Longing to trade your Palm and cell phone in for a single svelte device? Jeff Carlson passes on the results of his tests of the Handspring Treo 180, perhaps the most successful of these hybrid devices. Also this week, Matt Neuburg returns to tell us about Tinderbox, an innovative text snippet keeper from hypertext pioneer Eastgate Systems. We also have our reader grade of Mac OS X, and ask that you vote for TidBITS in the 4th Best of the Mac Web survey.
Vote for TidBITS in 4th Best of the Mac Web Survey! From today, 14-Oct-02, through Tuesday, 22-Oct-02, the Low End Mac Web site is running the latest installment of their semi-annual popularity contest for Macintosh news and information Web sites. Last time we ranked 3rd in user rankings and 12th in overall votes; I’d love to see those numbers climb this year. So please take a moment and help the TidBITS PR cause with a vote, but make sure to rank your other favorite Mac sites too. This time around, Low End Mac broke the list of 100 sites into 4 pages of 25 sites each, so TidBITS is in the Group D list, linked directly below. [ACE]
Poll Results: Grading Mac OS X — It’s a bit hard to analyze the results of last week’s poll asking how you’d grade Mac OS X. I was intrigued to see that the number of people who rated Mac OS X more highly than I did was almost the same as the number who rated it less highly, giving some level of credence to my grade. The most common grades were a B+ (from 25 percent of the respondents) and a B- (from 21 percent). Subsequent discussion on TidBITS Talk left most of my grades alone, except for the Internationalization grade. Quite a number of people from other countries wrote in with their frustrating experiences with Mac OS X, and although they agreed that the foundations were solid, they felt Apple had a long way to go before an A- would be justified. With that feedback, I’d probably drop the Internationalization grade to a B, but that wouldn’t be sufficient to affect my overall grade. [ACE]
I’m sure it was only weeks after the introduction of the original Pilot before someone asked, "If I have all my phone numbers in this little organizer anyway, why can’t I use it as a phone, too?" To judge by the paucity of such devices since then, fusing a handheld and a cellular phone turns out to be a tricky problem.
Size is the main issue. Before the components in phones started to shrink dramatically, models like the Qualcomm pdQ Smartphone were bricks that ended up being larger and more awkward to use than two separate devices. At the same time, it’s not realistic to make a hybrid handheld the size of mini phones like the Nokia 8290 because the screen becomes unusable for organizer functions. How do you retain the usefulness of the Palm OS with the form factor of today’s cellular phones?
Despite the missteps of the past (or perhaps because of them), the handheld/cell phone hybrid is getting closer to being a practical solution for anyone who’s tried to juggle two separate devices just to place a call. Handspring’s Treo line of "communicators" (deliberately named to distinguish from the mere "organizers" that preceded them) appears to be the best combination so far. However, being the best right now doesn’t imply that the Treo is perfect – for every improvement or advantage, I found small annoyances with the Treo 180 I tested. With what would seem to be subtle tweaking, Handspring could make the Treo an outstanding product.
A Smaller Slice — The best news, at least on the surface, is that the Treo’s size is more in line with a cell phone than any of its handheld/cell phone predecessors. Even using Handspring’s novel Visor Phone, which was an add-on that turned any Visor organizer into a cell phone, felt at times like using a 1980s elongated mobile phone. At 4.2 inches (10.7 cm) tall (with the clamshell design closed), 2.8 inches (7.1 cm) wide, and 0.82 inches (2.1 cm) deep, the Treo fits into the larger end of the size range of most cellular phones on the market today. It includes a built-in rechargeable battery, enabling Handspring to keep the Treo slim and keep the phone activated for hours without frequently swapping AAA batteries. And, thankfully, it weighs only 5.2 ounces (147 grams), so you can slip it into a pants pocket or purse without experiencing the too-common "tech slouch" caused by imbalanced equipment.
