Killer apps of leather, metal and paper

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“What’s in your pocket?” That’s the first question asked in our regular Digital Business Technophile interview. Recent answers from interviewees have included “Moto Q e-mail phone”, and “an SPV 500”.

I felt around my pockets. An old mobile phone, set of keys, train pass, pens, small plastic policeman given to me by my grandma that I carry as a lucky charm, loose change – and Filofax.

(For the youngsters, this last item is a data management system running on leather, metal and paper.)

Mine is the Filofax “real calf” slimline model and I’ve had it since 1988. I download diary pages into it, and it can hold my address book, a few maps (central London streets, UK and Europe, train routes), some notes (mostly my birthday and Christmas wish list), a few photographs and various bits of useful information (conversion tables, wedding anniversary list).

I have managed perfectly well with this beautifully designed device for nearly 20 years but have recently found myself having to defend it. To two ladies from BlackBerry, for example, who looked slightly pitying when I admitted to having no PDA or smartphone. Others have smiled politely and asked how I cope.

My response is to list its strengths – its “killer apps”.

First and foremost, it is virtually indestructible. I left it on the roof of the car once and on hitting 30mph it flew into the road. I didn’t notice it was missing until the following day – when it was returned undamaged. The person who found it was able to read my name and address (no passwords to get past) and bring it back to me. A PDA would have shattered across the Tarmac; my Filofax was as good as new.

Or better than new. As parts of the leather wear to a sheen and it distresses with age, so its character increases. Using it is a continual creative process, from the scrawled diary entries, to the well-thumbed address book, it is a record not only of what you do but how you felt when you did it.

I keep all my old diary pages and so have a surprisingly useful record of what happened and when going back to 1988.

Other pluses: it doesn’t ring or vibrate or bother me in any way. Its batteries will never run out. I can shove bits of paper into it. It is repairable: the metal spine came unstuck a few years ago but I simply glued it back. I would not know where to start repairing a PDA. And it is cheap to run – a new set of diary pages each year costs about £4.25.

I have to confess, however, that as my current job requires me to get out and about more, I am starting to notice some of the Filofax’s more obvious limitations: when travelling, I have my paper maps with me – but only the maps I started out with. I can look at my fold-out pages of train routes but can never access train times, fares etc. And if I forget a document, the Filofax cannot magic it up for me.

The e-alternatives are beginning to look attractive. I plan to test drive one or two to see what difference they can make to my efficiency and productivity and will report back in these pages in the autumn. I may have to make changes.

What is certain, however, is that of all the bits and pieces I carry around with me, the one I could never do without is that lucky little plastic policeman.

‘I would not be anywhere without my electronic diary’ by Danny Bradbury

Back in the early days, I used to carry a day planner around with me to book appointments, but as soon as it became feasible I switched to an electronic diary. Appointments would change so often and there would be so many accompanying notes that the paper diary looked like a spider’s web of red ink, scratched out dates and illegible, scribbled names.

Now, everything is neat, ordered, and filled with hidden information that I can access with the single stab of a stylus.

As a journalist, one of the best things about electronic organisers is integration. I use Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft’s personal information manager, which also acts as an e-mail client.

I tend to book many of my appointments by e-mail. When I receive an e-mail confirming an appointment I can drag it straight into the calendar and have it appear as a meeting.

Better still is that these days, more often than not appointments come with all sorts of extra data – interviewee biographies, company backgrounds, and usually, dial-in details for conference calls. Cutting and pasting or writing telephone numbers and interviewee names out by hand would be time consuming and annoying. Dragging it to the calendar makes it much easier.

The same goes for items on your to-do list. You can schedule them as diary items, ensuring that they actually get done.

Depending on how extensive your use of an electronic organiser is, you can start co-ordinating diaries with it. My house tends to be extraordinarily geeky, and I run Exchange, which is the back-end system that sits behind Outlook.

Exchange offers features such as calendar sharing, meaning that my other half, who also uses Outlook, can see my calendar from her PC, and vice versa. This stops us booking social or other appointments that conflict with each other’s schedules.

In a small business environment, calendar co-ordinating becomes useful both for avoiding scheduling conflicts and also for putting people in touch with each other more efficiently. If someone calls asking for an executive it sounds more professional for a receptionist to check the calendar and tell the caller when the executive is expected back, rather than simply taking a message.

But digital diaries are really only useful if you can take them with you. I used to use a small electronic personal digital assistant (PDA) on my trips. In a paper-based diary, you might suddenly find that you had forgotten the address or other details for an appointment while on the way to it.

Switching on a PDA, on the other hand, and clicking on the appointment might bring up the address, along with a Google map for the location you might have copied into the notes field, to help you find the place. Sitting in reception waiting for your interviewee, you could quickly review any supporting notes for the meeting before they appear.

My PDA used to synchronise with my office PC via a special docking station. These days, I use a tablet PC for such things. Its A4 format is slightly bigger but it gives me the extra screen area I like, and it means I can easily take all my documents along with me.

Best of all, it syncs automatically with my server over the wireless network as soon as I get back to the office. It is seamless, and I would not be anywhere these days without my electronic diary to support me.

Just make sure your batteries do not run out.

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