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As an undergraduate at the university of Washington, I chose to fulfill a science requirement by enrolling in an oceanography course. After nearly four decades, two concepts continue to answer my needs.

First, I can do a pretty fair job of  keeping beer cold on a hot day without refrigeration. How one does that will have to be the subject of another article because the second concept--a thermo cline--is more directly related to the topic at hand.

Briefly, a thermo cline is a layer of water in a lake or ocean that separates the warm surface layer from colder deep water. You can visualize a thermo cline as a barrier of sorts, and there are dramatic differences in the environment above and below it.

I was reminded of the concept while watching a group of students solve a problem. The task hand required scheduling a series of meetings and exchanging contact information. Countless generations of students and professionals have solved this type of problem by circulating sheets of paper listing their phone numbers and available meeting times. The current crop of students approached the task in a way that told me we have passed through a social thermo cline of sorts.

Rather than circulating scraps of paper, these students pulled out their PDAs—primarily Visors and Palms—and began beaming information to one another. Whether their way is faster or more efficient is open to debate. But, it certainly was more elegant and entertaining. And, most significantly, it was a wake up call for me; I could either join the digital generation or allow myself to slip into the category of people my students address as “Sir!”

So, motivated more by a desire to appear contemporary than by clear notion of what I’d do with a PDA, I went shopping. A bit of advance research (thank you, www.mysimon.com) and a trip to a local electronics superstore convinced me that the Handspring Visor offered the most attractive price-performance combination and I was soon armed with a then state-of-the-art Visor Deluxe. It came equipped with a pretty standard set of applications (date book, contact manager, memo pad, to-do list, and so forth) along with a cradle for exchanging data with a PC. To that basic set-up, I have added a second cradle and an Excel-compatible spreadsheet.

In the few months since my shopping expedition, I have settled into an easy dependence on my Visor. For those who have yet to take the plunge, here’s how I use mine along with some notes of features I’ve chosen not to use.

Appointments and contacts are the lifeblood of my business. In my pre-Visor dark ages, both were managed in Outlook on my office PC, and I carried printouts of both in a leather folio. The system was efficient and had served me well, but there were certain annoyances. Changing an appointment, updating a contact, or adding new contacts required editing the print outs and entering the data when I returned to the office. Worse yet, new contacts often took the form of business cards that usually got entered when I had a spare moment or two. I say “usually” because I seem to have a unique knack for losing the cards. I suspect there are several hundred curled up in suit pockets, stuffed in seldom worn shirts, or secreted into various file folders.

Today, the folio has been replaced by my Visor, a stable and trustworthy companion. Appointments are recorded and contacts updated or added “on the fly” along with copious notes about meetings, tasks, and plans. And, all of these vital records are stored in triplicate. The original resides on the Visor while a copy is secured in Outlook every time I update my PC—a two-minute task that experienced users refer to as “syncing.” The third copy is on my home PC, also the result of daily syncing. Yes, the second cradle is connected to my home computer.

Not only do I feel more secure than in the pre-Visor days, but my drycleaner spends significantly less time removing shred of paper from my shirts and suits.

Quicksheet by Cutting Edge Software, Inc., was the second addition to my Visor.  I don’t recall how much I paid for it, but it has paid for itself many times over. Whether others will find it as useful depends on their jobs. In a typical week, I may find myself in a dozen or more detailed discussions concerning enrollment trends, revenues, budget projections, and utilization of our facilities. In my pre-Visor days, I used to carry printouts of Excel spreadsheets in addition to memorizing selected key metrics. Try as I did, I seldom had either the right spreadsheet at hand or the right statistic in mind. As a result, about a third of the discussions would end inconclusively with all of the participants returning to their desks to dig out additional information followed by rounds of phone calls, emails, and heaven forbid, faxes.

Now, all of the key data is readily available to me at virtually every meeting. In addition, I can quickly compare expected and actual performance and run various scenarios in ways that would be impossible no matter how many printouts I carried.

Finally, I do a great deal of my writing—including the first draft of this review—on my Visor. Ideas seem to have lives of their own, popping up on their own schedule and rapidly moving on if not recorded immediately. Like many creative writers, I formed the habit of carrying note cards to capture ideas when they showed themselves.

Today, the note cards, along with cocktail napkins and other scraps of paper, have been replaced by my Visor’s memo function. With a bit of practice, I found the required Palm script easily mastered and I record ideas almost as rapidly as I could write longhand. In fact, I’ve gotten so facile that I even take notes on staff meetings with my Visor. All of the minutes, memos, and other bits of scratching are copied to my PCs every time I sync.

Text from the Visor memos is readily moved to Word for final edits, printing, and distribution.

While I’ve probably become inordinately fond of my Visor, there are a couple applications I’ve chosen not to use. Neither the to-do list nor expense record match my work style, but others may find them more valuable. Significantly, I’ve also chosen not to purchase the mobile phone module. While the idea of being able to automatically dial anyone on my contact list is attractive, I think the Visor remains too fragile. Having dropped it twice, I can attest to the value of Handspring’s replacement policy and the quality of their customer service. However, I simply can’t be without my phone for even 24 hours.

So, where does that leave me? A dedicated Visor user! Although I began with no clear idea how I would use a PDA, it is now fully integrated into my personal and professional life. I can’t imagine working without one and it that respect, it may have a lot in common with other innovative technologies. Just as the current generation is figuring out how to use PDAs, my generation figured out how to use the personal computer, Internet, and mobile phone. From crude ideas and unformed desires, each of these technologies have developed into applications that have transformed our lives. Faster and more functional PDAs are already available and I will be upgrading to a Visor Platinum as soon as I accumulate a few more pennies.

For a more formal discussion, see www.oceansonline.com/thermocline.htm

For news about the latest as well as available accessories, visit www.handspring.com

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