That said, I personally still found the Treo too wide for holding up to my ear comfortably. I’m accustomed to a much smaller and narrower phone, the Nokia 8290, so the Treo’s width felt like holding a small pizza box to my head. Using the supplied earbud-style microphone helped, but I often needed to make quick calls that weren’t worth the hassle of untangling the cord. (I can’t wait for Bluetooth-enabled wireless headsets to become more widespread; corded hands-free headsets are better than holding the phone to one’s ear, but I hate catching the cord on desk or a doorknob as I pace while talking.)
Goodbye Graffiti — Handspring has done more than shrink components to make the Treo line. A small keyboard has replaced the legacy Graffiti area for inputting data on most models (a Graffiti version of the Treo 180 is also available, but the color Treo 270 and 300 models come only with the keyboard). I’m conflicted about the change. As a longtime Palm user, I’m accustomed to Graffiti and have very few problems using it. However, people with no experience with Palm handhelds frequently ask me whether they have to "learn a new language" to use one, so I can see the benefit of not making users adopt a new technique for entering information. Plus, no matter what, it’s faster to press a key than write a character.
Just don’t expect to use the keyboard as you would a regular keyboard. The raised buttons are small and designed for your thumbs, an approach that works surprisingly well. (I’ve never had much hands-on experience with Blackberry communicators, which introduced the small keyboards, so forgive me if I sound like I just fell off a UPS delivery truck.) Once you get the hang of it, thumb-typing can be much faster and more accurate than Graffiti, which is especially useful when composing email or SMS text messages.
The Treo also includes a rocker switch on the left side that lets you scroll between items or access the menus, theoretically making it possible to ignore the included stylus. The rocker switch also controls volume while using the Treo as a phone, and pushing the rocker switch in selects whatever is highlighted on the screen.
Useful as these new interface elements are, introducing them to the Palm experience has drawbacks too. Unless you’re just typing, your hands are moving all over: using the rocker switch (which I guess you can do with your left hand while you type with your left thumb, but I’m apparently not that dextrous), using the stylus or a fingernail to tap buttons (I couldn’t find a way to do this via the rocker switch or the keyboard), and trying to avoid dropping the device.
With enough practice, I could probably juggle it all successfully, so I can’t work myself into too much of a lather on that point. However, at least two design decisions aggravated me on a constant basis.
Since there is no Graffiti area, and therefore no main Applications button, the only way to get to the Palm OS’s main screen is to press two buttons on the keyboard, a blue Option button and a combination Menu/Application button. Perhaps this is an indication that Handspring expects people to use the Treo primarily as a phone and only occasionally as an organizer. Surely, there’s a better solution.
My second gripe is easily fixed: there is no ampersand on the keyboard! I’d think that it would be invaluable when writing SMS text messages, where you need to be brief, to replace "and" with "&". To do this, you must type a plus sign (Option-G), then use the List Type key (marked with ellipses and next to the space bar) to select "&" from a pop-up menu. Handspring could easily replace the little-used percent key in future models.
The Great Communicator — The showcase feature of the Treo, of course, is the built-in cellular phone, which offered its own mix of features and annoyances. The grayscale Treo 180 and color Treo 270 models are GSM phones, with service in the U.S. offered by Cingular and T-Mobile (GSM is the dominant protocol throughout most of the rest of the world; check Handspring’s international sites for details on carriers outside the U.S.); the recently introduced Treo 300 is also color and uses Sprint’s PCS network.
Since my Nokia is a GSM phone, I was able to pull its SIM card and put it into the Treo, instantly making the Treo my primary phone. The only change I had to make was to call T-Mobile and add a $4 per month data service to enable email and Web access on my account. An included SIM Srvcs application on the Treo copied the names and phone numbers from my SIM card to the Treo’s built-in Address Book, so I didn’t have to re-enter that data. This incredible convenience comes with a price, though. Because of deals with the service providers, a Treo 180 with service activation costs $350; to get the communicator by itself, the price jumps to $550. The costs of buying a color Treo 270 or Treo 300 are even harder to swallow, priced at $500 with service and $700 without.
