Last month I was out with my friend Ted, who runs a small bicycle-marketing business, and he whipped out a little digital datebook called the PalmPilot to look up a phone number. The thing was really cute, just the size of a cassette-tape holder. Ted was tapping on it with a little plastic pointer and it was popping out phone numbers, to-do lists, appointments, even E-mail! Within seconds, I was hooked.

See, I've spent years patiently waiting for an under-2-pound palmtop PC for traveling. But the hardware geeks just aren't listening to me. Hey, I really don't want the power of a desktop when I'm away from my desk, okay? What I want is the ability to get and send E-mail, do a little word processing, store some simple lists, and not get sore shoulders. As I watched Ted's pointer flit around on this little gizmo, I realized that I might just settle for three out of four--I'd give up the word processing. I had never considered giving up my beloved paper daytimer, but as I watched Ted, I started seeing some interesting possibilities.

Just Say No to Paper
Inc. Tech Cover

Since June 1994, when he launched Hire Quality, a recruitment firm for honorably discharged military personnel, [ Dan] Caulfield has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours into building high-tech systems designed to free his 25 full-time and 20 part-time employees from the printed page. The process has been orderly enough--except for one major glitch: his employees haven't been particularly eager to make the break. "No matter what I've said or done, people seem to fall back on using paper," sighs Caulfield.

Without question, the paper-burning incident [ when Caulfield collected all the paper in the office and set it to flames] was one of the most trying at the fledgling company. "People were pissed," says Caulfield. One employee even resigned. Still, the antics had a significant payoff: Now, nine months later, desks are spotless, everyone accepts voice mail and databases, and monitors are no longer framed by yellow Post-It notes. In a symbolic gesture of acquiescence, one worker transformed his double-decker paper tray into a water pan for a thriving fern. "We certainly haven't totally eliminated paper--I'm not sure that we ever will," admits Caulfield, "but we are closer than we were last year."

--From "Pulp Addiction," in Inc. Technology No. 1 for 1997, by Joshua Macht.

This thing seemed like it could save me some serious time and aggravation. For example, take that half a day every December when I re-enter all my phone numbers, birthdays and annual appointments into a new paper daytimer--that's four hours saved right there. I imagined that I'd also salvage the time I waste flipping back through the paper timer looking for my last dentist appointment or checking where I am in my daughter's play-date rotation. Never again would I pay directory assistance for some number I might call every six months like my grocery store--not important enough to waste valuable paper daytimer space, but not a problem for the electronic list.

I saw that I could sort things on a perpetual "to-do" list instead of on the days they were due. On paper, I had to carry things like "change doctor appointment" or "make airline reservations" from week to week if I didn't do them. Often, I lost track of them completely. I figured I'd save gobs of time and frustration by being able to search quickly on a key phrase like "car repair," and instantly find my mechanic's phone number, directions to the repair shop, a short list of current problems with the car, and the date it was last repaired. Since my life is currently a riot of disorganized last-minute events, some calm electronic organization really appealed to me.

I sent away for the same thing that Ted had--the PalmPilot from US Robotics. He paid $269 for his and I bought the newer model for $399 (they list at $299 and $399 respectively).

The organizer arrived at my office and I whisked it home. There, I realized that I'd left all the manuals at my office. So I spent the evening guessing at how to work it, scribbling away on the tiny screen with the plastic pointer. The little computer has an onscreen keyboard, but I decided to go with the handwriting recognition feature. For that, you write out words letter-by-letter in the space the size of a dime, clearly shaping each letter so that the machine recognizes it. Surprisingly, I found the whole machine easy to use and the on-screen menus user-friendly. It did take me about five minutes to figure out how to write a "Q" that the machine could grasp, and my hand ached from using the silly little plastic "pen." The pointer is about the diameter of a Q-tip--and three hours of writing with a Q-tip will wear you out, as will staring at a screen the size of a credit card (the PalmPilot shows 11 lines of text at a time, or about 400 characters.) And yet, I couldn't stop myself.