Sometimes, one person’s junk is another person’s jewel — and technology is no exception to the rule.
By Erik J. Heels and Richard P. Klau
First published 7/1/2004; Law Practice magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association
We met through the Internet in 1993, in what could be called an early example of social networking. For nearly three years, the relationship was virtual only, but thanks to our computers and telephones, we were able to cultivate a friendship of a remarkably complementary nature. Through the years, we’ve continued to work closely together thanks to a variety of technologies.
We both come from the ready-shoot-aim school of technology evaluation. But shockingly enough, we rarely stumble onto the same technology at the same time. We enjoy goading each other on about the other’s technology choices. So, to mark the magazine’s anniversary and the many years we’ve been working and writing together, we’ve put together a look at a half-dozen top technologies on which our opinions — slightly or widely — diverge.
Rick: I don’t have a Rolodex and don’t use a paper calendar (never have). I keep all my data electronically, and these days I keep it synched with my PDA.
I got my first PalmPilot in 1997. It paid for itself when, a few months later, I got a call from someone looking to retain my company’s services. I had no idea who this person was and, worse, no idea who the person was who he said referred the business to us. A quick search in my Pilot revealed that I’d met the referrer five months before at New York LegalTech.
Since then, I’ve experimented with all manner of PDA technology. I upgraded to a Palm V, then a Palm Vx, then got an OmniSky modem so that I could download email from my Palm. I did without a PDA for a couple of years, then went back and bought a cheap Palm device on eBay.
As prices fell, I finally caved and got a smart phone, the Handspring Treo, which is a great PDA, and a “decent” phone. Having my data (especially names and phone numbers) on my phone is a tremendous, perpetually timesaving advantage.
Today, I’m experimenting with using my iPod as a PDA. Although it isn’t integrated with the Treo, it does a nice job of capturing the relevant information from my desktop PIM. As processor speeds increase in mobile devices and hard-drive prices fall, the convergence of these devices into a single multipurpose device is fast becoming a reality.
Erik: I have never used a PDA and have yet to have the need to do so. I have been using the same three-ring binder since 1989. Every year, I purchase DayTimer month-at-a-glance pages for it. I write business items in blue, personal in red. I only have a small square to work with for each day, but I figure that if I have more events scheduled than I can fit in a 2×2-inch space, I’m probably overextended already. As significant events occur, I highlight them for reports (work) and holiday letters (personal). When a day’s events have been completed, deleted, or rescheduled, I cross off the day. I save the calendars as a permanent record of each year’s events. The notebook also includes A-Z tabs under which I keep phone numbers, key business cards, and the like.
I also maintain all my contacts (personal and business) in a FileMaker Pro database, and I keep a printout of that database in my notebook. Everybody I know with a PDA has a corresponding PDA horror story: the lost PDA, the stolen PDA, the PDA with no backup, the broken PDA. Besides, I barely have enough room in my pocket for my keys and phone. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen people struggling with PDAs when trying to, for example, schedule a meeting, while I simply flip open my notebook and say, “The 17th looks good to me.” It’s random-access, read-write, portable, and wireless.
Rick: I’ve had too many cell phones to count. In fact, I just sold a four-year-old Nokia on eBay and still have an Ericsson phone sitting in the basement waiting to go. Today, as I mentioned, I’m using a Handspring Treo 270, a combination Palm PDA and GSM cell phone.
I have never used the phone book features of a cell phone. But from the moment I was able to sync my phone and Outlook, I started wanting (craving?) a phone that would simply be an extension of my PIM.
The Handspring Treo is a good start, and the newer 600 model addresses some of the first generation’s flaws, but it’s not quite there. First off, it’s just not a great cell phone. The battery life leaves a lot to be desired, and the phone itself is a bit bulky. That said, it’s all made worthwhile by the fact that you simply plug the USB connector cable into your laptop, and magically your appointments, contacts and to-dos are loaded into the phone. I’ve always been willing to tinker with new phones, on the theory that each iteration tries to solve the problems the last generation identified.
Erik: I think phones have perhaps the worst user interface of any important electronic device ever. If you look at your phone, what does it tell you? Do you have messages? H ow many? From whom? How long are they? Are they important? You may have a few LEDs or a small LCD screen, but even these are recent “advances.”
Cell phones put all the annoying features of landline phones in your pocket (or on your belt) and add nonsensical charges and billing options. (Minutes? I have to buy minutes?) I have an Audiovox CDM8900 picture phone, the fanciest phone offered by Verizon, which was the top-rated Northeast carrier, according to Consumer Reports. And I hate my phone. Oh sure, I can take pictures and email them, but simple things — like figuring out what time it is or how many messages I have — take way too many clicks (if that’s the right word).