So how well does it work for your money? Finding phone numbers on the Treo beats any cell phone I’ve ever used, with a Phone Lookup feature that displays character matches in any part of a person or company’s name as you type. Not only can the Treo tell you who’s calling, but the log of incoming and outgoing calls makes it easy to call up someone from several days ago. You can dial using large, easy-to-press buttons on screen, or use a grid of keys in the keyboard – the Treo is usually smart enough to determine when you’re typing a phone number versus a person’s name. And having an actual interface for things like three-way calls and putting one person on hold while you answer another incoming call antiquates the arcane button combinations of most phones.
I especially like the physical switch on top of the Treo that lets you put the phone into silent mode. Why suffer through a series of menus, as on most cellular phones, to accomplish this simple and necessary feature? The Treo also has a speakerphone mode so you don’t have to act as go-between when, for example, your colleagues are trying to determine where to eat lunch.
And yet, again, a few minor things dampened my enthusiasm. At the top of the list: the lack of a Redial button. On my Nokia phone, pressing the Talk button brings up the last number I dialed, which I use all the time, such as when the line I’m calling is busy or I’ve forgotten to mention something important before hanging up. On the Treo, you have two convoluted options for accessing a number you just dialed: press the Phone Book button at the bottom of the device or flip up the lid, tap the fourth icon from the left to bring up the Call History List, then use the rocker switch or stylus to select and dial the top number. The slightly quicker method is to press the Phone Book button four times to get to the Call History List. Handspring must be able to engineer a better way to accomplish this simple action.
I was also surprised that the phone software in general could be sluggish. For example, pressing the number buttons on the keyboard (without pressing the blue option button to put it into number mode) would trigger the software to recognize that I wanted numbers instead of letters, but it took a second or two for the screen to catch up with my actions.
Synchronizing with the Mac, too, isn’t as straightforward as it ought to be, though this is a problem that spans both Handspring, Palm, and Apple. Although I didn’t have any trouble, Handspring cautions customers not to use Palm Desktop 4.0 if they haven’t first run the included Treo installation software. The company recently released a version of Palm Desktop that works with Handspring organizers, but the caveat still applies. I’d recommend running the installer and setting up the Treo under Mac OS 9, then switching back to Mac OS X (if that’s your primary operating system) before installing the latest Palm Desktop software from Handspring.
Internet, In-Hand — Of the Treo’s online capabilities, I had the most fun with SMS text messaging, where I could send short notes to folks back at the office that they could receive and reply via email (if they had SMS-capable phones, we could send messages back and forth nearly instantaneously). However, I learned a valuable lesson the hard way: my messages were truncated at 160 characters, even though the software let me write as much as I wanted. Some indication, even a note at the bottom of the screen, would prevent that type of snafu.
Unfortunately, accessing the Internet required dialing a regular ISP (EarthLink, in my case), as opposed to the always-on service afforded by Palm’s i705 (see "Palm i705: Wireless Internet, If You’re Patient" in TidBITS-635). However, Handspring offers an upgrade that enables the Treo 180 and Treo 270 to take advantage of GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), a better way of handling data and maintaining persistent connections; the upgrade is already available in Canada, Europe, and Asia, and Handspring expects to release it soon for the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand.
Once online, Handspring’s included Blazer seemed to be a capable handheld Web browser, but it’s still tough to browse the Web on such a small screen. Similarly, email access was acceptable using the included One-Touch Mail client; at the time I tested the Treo 180, Handspring had not yet released Treo Mail, a $50 package that connects to the Internet and retrieves email automatically.
Almost There — The Treo is certainly the best organizer/cell phone combination I’ve seen. Despite the relatively high cost compared to purchasing two devices separately, people looking to reduce their gadget quotient will appreciate the Treo’s compact size and strong integration between Palm OS and phone software. Handspring has made it clear that it believes the communicator is the future of the handheld market, and is staking its business on that belief. The Treo isn’s so much a mature organizer that’s been combined with a cell phone, but rather a sophisticated early template of what communicators are going to become. For that reason, I’m more forgiving of the minor flaws I encountered, and look forward to future incarnations.
