The Magazine

Palm Pilot Nation

I wanna hold your handheld device

Dec 27, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 15 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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SUDDENLY I AM SURROUNDED by a sea of Palm Pilots, Handspring Visors, Psions, Palmtops, and Microsoft Windows CE Personal Data Assistants. At every meeting these handheld computers lie on the table alongside people's pens and eyeglasses. Run into someone on the street, and he whips one out to check his calendar. On airplanes they are more common than coffee cups.


What is going on here? The handheld is no symbol of wealth, because prices have fallen too far too fast. Can it be that we are all suddenly busier now that the Cold War is over? Has globalization expanded our Rolodexes so fast that electronic versions are now needed? Seems unlikely. In fact, the ubiquity of the handheld reflects two other key trends among the Baby Boomers: No one has a secretary, and no one can remember anything.


The secretary problem is a matter of the age. The sharp young girl of yesteryear is gone; in this generation, she is a heart surgeon or an astronaut. The dedicated spinster lady, with you for decades and all-knowing, has taken early retirement and is living on her 401(k) in North Carolina. There is no one left to take dictation, so we all turn to computers. We type our own e-mail or (this will be more and more common) dictate right into the computer. This is dangerous, for the computer isn't sure if you meant to include "Now I have to answer another letter from this moron" before you got to "Dear Senator." Miss Blue would have figured that out. She would also have made your travel arrangements, so you wouldn't have to spend three hours trying to figure out why Microsoft Expedia won't accept your credit card. She also would never have forwarded that salacious e-mail to the list that included your mother.


But the truth behind the triumph of the handheld is not the age, it's our age. I don't see kids with Palm Pilots. They are not common on college campuses, except among professors. Gen Xers don't need them. They are a phenomenon of the 50-something who can't remember if his broker's number ends in 1137 or 3317. They are a product of the inability to recall if lunch with the guy from Seattle is Wednesday or Thursday. They represent the failure to remember if Gracie Hall is your son's dormitory or his girlfriend's name.


Clearly the old laptop is useless in this regard. You can't lug one of those around all the time, and anyway they take seven minutes to warm up before you can read the screen. And that assumes that until you get a new prescription for those reading glasses you can read anything on the damn screen. Nor is a pencil useful. It is, on the eve of the millennium, simply too humiliating to pull an Eberhard Faber No. 2 out of your pocket and start erasing a smudged, barely legible note you seem to have made yesterday. Everyone will see you, and they will know that you are too dumb to work a handheld device. It's okay that, in the privacy of your own home, you tried to record ER on the VCR but recorded high school football on channel 53 instead. In public, an admission of technological inadequacy would be too embarrassing.


So: the personal digital assistant. It tells you what all those phone numbers and addresses are when you can't recall that last digit; it remembers if you are going down to Austin next Thursday or the one after; it knows when your sister's anniversary is and can even beep you to remind you. But that is not really the point. Above all, the handheld makes you seem modern, proficient, and well-equipped when what you really are is pre-senescent. Instead of sitting there desperately trying to recall who the guy is you're meeting next because you are already 15 minutes late, you deftly pull out the handheld and in no time are chatting with his secretary Gloria, who is flattered that you remember her name (because you were smart enough to write it into your handheld, but she doesn't know that) and promises to smooth any ruffled feathers.


I know, I know: How come you don't have a secretary but he still has Gloria? The answer is, he's doing better than you are. Today's status symbol is the Palm Pilot; tomorrow's is not having one, because you have a whole staff keeping track of you. It's like a winter coat in Washington: The ultimate status symbol isn't cashmere, it's no coat at all on the snowiest day of the year -- because that means you have a car and driver waiting for you, so why do you need a coat?