I avoid — at all costs — programming my phones. I memorize as many numbers as possible and dial them by hand. The only feature I want is voice mail — and that’s for work only. At home, I have an answering machine. Last week, I had to call the parents of all 13 kids on the little league baseball team that I coach. Many of them had Verizon voice mail, which was “down” when I called. The result? An error message with no possibility of leaving a message. Nice.
Similarly, Verizon recently added to my home number, “at no charge,” various annoying “features,” like call waiting and voice mail. I like having the busy signal. It actually conveys that I’m busy. And if I’m on the phone, I don’t want beeps in my ear telling me that someone else is calling so I can put that person on hold. And if a call goes to voice mail, which I didn’t order and didn’t want, now I don’t know that anyone called because my phone has no meaningful user interface. I firmly believe that phones need to be more computer-like to be useful.
Rick: I first played around with weblogs, or blogs, as research for a nothing.but.net column. I was quickly hooked. The ease of publishing coupled with the ability to easily monitor other sites was an Internet junkie’s dream.
But as with all things tech-related, I’m a glutton. I started out with Blogger, a free service. Frustrated with Blogger’s lack of advanced features, I moved on to Radio, a desktop-based server that manages blogs remotely. Radio is a conceptually phenomenal product. Far beyond managing a blog, it is a very flexible content management system with a whole host of options built in, including an aggregator. Now that was a revelation. The aggregator represented a way to monitor scores of Websites without visiting each one individually. But as for Radio itself, in practice it is buggy, unreliable and unstable. I put up with it for a year, then switched to Movable Type.
One problem with blogs: Converting from one to another is a Herculean effort. Fortunately, although I’ve experimented with a few other applications (most notably Drupal, an open source system), I’m now comfortable and happy with Movable Type.
For an aggregator, I’ve recently settled on SharpReader, a .NET-based product that provides terrific threading of posts. More than any other piece of technology in the past five years, the aggregator has dramatically affected my productivity, by monitoring information sources of interest to me. I’m on top of more news, in less time, without being a slave to my browser.
Erik: I have said it before, I’ll say it again. Weblogs are the most important thing to happen on the Internet since the Web itself. For the first time, average users are able to use the Web to publish instead of just to browse. Of course, this will also cause problems. Rules of system dynamics and positive feedback loops suggest that the big blogs will become bigger, making it harder for small new blogs to get noticed. Blogs will be clogged with spam and ads just like Usenet, the Web and email.
But enjoy it while you can. It’s still early, and there are real advantages for early adopters. The blog community today reminds me of what the Web looked like 10 years ago, or what Usenet looked like 20 years ago. Write about what you love, and what you seek — whether fame, fortune or fun — will follow.
Rick: My first operating system was DOS on the Apple II Plus in 1982. I “graduated” to various flavors of DOS through the ’80s, then installed Windows 3.0 on my college PC, soon followed by Windows 3.1 and Windows 95. Sometime around 1997, I installed Linux on a PC. When complete, I remember staring at the blinking cursor and thinking, “Now what?”
Today I’m a Windows XP Pro user. I do, though, have an old PC that runs SuSE Linux 9.0, and quite well, considering its age (nearly five years old) and lack of hard-drive or memory capacity.
That said, I just don’t “get” Linux. Don’t get me wrong, I am in awe of a decentralized software development effort, owned by no one, that develops a stable and scalable operating system. But having used Linux as my primary machine for a period of two months, I can report that it caused me a fair amount of frustration, and I’m a pretty sophisticated technology user. Erik talks about understanding the operating system in the context of “files, folders or processes,” as if that matters to me. I understand Windows, and I can reliably get in under the hood and fix something if I need to. Linux requires a remarkable amount of expertise when it comes to modifying even the most basic of settings. And even then, you’re often reduced to hitting Google to see if anyone else ever saw the same behavior you did.
Is Linux a robust operating system? Undoubtedly. Could you get by without using Windows? Yes. I did, and if I had to, I could do it again. But is it a true Windows replacement? Only for geeks. It’s still a couple of years away from being reliable enough for “average” users. (I’ll put it this way: When I can think about putting it on my parents’ computer without fear of being deluged by calls from mom and dad asking how to perform basic tasks, I’ll consider Linux an able replacement for Windows.)
Erik: I am OS agnostic. I am currently using four operating systems at work: FreeBSD 4.7, SnapOS (a BSD-UNIX derivative), Macintosh System 7.1 (long story), and Windows XP Professional. And I use the following operating systems at home: Macintosh OS 9.2, Macintosh OS X 10.3, Windows 98 SE, Windows 2000 Professional (dual-boot), and Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS 3.0 (dual-boot).
