 320 pixel or as fine as 640 x 480.
  • It usually has 32MB or so of memory of which about 24MB is available for data storage.
  • It costs between $350 and $700 plus the cost of the cell phone, Internet and messaging services.
  • To see a list PDA phone, click here and select a category under the topic “PDA phones” in the left hand menu.

    Whether you are a large, technically sophisticated law firm or a small solo practice, you can get help with your PDA-phone needs from a cell phone provider. Additionally, a number of remote wireless service providers exist. They specialize in remote wireless installation and can configure a custom solution for you.

    Conclusions

    PDA devices run the gamut from simple organizers to miniature laptops. The selection can be complicated unless you take the stance “anything is better than nothing” and “it costs what it costs.” New models with new combinations of capabilities are being introduced frequently, so some company probably makes the perfect combination for you.

    The convenience of having your data, email and phone in your pocket is liberating, time-saving and empowering. You’ll be surprised how quickly you come to rely on these devices once you jump the mental barriers to adopting them. Put a PDA in your purse or pocket and you can feel the power of the 21st century.


    Disclaimer: This article presents information for the layman and is not intended as a complete explanation, analysis or comparison of all PDA devices. Talk with your cell phone provider or your IT professional for full and in-depth information before making decisions about a PDA.


    Notes

    Palm, Zire, Tungsten and Treo are registered trademark of palmOne, Inc. PalmOne, Inc. is listed on the NASDAQ stock market (NASDAQ: PLMO).

    Blackberry is a registered trademark of Research in Motion, Limited. RIM is listed on the Nasdaq Stock Market (Nasdaq: RIMM) and the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX: RIM).

    All other product or service names mentioned - Motorola Inc., Sony Ericsson, Hewlett Packard, Toshiba and Nokia—are the property of their respective owners.