09 September, 2007

What "Portable" Means

Everyone in my house uses computers to keep in touch with the world. But we all want to do it alone. What's up with that?

Work Is Where You Find It

Until recently we all shared a brace of PCs in the home office: my laptop and the desktop computer. Now suddenly everyone needs "space". My wife wants to teleconference with fewer distracting background noises. My daughter wants to do her homework (more likely MSN Chat) where it's "cooler". I think she means where the late afternoon sun doesn't conspire with the transformers from the computing machines to overheat the room. Then again, teenage girls don't think about "cool" the way dads do.... Mostly, however, what the women in my household seemed to want was to not do their computing in the same room as me.

I thought the solution to this would be simple. I ran some network wiring to jacks on the other floors of the house. I upgraded the router to one that provides wireless networking. I moved one PC to the finished basement for the overheated teenager. And was everyone happy?

Well, no.

Turns out what the kid really wanted was a notebook PC so she could do her computing stuff while lying on her back in the TV room. And the wife wanted to take over my office PC with its faster CPU and huge hard drive so she could share family photos and videos with her relatives overseas as well as organize the family albums.

Plan B then involved negotiating a schedule when the wife could take over the office. On those occasions I would leave the PC to her and take my laptop to another room in the house. I also bought a MacBook with a thirteen inch screen for my kid to share with me. Compared to my eight pound Dell with its fifteen inch screen, the MacBook is positively svelte (under five pounds). The screen is sharp enough. With a partitioned hard drive the MacBook provides me with Windows for my work (mostly experimenting with carrying a computer back and forth from the hospital to see how that impacts my writing and other tasks) and Mac OS for the daughter to do her thing (mostly school writing assignments with a large dollop of text messaging to classmates).

I hoped to find out what it's like to have a truly portable notebook PC but so far I am underwhelmed. The MacBook is still a little too heavy for tossing into my briefcase every day on the way to the hospital and I certainly can't carry it around with me when I see patients inside the hospital. I can't balance it in one hand while typing either.

Nope, I still like the pocket-size smart phone I use now for when I am on the go. The larger screen and keyboard of a notebook would be welcome for accessing the hospital lab or patient records but the overall weight and need for a flat work surface are a problem for laptops. Is there anything else out there I could try?

Palm Takes a Shot

Palm tried to stretch the envelope with the Foleo, a new machine (unveiled earlier this year) that would provide a bigger screen and keyboard than a PDA but which would rely upon a cell phone or smartphone for connectivity. Too small to have all the features of a notebook PC, but too large to have the portability and ease of use of a PDA, and lacking WiFi or cellular network access, the Foleo failed to capture the imagination of road warriors, students, business execs and geeks. This week Palm pulled the plug on the whole idea. I don't know it they ever actually presold a single Foleo and none ever shipped.

A business.ca columnist has an interesting comment on the Foleo, asserting that users have narrowed the focus of their mobile work. Some can get by with email, while others need to work on documents or get online to look up data. The former can make do with a smartphone, the latter need a laptop or notebook. According to this line of reasoning, the Foleo failed to provide enough laptop features to make smartphone users want to carry the extra gear to perform tasks they rarely would need to do anyway.

I think this is overly simplistic. Speaking strictly about health care workers in my hospital emergency department, work is increasingly complex and tools are ever more fragmented. Within the last twelve months we have deployed WiFi mobile phones for doctors, pagers for the nurse-in-charge for lab test result notifications, and, most recently, pagers for the doctors for yet other notifications of radiology results. We have simultaneously expanded the role of our electronic whiteboard. Used originally to show room occupancy and the status of investigations in progress or patient discharges, now it includes a toggle to indicate which rooms need to be cleaned by housekeeping. The whiteboard is only available on desktop workstations. Access to patient electronic records (for review or ordering tests) is still available only through desktop computers.

Thus, when I am on duty I carry a PDA, a WiFi phone, a pager, and still have to stop at the nursing station to check the whiteboard or to order a lab test. None of these technologies interconnect at the user interface (me). For example, if I want to update something on the whiteboard I have to go where it is, not use a mobile computing device.

How did we get to this state of affairs? It all arose from our quest to improve patient turnover times. We looked hard at our work flows and bottlenecks. Many meetings were held. A management consultancy came in to study the problems. Individually, each of the quality improvement measures we have implemented seems unobjectionable. Together, they have made my working hours a boggy mess of different colour-coded on-screen tables and buzzing gizmos dangling from my waist. There are far too many different signals and signalling devices to integrate into what is already a complicated working environment. The Foleo, if I had one, would not have made this situation any easier.

UMPCs At The Gate

What about the new Ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs) being touted by some online sources? Machines like the Fujitsu U1010 (pictured to the right), Sony VAIO VGN-UX38GN, Kojinsha SA1F00, Samsung Q1, Gigabyte U60, Raon Digital Vega and ASUS R2H, (to mention just a few)? All these devices have some mix of light weight, bigger keyboards and screens than a PDA and the ability to run the Windows operating system. Only some can operate in tablet mode with a stylus and battery life is a major issue for them nor can they make cell phone calls. Virtually all of them are sold only in the Far East and are not easily acquired by a North American resident.

But the UMPCs have one other important feature: momentum. The idea of a laptop PC that fits in one hand has got all the major device manufacturers hopping and many small players jumping in with novel ideas. The ferment and creativity are reminiscent of when PDAs were a new idea. Palm itself may have something cooking in this arena but so far they are not giving any hints. People in the field are asking the right questions, as this column on Pocketables reveals, so I think the future is bright for a device of this type eventually making it big.

So, while I can't use one of these at work yet, I am betting that in a few years my laptop will be the same size as my PDA and my battery pack will fill the rest of my briefcase. The right feature set will emerge about the time I am ready to retire....

Parting Shots

PortableApps is a website where you can get software configured to run off a USB memory keystick. With this suite of applications you can go to the nearest PC, and run your favourite software regardless of what is previously installed on the PC. If I could install those apps on the memory card in my PDA, and plug the PDA into a PC, then I could take my computing environment with me to work without the extra memory stick. What's missing is a standard USB connector on my PDA instead of a proprietary one, so I wouldn't have to lug the HotSync cable around with me everywhere I go. This would allow me to carry fewer gizmos but would not solve the problem of staying within reach of a desktop PC in order to access the hospital systems. But it's a start.

And look for a more capable iPhone, Apple just dropped the price (to the ire of people who bought the very first ones only ten weeks ago) and will almost certainly continue to expand its capability. There is little to stop Apple from adding more and more PDA-like features to their smart phone. Contrast this story to the demise of the Foleo and weep, Palm fans.

Mobile Medical Multimedia

Last month I wrote about Podcasting for PDAs. I mentioned EMRAP.TV and EmedHome but failed to mention CMEDownload, the Society of Critical Care Medicine, and Project Disaster among many other sources of excellent podcasts with an Emergency or Critical Care Medicine emphasis.

Software for acquiring, converting and displaying podcasts on your Palm PDA is widely available. Check out:

  • Podcast how-to information from PalmFocus
  • Juice, a free program that does other media files too
  • mOcean, which does music and video files in addition to podcasts
  • Quick News, which manages RSS newsfeeds and podcast content for PDAs

I think podcasts, whether video or plain audio, are one more great tool on a PDA or smartphone. And, since I ride public transit to and from work, I can actually pay attention to the material without endangering other commuters.

Staying synchronised is not only a matter of HotSyncing your PDA to your PC these days. Online content and schedules may also need to be coordinated with your personal PC and PDA. The tools are out there. More about that next month....

Until then, enjoy!