PayBITS: Did this Treo review help you decide which handheld
to buy? If so, why not send Jeff a few bucks via PayPal?
Read more about PayBITS: <http://www.tidbits.com/paybits/>
Storyspace, the long-standing hypertext application from Eastgate Systems, was the first program I ever reviewed for TidBITS, and I described a new version of it last year. Now Eastgate is back with a new offering, Tinderbox.
Tinderbox incorporates most of Storyspace’s fundamental metaphor and interface; outwardly, the two programs are almost indistinguishable. But they are oriented quite differently. Storyspace is about hypertext narrative; it presupposes an author and an audience, and uses mechanisms such as guard fields and the freeware Storyspace Reader program to guide the audience through a non-linear narrative. Tinderbox lacks those mechanisms and introduces new ones; it is aimed at the single user, and is meant as a kind of lightweight database, a text snippet keeper, a note-taking utility, a way of organizing pieces of information and perhaps exporting them as HTML.
For me, this evolution is delightful, because it fills a need I had already felt. I got lots of mileage out of Storyspace for hypertext renderings of Greek grammar, but the program also seemed as if it could be a snippet keeper; when I tried treating it as one, I found the experience unsatisfactory. The reason is that I was misusing Storyspace; Tinderbox turns out to be what I was after all along. It deserves a place alongside the utilities for storing, organizing, and retrieving information in interesting, powerful ways that I’ve described in the past.
Getting Started — (Warning: This paragraph is highly condensed; for a more complete understanding, reread my Storyspace review.) In Tinderbox, the basic entity is the text snippet, which is called a note. A note has two parts: its name, and its actual content, if any, which can be styled and can include pictures, and is edited in the note’s text window. A note can be placed "inside" another note, creating a hierarchical relationship among notes; sub-notes of the same note also have an order amongst themselves, which you can rearrange. There is thus an outline-like hierarchy of notes; you can view this hierarchy in various ways, called outline view, chart view, treemap view, and map view. But notes can also relate to one another through hyperlinks; a link can emanate from a note as a whole or from a particular stretch of text within a note, and leads to another note. Following a link from where it emanates opens the text window of the note it leads to. A link can also be assigned a name.
Getting started with Tinderbox is extremely easy. If you’re willing to learn just a few shortcuts, you can start brainstorming immediately, creating and entering successive notes without the mouse: Return creates a new note, Spacebar opens its text window, Command-W closes it, Enter renames it. Once you have a few notes, you can rearrange them; the easiest way is in outline view, where you can just drag or use keyboard shortcuts. Making hyperlinks is just as easy: select a note or some text in a note, type Option-Command-L, click on the link’s destination. There are other ways to accomplish these actions; my point is just that you can start to work effectively right away.
To this basic bag of tricks, Tinderbox adds two major innovations: attributes and agents.
Attributes — Attributes constitute an additional mode of snippet organization, ranking with the outline hierarchy and hyperlinks. An attribute is simply a name-value pair, where the value can be a basic type such as text, a number, or a date – for example, "age:47". Many built-in attributes exist by default, such as what font a note’s title appears in; but you are also free to create new attributes. Thus Tinderbox becomes a lightweight database; for example, if every note representing a person has the person’s age as an attribute, you can quickly find all persons older than a certain age.
Although notes don’t actually come in different types, you can treat them as if they do: you might have "person" notes with an "age" attribute, "book" notes with an "ISBN number" attribute, and so on. In reality, every note has a value for every attribute, so a "person" will in fact have an "ISBN number"; but that doesn’t matter because you won’t normally encounter it. You can set a note to display particular attributes in a pane at the top of its text window; so while editing a "person" note’s text, you could see his age at the top of the window, but not his ISBN number. And his ISBN number will have a default value such as zero or the empty string, so your "book" searches won’t find any "person" notes.
