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This Retro PDA Doesn't Need Batteries

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 17, 2005

If you want to get organized but don't like new technologies, perhaps it's time to meet the hipster PDA.

The hipster PDA, or personal digital assistant, is a handheld that does not have Bluetooth, does not surf the Web and does not play Pac-Man.

But the pocket-sized, build-it-yourself organizer is cheap and foolproof in a way that only a stack of index cards held together with a binder clip can be. Because that's what it is.

The hipster PDA's originator, San Francisco writer Merlin Mann, says he got tired of lugging around his fourth or fifth Palm device and decided to go back to paper.

Mann thought up a catchy name for his new organizer and posted a write-up at his Web log, 43folders.com, a site where he meditates on Mac-related products and shares productivity tips. With a smattering of techno-marketing lingo, Mann introduced the hipster PDA as "a fully extensible system for coordinating incoming and outgoing data for any aspect of your life and work."

The slightly tongue-in-cheek blog entry, made in September, seems to have clicked with his readers. At Flickr.com, a Web site where bloggers collectively gather and share pictures of whatever they're into now, there are almost 200 photos of hPDAs in use, made by users around the world. Odder still, the folks using these homemade organizers are no Luddites; in many of the shots, laptops, fancy cell phones and digital cameras clamor for space alongside the index cards.

For years, Mann says, consumers have been trained to instinctively believe that technology can solve all a person's problems -- that a trip to Circuit City is all that stands between a person and organization. But Mann says that the hPDA is a "matter of using the right tool for the job" and "a philosophical decision about the kind of technology to let into your life."

The number of gadgets folks lug around is creeping ever upward, but "do you really need to carry $1,000 worth of equipment to have coffee with friends and be able to write down what albums you should check out?" he asked in a phone interview.

HPDA users like technology, but point out that if some personal task is really important, it's going to go on your computer anyway. A to-do list on paper, they say, is harder to ignore than one tucked away in a folder on a Palm Tungsten E. As for phone numbers, who needs a Palm to hold those when you've got a cell phone to store them all?

Mount Pleasant resident Bill Morocco's hipster PDA contains three color-coded sections, with index tabs designating sections for notes, to-do lists and money-related stuff.

Morocco used to own a Palm but now thinks of the hPDA as "a distillation of what the PDA was supposed to be" -- a simple, portable item that lets him organize his thoughts efficiently.

John S.J. Anderson, a systems administrator who lives in Gaithersburg, carries around a list of beers that he wants to try and a picture of his kid in his hPDA. The last card in his clipped-together pile reads, "Add more cards now."

Though Anderson tried about three times over the years to get his life in order using his Handspring organizer, the device never grabbed him. He worried about losing or breaking the thing. He never really liked the specialized handwriting system used in Palm devices -- it seemed a little clunky and it interrupted his thought flow whenever he was trying to jot down an idea.

What's the best part of using an hPDA? Whenever he accomplishes something on one of his to-do list cards, such as returning a reporter's phone call, he rips it up. It's really satisfying, he said, though he isn't sure why.

"I'm off the Palm thing," he said. "Regardless of how good you make it, I think it's still not going to be as good as paper."

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