March 03, 2011

PDAs and Handheld Computing

Once merely a cool executive accessory, the personal digital assistant (PDA) has exploded in popularity and usefulness as they become more powerful and less expensive. Defining what a PDA is can be difficult: it might run the Palm or Windows CE operating systems; it might be primarily a contact and calendar manager, like Intel's Rex; some have keyboards, like the HP Jornada and the RIM Blackberry.

PDAs universally handle basic contact and calendar management. Most have the ability to add software, and sometimes hardware, of your choice to expand the PDA's capabilities. Common applications include news clipping services, databases, word processors, spreadsheets, time keeping and expense tracking applications, and just about any other application you would typically run on your desktop or laptop computer. These versions are less full-featured, but are ideal for being on the move.

What to Choose

Hype over PDAs and the increasing choice has made selecting a PDA more difficult. The different features of each PDA - color screen, long battery life, expandability, operating system, input method, wireless capabilities - can make comparisons difficult. Eliminate some of this difficulty by first deciding what you are going to use your PDA for and what problems it can help you solve.


The PDA should be seen as a tool. Once you have identified what problems you need to solve, your PDA choice may be clearer. It is easy to buy too much, or too little, with PDAs and you may be disappointed with your choice if you have not considered some of the different factors that will enhance your experience.

  • Input - There are two ways to input information on a PDA - stylus, using the stylized Graffiti writing, and keyboard. Keyboards are now available that attach to PDAs and some, like the Jornada and Blackberry, have built in keyboards. Styli are fine for small amounts of text, even for short memos and e-mail. There are software tools that help you see your stylus strokes and there are heavy pen/stylus combinations that make it more comfortable. Keyboards are the answer if you want to do real document generation but keep in mind that the word processors may not be as robust as your desktop word processor.
  • Functions - Just want a contact manager? Any PDA will fit your bill. Need to be able to edit and distribute documents? Spreadsheets? Show Microsoft Powerpoint presentations? Your selections will be narrower. Other than wireless access and expandability, most of the functions on the PDA will be software. PDAs like the Handspring Visors have expandable slots that can take memory or other hardware.
  • E-mail and Web - One thing all PDAs are trying to do is answer the communication problem. Blackberry and some Palms come with wireless access built-in. You can also buy wired modems for PDAs. Being connected is relatively easy. An additional consideration is your service provider: if you choose a wireless product, you will typically incur a monthly wireless service charge. AOL and other ISPs offer wired modem service for their dial-up computer users.
  • Power - Battery life is critical with these devices. You should determine how often you think you will use your PDA, for what purpose, and determine whether the battery life of the PDA you choose will meet that need. Some PDAs can go for a month on a pair of AAA batteries; other can last barely a day.
  • Operating System -


You will hear a lot about software written specifically for lawyers. For the most part, this appears to include modestly customized applications and Palm versions of documents like the U.S. Constitution. As handy as these may be, the important thing to keep in mind is that a significant amount of the software available for PDAs is intended for business users and you, as a lawyer, are as qualified an audience for that software as anyone. Again, it requires going back to decide what problem you are trying to solve (database? spreadsheet? documents? news?) and then finding the solution for it, whether it is intended for lawyers or not.

One bright spot for lawyers is the increasing integration of Palm OS support in leading case management, legal research, and time & billing packages. You can synchronize client contact and case data now from Abacus, Amicus Attorney, and Time Matters. Westlaw's new wireless clipping application allows you to find, download, and KeyCite your legal research. Timeslips and Timesolve provide Palm-based applications that you can use to keep up on your time and expenses and then insert them into your home application.

The best thing you can do is to read reviews of software or visit one of the big download sites and try out software that solves your problem. Need a word processor and can't decide whether Quickoffice, WordSmith, or Documents to Go is the solution? Download each one and give it a try. Most applications seem to have at least a week or longer trial version to let you determine whether you like the way the application works.

Product Resources


  • Handango Palm, CE, and other software as well as news and other Palm-oriented information.
  • Handera
  • Palm Gear HQ - A well organized, searchable resource of Palm OS software for Palms and Handsprings.