There are many ways to view and manipulate attributes. I’ve already mentioned that you can display attributes at the top of a note’s text window; you can edit them there too. A note’s Info window displays and lets you edit all attributes of that note. A stamp is sort of the opposite: it is a particular value for a particular attribute, which you can apply to all selected notes by choosing from the Value menu or using the Quick Stamp window. A prototype is a note that acts as a template; other notes, if they’re assigned this note as their prototype, inherit its attribute values. Finally, an action is an attribute assignment that’s performed automatically by a note on its sub-notes at the time they become its sub-notes (whether by being created within the note or by being moved into it) – a powerful feature, obviously, to be handled with care.
Agents — To understand agents, you need to know about aliases. A Tinderbox alias is like an alias in the Finder; you make an alias of a note and put the alias anywhere, allowing the same note to be represented in multiple locations in the hierarchy (just as in the venerable outliner MORE).
An agent is a kind of query about all the notes in your document. Now, Tinderbox already has a Find feature; so how is an agent different? Well, an agent is itself just a note, one of whose attributes is its query. The way an agent note tells you what notes satisfy its query is that it is populated with sub-notes that are aliases of those notes. This notion of searching and gathering aliases is not completely original – MORE does it, for instance – but Tinderbox’s queries are more powerful than MORE’s, plus the whole thing is automatic and dynamic: Tinderbox is constantly perusing your document and updating what’s gathered by every agent. For example, if an agent searches for all notes whose text contains the word "Aeschylus", then if you type the word "Aeschylus" in a note, an alias to that note will suddenly appear among the sub-notes of that agent. Agents thus provide automatic simultaneous alternate groupings of your notes to help you keep track of your material.
Miscellaneous Goodies — This section lists various neat Tinderbox features I couldn’t fit in elsewhere.
Storyspace, as I’ve long lamented, limits note names to 32 characters. Tinderbox lifts this limit, so notes can have meaningful names, and you can use outline view as a genuine outline.
Tinderbox remembers link names globally, so to assign a link a name you’ve used already, you just choose it from a pop-up menu (rather than having to remember and type the name manually each time, as in Storyspace). Agents can search on link names – for example, you can search for notes linked to by a "disagrees" link – which makes such names genuinely useful.
If a word in a note’s text window has internal capitalization (likeThis), then if you Command-Option-click on that word, which is normally the signal to follow a hyperlink, but there is no hyperlink, Tinderbox will attempt to treat the word as a hyperlink anyway: if the word is the name of a note, Tinderbox jumps to that note; if not, Tinderbox offers to create a note by that name. (This implicit link behavior is borrowed from the world of WikiWikiWebs.)
A note can have a file associated with it; just drag the file to a text window’s file icon. A menu item lets you open the file. Tinderbox can thus be used as an organizing interface to files on disk.
Sub-notes can be kept sorted, in accordance with criteria specified in the attributes of the note to which they belong.
A convenient new view, Explorer view, works like REALbasic’s code browser: on the left, notes are listed in outline, chart, or map form; on the right is displayed the text of whatever note is selected on the left.
The Tinderbox file format is XML text, so it can be studied and changed programmatically or with a text editor. I found a use for this almost immediately: halfway through writing this review (using Tinderbox, of course) I changed my mind about what font I wanted to use in all my existing notes; I couldn’t find a way to make the change easily within Tinderbox, so I did it in BBEdit with a single find-and-replace command.
Web Features — Tinderbox also has a number of Internet-oriented features. For example, a link from text can now be a link to a Web page. And Tinderbox is itself a Web client: a note can have a URL attribute, and its text will then be the text of whatever is at that URL, downloaded on demand. However, Tinderbox isn’t a browser, so if the text is HTML, Tinderbox can only either display the raw HTML or have your browser show the page.
