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the evenings out here - Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.

Design software for PalmOS

in Mobile , Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Recent changes to my lifestlyle have reduced the time I have for working on things like this website, and working in a rigidly corporate environment prevents me from choosing software which is efficient, fun and inspiring to use (as opposed to creativity draining nightmares like Visio). A couple of years ago I bought a Palm Tungsten T3, mainly to develop and demonstrate mobile applications, so I decided to dust it off and see what I could do with it to. resolve these problems. Apart from very useful tools like QuickNews, which is the first thing I use every day, and hBlogger, which I'm using to write this, I've also been using several design tools. What I mean by design tool in this context is something which I can use to easily capture rough ideas, and which ideally lets me export these for more detailed work in a desktop application. So what makes a good Palm application ? Usability is really vital. It must show good UI compliance, be easily learnable and intuitive, be easy to use in non-ideal circumstances, for example standing up in a bus. It should do a few things but do them very well and avoid complexity and feature overload, instead it should have high interoperability with other applications. I was basically looking for software which could help me to capture ideas and concepts. Generally I was looking for outlining, graphics, or mind mapping tools, which should offer some level of desktop integration - Mac desktop in my case. My "dream solution" would be PalmOS versions of OmniGraffle and OmniOutliner, but failing that, here are some I found: MindMapper PDA is a classic mind map application. It may work well in its desktop incarnation, but the Palm version is awkward and buggy. The worst part is the lack of any scroll or zoom of the view. Possibly if there was a sync option for Mac it would be more useful. Leonardo is a fully fledged vector graphics application. It has a slightly weird UI but you soon get used to it - although not without a quick review of the documentation. It includes a cross platform desktop app which serves to organise synced files and to import & export to a variety of formats. Leonardo's main shortcomings are more down to the limitations of drawing vector graphics on a Palm than anything inherent, but whilst it is impressive I haven't found it compelling enough to license yet. There just isn't so much you can do on 320 x 480 pixels. Inspiration is an application I revisited with far more success after a so-so first impression. Unlike all the other applications here, Inspiration is derived from a desktop application, one that has a long history. These days Inspiration is primarily targetted at the education market. Inspiration is one of several outliners available for PalmOS. It is fast and easy to use, but fairly basic:

Outline of the logical structure for a redesign of this site in Inspiration

Where Inspiration shines though is its ability to switch instantly back and forth between outline and graphical views:

Graphical view of the same outline

Files created on the Palm can be easily opened in the desktop version. However, desktop files exported to the Palm lose a lot of complexity. The Palm version only supports a few graphics primitives. Manipulation of graphics on the Palm can be awkward - again, the UI isn't perfectly adapted to this sort of stuff - but not so awkward that you get terminally frustrated. It also doesn't support 320 x 480 resolution, just 320 x 320. The desktop version of Inspiration is a bit overpriced, and rather clunky compared to OmniGraffle, but it does the job. However so far I've only licensed the Palm version, and am using a 30-day demo of the desktop. Inspiration will stay on my Palm. It has already earned its keep. Whilst Inspiration does have an Outline mode which is quite useful, it is totally blown away by Shadow Plan, the ultimate PalmOS outliner (and one of the best on any platform). Shadow Plan is both easy to use and very sophisticated.

Outline of the structure for a blog index page on this site - note the arrows which indicate links to other pages

You can create a wide variety of outline types, and link these with each other or with OS applications such as ToDo. Shadow is equally useful for project management as it is for managing notes. One use I found for Shadow's link feature was to use it to model links between web page mockups, entered as individual lists. The only thing lacking here is some sort of high level view of the link map, but anyway Shadow has the depth and richness to lend itself to this sort of lateral thinking, without getting in your way when you just need a list. Shadow is so useful to me that it is mapped to a hardware button on my Palm. I actually sketched out this article using Shadow, and exported it to hBlogger via Memos. For conceptual design work on web sites it is excellent. Shadow syncs (optionally on a file by file basis) with desktop versions for MacOS and Windows. Here it shows some weakness, as the MacOS version is pretty clunky and no match for OmniOutliner. Unfortunately whilst Shadow uses an XML file format, it does support OPML, therefore files cannot be interchanged with other outliners. This is a real shame, but not a showstopper. I cannot think of any PalmOS application I'd recommend higher.