Insight 10

This article was written by David Wood and published on the Symbian corporate website in June 2006

Insight 10: New momentum for digital organizers

Smartphones bring so many features into the hands of end users that it’s no surprise that one of the most important of these features tends to be overlooked. In amongst the excitement of advanced graphics, music, video, TV, games, web browsing, mobile email, conference calling, navigation, and much more, the subject of personal organizers might sound, well, dull. But as I see things, the personal organization features of smartphones are vital to getting the most out of these devices.

1. Coping with overload

Smartphones provide us with the means to communicate richly and to access huge amounts of up-to-date information, wherever we are, at all hours of the day. But, of course, this flood of communication and information can bring problems as well as benefits. If we’re not careful, we can be caught up in a torrent of distractions, losing sight of what we were originally trying to do. Pressures from items that are apparently urgent or apparently interesting can derail our best-laid plans for self-organization.

The basic solutions to improving our self-organization are well known. In broad terms, we should:

  1. Take the time to clarify our priorities – the ‘first things’ in our lives.
  2. Ensure that we keep our priorities regularly in mind, and work out realistic steps to progress them.
  3. Maintain to-do lists for tasks we decide we want to accomplish.
  4. Schedule aspects of our time in advance (but not all of it!).
  5. Be alert to occasions when we are straying from our established priorities.
  6. Manage our energy and health wisely – so we can be more productive in pursuing ‘first things’.
  7. Establish a good filing system (or similar), to make it easier to find items that matter to us.
  8. Nurture significant relationships with people whose friendship and advice we cherish.

2. The personal organizer

The personal organizer has the potential to address these solutions in a most complete way. In principle, here’s how things could be working:

  1. Take the time to clarify our priorities – the ‘first things’ in our lives: we can keep one or more files on our electronic organizers, listing our personal priorities, resolutions, and targets; this way, it’s easy for us to review and to re-organize it (if, for example, we decide to adjust priorities).
  2. Ensure that we keep our priorities regularly in mind, and work out realistic steps to progress them: as a file on our electronic organizer, which we carry with us everywhere we go, our list of priorities, resolutions, and targets is waiting for us to look at during any quiet moment, and to reflect on it on a regular basis.
  3. Maintain to-do lists for tasks we decide we want to accomplish: electronic organizers are seemingly ideal for creating and updating to-do lists; what’s more, whenever an idea or insight occurs to us, we can jot it down in our electronic organizer, before we forget it.
  4. Schedule aspects of our time in advance: electronic organizers are equally ideal for creating and updating time schedules.
  5. Be alert to occasions when we are straying from our established priorities: electronic organizers can warn us, with alarms, about pending activities and to-do items; and the ‘today’ view in the agenda can highlight (in bold text, say) any to-do items that have become due.
  6. Manage our energy and health wisely – so we can be more productive in pursuing first things: good time-management is an important start towards energy management, and there are many health-related add-on applications available for handheld computers.
  7. Establish a good filing system (or similar), to make it easier to find items that matter to us: electronic organizers are miniature filing systems, with excellent search capabilities.
  8. Nurture significant relationships, with people whose friendship and advice we cherish: the contacts management features on electronic organizers provide a good start here too.

However, despite the capabilities of personal electronic organizers, their take-up remained limited – with probably fewer than fifty million of them in active use worldwide. Some people might say that this shows that the user need doesn’t exist – that most people don’t actually need mobile tools to help improve their organizing skills. I disagree. Other people might say that the technology is lacking. Again, I disagree.

It’s not a problem of inadequate technology per se. Goodness knows we’ve got plenty of technology. Instead, the paradox arises from lack of solutions to system issues – such as usability, convenience, cost, poor integration, and lack of a rapid evolutionary path whereby organizer tools can improve step-by-step. Some of these problems are:

  • You have to remember to buy new batteries, or to recharge the organizer, on a regular basis.
  • If the organizer breaks down, you have to go to the effort of having it repaired, or buy a new one.
  • You have to remember to take the organizer with you, wherever you go.
  • You have to keep on entering new data into the organizer – or else synchronize it to your PC.
  • You have to deal with changes in appointments – e.g. when meetings are moved to different dates.

