Thoughts on the Palm Prē: Category Catastrophe

Note, Added A Few Days Later: This post does not tell the whole story. This is a wail of anguish, and is not intended to be balanced. For a more balanced look at the Palm Prē, read my later, and broader, evaluation of it as well as this post.


There are a lot of good things about the Prē, but right now, they’re almost all being overshadowed by the catastrophic mistake the webOS developers made with the Memo Pad and Task List. They appear to have been swayed by the general Google-based philosophy that “If you’ve got really good search, you don’t need any internal structure or divisions.”

This idea is completely wrong.

Not allowing me to divide things into categories and subcategories is a painful thing. The excuse that “you can find anything you want, just by searching”, misses the point that I don’t always want to search at all — sometimes I want to browse.

Sometimes, I don’t want to select a single item. Instead, I want to see which items are available. Dividing things into categories is also an exploration of the ways that things are connected to one another. Allowing access only by searching demolishes those interconnections.

The only thing that’s more wrong than denying the user the ability to sort things into categories from the beginning, as Gmail does, is to take away the categories a user has already set up. And that’s what the Memo Pad and Task List in webOS did with my imported data from PalmOS.

I used to have 237 memos, sorted into 11 different categories that relate to various hobbies and interests, projects I’m working on, my girlfriend, and so on. And within each category, memos were automatically sorted alphabetically by title. And I had 50 To-Do items arranged in 11 other categories, these ranging from locations (i.e., “things that can only be done at home”) to types of shopping trip (e.g., “things to pick up at the supermarket” vs. “things to pick up at Fry’s”).

These internal divisions are now completely gone. My 237 memos are now arranged in the order they were created in, which is absolutely useless to me. I can, apparently, assign each memo one of four colors, and I can drag them to reorder them, but I’d still be stuck trying to deal with a list of 237 items, where previously no category had more than about 2 dozen. This is the difference between a manageable list, and one that is completely unmanageable.

(As you might guess, I also had a bunch of categories in my Date Book — only 10, as it turns out. But categories aren’t quite as indispensable there, because a calendar app has a natural way of organizing data that’s more primary. Months and weeks even subdivide time for you automatically. So while I sorely miss the categories in my Date Book, their lack isn’t a complete, crippling, deal-breaker.)

To add to the difficulty of a 237-item list, webOS doesn’t seem to have scrollbars. The content will scroll just fine, but there’s nothing to indicate where you are in the list. Are you right at the top? Halfway through? There is no way to know. There is also no way to go quickly or easily from one end to the other; you have to laboriously traverse all the territory in between.

Confronted with such a nightmare, my first thought is, “What if I just throw away all my old memos and start fresh?” Admittedly, there is some cruft in there. (In fact, I do occasionally archive stale memos to my computer’s hard drive and then delete them. It could be worse; it’s not like I’ve kept everything.)

The mere fact that I’m considering nuking all my old data, just because the new system can’t handle it, is a tragedy of poor software design and backward incompatibility. But honestly, even that wouldn’t really help:

The very nature of the new memo pad means that it cannot handle very many memos before it becomes unwieldy. With no scroll bar and no way to filter the view, the user is forced to confront all of the information that’s present, instead of having any way of interacting with a reasonable subset of it.

Once there are more than, say, three or four dozen memos in the new memo-pad system, it will be unusable again.

And this means I’m going to have to find a new way to organize my stuff. My notes. My thoughts. My ways of remembering stuff when I’m on the go.

Maybe Palm will eventually put categories back in. I dearly hope so, because their lack is a calamity for me. But by the time they do such a thing, I’ll probably have found some completely new way to keep myself organized.

I am very upset right now. And this has all just been about one particular problem; it’s not like the Prē doesn’t have some other flaws. (The lack of a D-pad is pretty annoying.)

It has some nice features, and I really ought to write about them at some point, just for balance. But right now, confronting the complete breakdown of my organizational system, it’s hard for me to see any of the good stuff that lies beyond.

Edited to Add: It seems the To-Do List or Task List app actually does have a feature that effectively allows a single-level category grouping. It’s just somewhat easy to overlook at first. The Calendar will color-code items based on their source — for example, all items derived from Google Calendar might be blue, while ones from MS Exchange might be red. I think this is silly; I’d rather have, for example, parties in red, work tasks in blue, social appointments in green, and what-have-you.

Right now, all my items are green, indicating that they all came from the same source. I really hope later ones don’t pick up some other color; I’d rather have no categorization than color-coding that doesn’t match my thoughts and that I can’t turn off.

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  1. By Kagan MacTane on Tuesday, July 7th, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    On Twitter, Kagan MacTane said: New blog post: Thoughts on the Palm Prē: Category Catastrophe http://bit.ly/15beBo
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