Tinderbox can also download RSS news feeds. These are XML files in a standard format, typically listing news headlines with links to further information. They’re popular chiefly because they’re machine-parsable, so your computer can comb the Web each day for the headlines that interest you. When Tinderbox downloads such a file, it eliminates the XML markup and other extra information, leaving just the headlines and links. The links are live, meaning you can click one to view that page in your browser. For example, if a note has TidBITS’s RSS feed as its URL attribute value, and if its auto-fetch attribute is turned on, then every time you open this Tinderbox document, Tinderbox will download the RSS and you can open the note’s text window to see the headlines of, and links to, our latest articles.
You can also use Tinderbox to export notes as HTML using a template, an HTML text file with placeholders for elements that are to come from each note. Links from text in a note to another note are preserved as HTML hyperlinks; the hierarchical structure of the document is preserved; and you can specify navigational links to help the user move around that structure. The template mechanism is simple but surprisingly powerful; for example, you can construct conditional template elements. Furthermore, certain details about how any individual note will be exported are set through its attributes; so, for example, all notes could use a certain template by default, but particular notes could use a different template. The export for a note can include the export of its sub-notes. And of course a template can access any attribute of a note, thus combining the lightweight database and HTML export features.
How might you use the HTML export mechanism? To make Web sites, of course! The manual invites you, for example, to envision the possibilities of exporting an agent along with its sub-notes; if the agent’s query is for notes created within the last two weeks, sorted by the date of their creation, you’ve got a weblog. (Several Tinderbox-generated sites in weblog form have already appeared, including Eastgate’s own.) Plus, the mechanism can also do XML, so you could use it, for instance, to generate RSS files and contribute to the flow of syndicated news feeds.
Good Progress — When I first looked at Tinderbox, it was at version 1.0 and ran only in Classic. It didn’t take me long to encounter a laundry list of bugs or surprising behaviors; so I shelved the product for a while, and I’m glad I did. Tinderbox is now at version 1.2, it’s carbonized to run natively under Mac OS X, and it has been greatly improved in many small but significant ways.
Some of the laundry list remains, though usability is not hampered in any major way. For example, when you change an agent’s query using Quick Stamp or the Info window, the agent’s search results don’t update, which can be confusing. The content of certain windows leaps around; for example, if you try to scroll the Locate window, it suddenly scrolls back to the current selection. There are no commands to expand or collapse fully all of a note’s sub-notes in outline view.
The manual isn’t bad, but it appears to have been given minimal attention in the heat of development. Some features such as sorting, RSS, the Roadmap, and wiki-style hyperlinks are not documented at all; other features, such as links to specific text, are documented as if they existed when in fact they don’t. This is unfortunate, since incorrect documentation impairs one’s understanding and usage of the product.
An alias accesses the text and attributes of its original, but doesn’t display its sub-notes; I see no reason for this limitation (contrast MORE, or the Finder). Also, I wish text export could be performed as styled text, not just plain text as happens now; that way, Tinderbox could become a real writing tool.
Concluding Remarks — Tinderbox is, as I hope I’ve implied, an inspired piece of work. With its Web capabilities, outliner hierarchy, hyperlinks, lightweight database abilities, and snippet keeping, Tinderbox will surely have something to intrigue you. It’s small, it’s easy, it’s fascinating, and it’s cool. I strongly recommend that you download the demo and see for yourself. You may not understand the program fully at first, but keep experimenting; this is a powerful program with many uses, and the possibilities will start to dawn on you as you work with it.
Tinderbox costs $145. For the Mac OS X version, Eastgate recommends Jaguar. The Classic version needs 16 MB of RAM; Mac OS 9.0 and a recent version of CarbonLib are required, with Mac OS 9.2 recommended. The demo is a 2.7 MB download.
PayBITS: Did this review introduce you to software you might use?
Consider sending Matt a few bucks to show your appreciation!
Read more about PayBITS: <http://www.tidbits.com/paybits/>