Writing on Your Palm

When I switched back to the Palm from the Pocket PC two years ago (has it been that long?) one of the most difficult things to leave behind was µBook. Available for all variants of Windows but not for Palm OS, µBook was a do-all read-all ebook program that could handle anything: it could read ASCII, RTF, Word, PalmDoc, from any folder or even zipped. I missed it, but eReader wasn’t bad, as long as I didn’t mind converting all my ebooks to its format first. (I’ll conveniently ignore the “dark period” where an NFVS-compliant version of eReader Pro wasn’t available and I had to choose between a stable but feature-limited version or a slightly unstable Pro version.)

Recently, I heard about a new program called Palm Fiction, but the website wasn’t encouraging. First off, it was entirely in Russian, which I don’t read. And the project was open source, which I’m shamed to admit, I often read to mean “amateurish.” (This is the part where all the Linux users burn me at the stake.)

I installed it anyway and took a look. After an hour or so, I picked my jaw up off the floor. This thing is amazing. Let me say this right up front. If you own a Palm and love to read, Palm Fiction is a must-have.

It will take you a while to get it working just the way you like it. There are dozens of options to set, and the interface is completely configurable. You decide how many toolbars to have and what goes on each one. You decide the fonts, the colors, justification, the works. I don’t have the space in this article to go over everything Palm Fiction can do, but let’s cover the really juicy stuff.

First let’s talk formats. Much like µBook, Palm Fiction can read PalmDoc, ASCII text, RTF, HTML, and Microsoft Word (as well as zTxt, a compressed Palm database that uses the zip algorithm for tighter storage than PalmDoc). So far, it strips out any rich formatting, but that may change; after all, it’s open source and probably just a matter of time before the code to parse italics and whatnot finds its way in there.

What does this mean? It means that you can download and store your documents in whatever open format you’d like, and Palm Fiction can read them. I didn’t like having to keep two copies of my books before: one in an editable archival format (alas, no one ever seems to find every typo), and one in eReader’s compiled (and one-way) format. Now I can just keep my books in HTML or RTF (or plain text, if that’s all I have) and read them directly. I just copy them onto the card I have in my Palm, and there they are. (BTW, if anyone knows how to extract text from an iSilo document, drop me a line.)

What do you do after you get your files on the device? Let’s talk file management. If you’ve used iSilo, this will seem familiar. You can view your library just about any way you’d like. You can assign books as “favorites” so they’ll always be in that list (although again, since I can’t read the Russian documentation, if anyone figures out how to remove a file from the Favorites list once it’s there, let us know). You can view books by most recently opened, and you can browse the Palm’s memory and the directories of any memory cards you might have. What’s better is that Zip archive files are treated as folders, and you can browse into them as well.

Read the rest of the review in the forum!

Mobile Managing
PalmOne has officially announed a new class of handhelds in their line up, the “Mobile Manager.” Why a third class? Unlike the organization-focused PDAs and communication-focused smartphones, the Mobile Managers will be media-focused. They’ll be able to handle organization and communications just fine, but they excel at collecting, organizing and accessing media, both audio and video.

We’ve suspected PalmOne was moving in this direction for a while, and barring the confusing “Tungsten X” rumor, the upcoming LifeDrive was always assumed to be the lead-off for a new product line, one that I suspect will be as important as smartphones to PalmOne’s future.

The PDA market is in twilight. While there are still hundreds of millions of people worldwide that could benefit from a PDA and don’t have one, most of the people that can benefit from a PDA and would actually use one already have one. For example, my mother would benefit greatly from a PDA for both scheduling and ebooks, but I can’t make her use one. Eventually, the PDA market will fade to a very small niche (although those can be profitable; see Apple’s 5% PC market share for site porno an example).

PalmOne has known for a while that smartphones will eventually be big, and the Treo 650 is widely considered one of the best on the market. It’s so good, in fact, that HP is shamelessly copying the Treo with their upcoming Windows Mobile communicator, the hw6500 (which even has a “650” in the model number).

But a “sleeper” category in portable electronics has been media players. While the iPod has defined the audio player market, the multimedia player market has been chaotic. Many of the popular devices in this category, from big names like Archos and Creative, are too large for anything but a cargo pocket and twice the price of an average PDA.

PalmOne can become an overnight leader in this space if they execute well. The leaked specs on the LifeDrive make it much more attractive than the competition. It’s smaller, lighter and significantly cheaper, while having the same battery life and screen brightness. It also does far more, including the organization and communications features from the PDA line. It’s also launching at an opportune season, just in time for Dads & Grads. This could be the hot device this summer.

The key to everything, though, is in the marketing. Positioned as a media player, the LifeDrive can dominate. Positioned as a PDA, it’s pricey and thick. Most of the complaints I’ve seen about the LifeDrive thus far stem from looking at it as a PDA, comparing it to what a PDA in 2005 should be. This is entirely the wrong way to see it. Looking at it as a media player that can also handle time management, it’s cheap and tiny. But people won’t think that if stores stock it in the PDA department rather than the media player department.

The device is ready, but can PalmOne’s marketing department pull this off?

Layers
It was a relevation to my Photoshop workflow when I started using layers. In short, layers are simply images stacked on top of some original image you’ve created. The new layers do not have to contain the same information as the background (i.e. first and bottom-most layer). Layers can contain text, or masks, or shapes, or other images. The magic comes when you combine the layers in different ways. Or you can use the new layers for manipulation while keeping the original handy. I’ve found that layers are indispensable in my Photoshop use.

So why hasn’t anyone created a text or word processor that supports a form of textual layering? I realize that there is a fundamental difference between paragraph structure and visuals, but is it so hard to wrap multiple layers/documents/text files within a tar-ball or ZIP?

I find that I splinter and fork a lot of my writing, mostly with the idea of keeping drafts, at the very least for my own edification. I even tried using CVS to handle text document revisions in the past.

So here’s what I’m thinking in making textual layering useful. Paragraphs are the basic structure of the document. You can create layers “focused” on some existing paragraph. Changes made in the new layer would replace or merge with that one paragraph. If the course of editing required you create new paragraphs in a new layer, they will be inserted after the original paragraph in the original layer, should you choose to merge.

It does sound a bit involved, but I think it would have the virtue of keeping multiple drafts in front of the writer. There can simply be status bar along the left side of the text window that notes which paragraphs have layers, and how many, associated with them. You can then specify which layers are shown, so if you have 5 layers associated with one paragraph, and 3 with another, you can display layers 4 and 2 as your reference display.

Just a thought. I find multiple files just doesn’t work so well for me.
Posted by mcheung on 05/09 at 08:13

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