So you have to be determined, to keep up the effort. It’s no surprise that few people last the course. But with smartphones, things become easier. Smartphones have all the features of an electronic personal organizer, but they also have all the bonus benefits of the other aspects of being a smartphone. As we’ll see, that makes a huge difference.

3. From personal organizers to smartphones

Smartphone users are already committed to the tasks of:

  • Keeping their smartphones with them, at all times.
  • Keeping the smartphone battery charged.
  • Replacing the smartphone, when needed.

This means that they are already committed (whether or not they realize it) to having a working electronic personal organizer with them at all times. They don’t have to pay any extra to have these features – they are available as part of the base cost of a smartphone.

The next step is for these users to start using the organizer aspects of their smartphones. But this, too, can happen automatically. For most users, the starting point is the contacts database. As they use a smartphone, they gradually build up a larger list of the contacts that they communicate with over the smartphone – whether by voice calls, text messaging, instant messaging, email, and so on. In case they receive a call from a number that isn’t already in their contacts database, the smartphone asks them whether they want to add this number – either to an existing entry in the database, or as a new entry.

So the process evolves. Some users will discover the usefulness of the general note-taking feature of smartphones, and start recording various lists, such as shopping lists, places to visit, music to buy, films to watch. Others will start setting alarms on their smartphones – to waken them up in the morning, or to remind them of things to do; the natural extension of this is to start to put more entries into the calendar on their smartphones.

The connectivity of smartphones provides, for many users, another key step in increasing the usefulness of their organizer features. Databases and calendars that exist on networked PCs can make their way onto specific smartphones, and will remain in sync afterwards, regardless of changes made either on the smartphone or on the PC.

The excellent connectivity of smartphones provides one route for users to supply data that will end up in the organizer files on their smartphones: they create these files on a PC, and allow the files to be synchronized onto their smartphones. Once the files have been created, it’s less effort to make incremental edits to them on the smartphone. However, the input mechanisms on smartphones are themselves steadily improving – so that more and more users will be comfortable to create these files on the smartphones (using, for example, Bluetooth keyboards, intelligent word completion, or enhanced handwriting recognition).

This is a good example of an important general principle: due to the huge volumes of the smartphone market, smartphones improve faster than almost any other item of consumer electronics – and all the applications on the smartphone benefit as a result. That’s why the organizer features on smartphones improve faster than the organizer features on standalone electronic organizers.

4. Proactive organization

In closing, let’s look further ahead. Things become really interesting when the intelligence that’s in our smartphone starts to make suggestions about how we allocate our time. Instead of the smartphone simply being a passive recipient of our data, it starts to become proactive.

For example, if two people want to call each other, but can’t catch each other at a free time, the network can arrange to call them both back as soon as they’re both available. That is, the telephone network schedules the call at a suitable time. Similarly, software running on networks in offices can already suggest times that look convenient for all the people needed for a meeting, by looking at the online agendas of everyone who’s invited. The same programs can also suggest a suitable meeting room, based on information about which rooms are already booked. Smartphones can apply similar logic to recommending times for us to do things. For example, if I want to book a conference call with several people, software can suggest a time for the call, based on:

  • Which time-zone the various people are in
  • Any information available in their online agendas.

That’s just the beginning. Some online shopping stores already occasionally surprise consumers with messages such as: “You’ve bought music from Artist A in the past; we’ve noticed that people who bought music from Artist A also often buy music from Artist H; Artist H has a new release available – would you like to listen to a sample?” Users report that these recommendations are often surprisingly accurate. Before long, smartphones with similarly enhanced artificial intelligence will be able to make suggestions as to the steps you could take to achieve various targets that you define, such as help with learning a new language.

I mentioned earlier how users can benefit from writing notes to themselves, such as diaries or journals, in their smartphones. One advance on this usage is if software on the smartphone starts to interject comments and questions.

The idea is that the smartphone will become like a kind of trusted friend (or mentor). At first, the interjections of this ‘friend’ may be a tad simplistic and annoying, but the ongoing rapid progress of smartphone applications will mean that they quickly improve.

Step by step, our smartphones will become better and better at helping us to organize ourselves. It won’t just be that they’ll help us to get more done. They’ll be helping us to get more of the ‘right’ things done.

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