I have been designing my computing environment so that it shouldn’t matter what OS is on the desktop. The first OS that I used was UNIX, when I entered MIT 20 years ago and got my first Internet email address. Since then, I have used many operating systems. I value interoperability, scalability, and ease of use. Windows, Macintosh, and Linux score differently in these categories, so I generally use the appropriate OS for the appropriate task. And just as I think that no one branch should have too much control of any government, I think that no one company should have too much control of any computer market. In the final analysis, users should have a real choice — that’s why they call them personal computers.
Rick: After being an Outlook fan for the better part of six years, I recently converted to Bloomba, a new email product from Stata Labs. While Outlook does many things well (including, unfortunately, distributing viruses), it’s positively awful at searching. If all you’re searching is a folder with a dozen or so messages, Outlook is great. But if you have to cull through more than that, you may as well start the search and go out, paint the house, mow the lawn, finish the basement, then come back and see if the search is complete.
Bloomba addresses that problem by indexing all your emails into one big database. A t that point, you can search your entire email archive (no matter how many tens of thousands of emails you have) in a second or less. This method of accessing your email opens up a whole new world: Gone are the nested folders and the lost emails (buried six months deep in a mountain of messages), and in their place, you have a simple way of finding anything you need. Instantly.
I’ve also installed SnapperMail, a remarkably powerful email client for my smart phone. SnapperMail provides access to my inbox wherever I am. Now I can delete messages so that when I get back to my computer, I don’t have to worry about sifting through emails I already dealt with.
But none of the email clients would be useful without spam filtering of some kind: I’m now receiving 300 to 500 spam messages per business day. I use Spam Assassin to filter spam on my mail server so that, ideally, the junk gets filtered out before it can hit my inbox. Bloomba, too, includes a product called SAProxy, a client-side implementation of SpamAssassin, that happens to catch a few messages the server doesn’t.
Erik: I have been using Eudora since 1992 (primarily because it was able to import my UNIX-style mailboxes). And I have most of my email going back to then: 111,000 messages at last count. Eudora’s “search engine” is straining under this load, so I may need to find something else at some point, but every year I re-create a date-based hierarchy of folders and mailboxes, which ensures that no single mailbox gets too large. I make extensive use of Eudora’s filters, both for separating personal from work email and for weeding out spam.
I receive about 12,000 messages per month, of which 95 percent are spam.
I think that email will be supplemented — not supplanted — by other methods of communication, including instant messaging, P2P file sharing, blogs, wikis, and related social software. And this will be part of a larger trend toward more closed and private communication networks that may or may not rely on the Internet as we know it.
Rick: I don’t back up. I know I should. Really, I do. I just don’t. Someday I’ll regret this.
Erik: I have been burned by flawed backup procedures and try to constantly update my procedures to learn from each mistake. I don’t use PDAs or the like in part because I don’t want to deal with more backup procedures. For my blog, I have a copy of my data on the server in a MySQL database and a copy on the client side in a FileMaker Pro database.
Three versions of all my data (dating back to 1986) live on my network at any time. I have an online backup provider and backup CDs burned and stored off-site in a fireproof media safe. Still, I am not satisfied. I need power backup, backup for my backup, and a spare laptop, among other things. In a perfect world, I envision live mirroring over a WAN, two racks, one at home, one at the office, each with UPS backup and hot-swappable blade servers. (I can dream, can’t I?) So backup, like many things, is a process, not an event. And whoever has the most data when he dies, wins.
Parting Words: Advancing Together
Erik: Although Rick and I enjoy disagreeing, we generally agree more than we disagree. And we learn from each other. I tried blogs based on Rick’s urging, and I cajoled Rick into switching to Movable Type. I’m now using SharpReader based on Rick’s example, and I hope to convince Rick to back up his data and use more open source applications. The truth is that there is more technology available today than any one person can evaluate, which is why social networking is important.
E pluribus knowledge.
Rick: Erik’s an engineer (from MIT, no less); I’m a liberal arts graduate. He can tell you why things work (or why they don’t); I can tell you why something is worth trying (or why it isn’t). I promise that one of these days I’ll start backing up my data reliably, if Erik will give up his claim that Linux in its current state is user-friendly. But his instincts for what is ultimately worth using are ordinarily spot on — and provide a handy filter through which I can view my own enthusiasm for the new new thing. At the core, Erik’s right: There’s an overwhelming amount of technology out there, and we could never stay on top of it on our own. We act as each other’s technology “spotter” — and we’re better for it. Veni, vedi, I rebooted.