The PDA Problem

I’ve blogged before about the inadequacies of the PDAs I’ve tried. Those comments still stand, but I now find myself with a specific problem I want a device to solve. I’ve got two likely candidates but so far no proof that either of them does what I want.

Plus, I find myself squeezed between two advocacy camps that remind me a bit of the good old Mac vs. PC war. Hence this post. Perhaps I can exploit some of that frothy energy to do some of my research for me.

The specific problem I want to solve is one of workflow surrounding shopping lists. I have a number of collections of things I’m actively building, and maintaining and displaying the lists of what I have and what I want has always been a headache. I need the data to display on my website, an easily editable copy on my PC at home, and a portable copy to consult when I’m in the field shopping (and possibly away from any form of network connectivity). Ideally these should all automatically reflect the latest edits.

Requirements, a little more formally:

  1. Representation: There are multiple documents. Each must exist both as part of my website and on my portable device (device to be chosen as a result of this evaluation).
  2. The website version must be in a format I find easy to parse, as I will be writing my own PHP code to display it nicely. I would prefer plaintext or CSV stored on my web server, or MySQL storage.
  3. The portable copy must be displayable compactly and succinctly on the portable device (ie, maximum information density and relevance within the limits of the display) and also be easily editable on that device. It doesn’t have to look pretty on the portable device, but columns are needed.
  4. When the portable device is online (preferably via wireless or phone service or both, though wired docking is acceptable), it should automatically pull down updated versions from my website and push local edits to my website. It does not need to handle the case of both versions having new edits – between syncs I will edit one or the other but not both. Acceptable transfer methods are MySQL connection, HTTP GET/PUT, FTP, SCP or SFTP.

I’ve tried a couple of Palm products before and been bitterly disappointed. They were capable of hosting portable, editable shopping lists but the syncing workflow was absolutely horrible; I had to use special proprietary software to sync, and it could not work automatically because this software had no concept of files – I had to cut and paste my content between these applications and the real files on my PC. And although my current cell phone can theoretically display web pages and store files, it’s a total joke. I’m not even going to try using it for this.

So now it has been suggested to me that the iPhone, iPod Touch and Android phones should be capable of doing what I want. I have seen demonstrations from both camps that show how similar workflows could happen, but they’re both imperfect; for one thing, they both involve online storage and document formats that would not be under my control.

I realize in both cases I could develop my own software to satisfy my particular use case, but I’d rather just use off-the-shelf components. I think it is much more likely I’ll be able to do that with an Android device because there’s Linux in there somewhere and much as I hate shell scripting, I’m willing to use it to automate stuff.  The ideal world on the portable end is an editor for the data, and two buttons to push and pull the data to and from my web server or MySQL server.

Cool apps and games are of secondary concern – I want this problem solved, and anything else is just icing on top.  So far the best workflow I have is taking paper printouts of my shopping lists with me when I go out, and that sucks – this is the Glorious Future already, so why can’t I find a Personal Digital Assistant that assists me digitally?

I will be doing more research, but it’s surprisingly hard to find out what these platforms are capable of before buying them.

Comments are closed.