Palm Computers:
Hardware, Software, and Use

(originally published in the APG Quarterly)

Palm Computers

Many people don't know exactly what the Palm Craze is. They think of the first generation of handheld devices -- that old address book and schedule. Those devices couldn't hardly sync with anything a normal person would use. They were tiny and expensive and who could remember which batteries to use? Those days are long past, and the Palm Craze is in full swing because the devices out there now will enable a person to have all of her addresses, appointments, email, word processing documents, spreadsheets, databases, and genealogy conclusions in something that will fit into a pocket.


It seems to me that genealogists are not the earliest adopters of new tools. Palms are fitting the profile. I gave a lecture on this topic in January 2000 at the GENTECH conference in San Diego. There were about eight people in the room who were carrying some kind of a palm device. That's changing rapidly. By the time that we got to Providence in May, slow guys like Tony Burroughs and I had them too. Tony will lecture on the topic at the GENTECH conference in February 2001. This is an important sign, meaning one of two things: either the end of civilization is precisely on schedule, or palms are going mainstream.


Personal Digital Assistants (“PDAs”) are hand held electronic devices used for storing and retrieving information. They can be divided into 3 groups based on the operating system they run: Windows CE, Palm OS, and everything else. This article is about the PDAs that run the Palm OS. Palm Computers can be divided into three groups based on the manufacturer  – The Palm Pilots from Palm, the Visors from Handspring, and everything else.


Palm presently makes three models: the III, V, and VII. The III and the VII are a lot alike in size and shape, but the VII has a built in modem. The V is a lot thinner and has a built in battery. Everyone I've met likes her own model the best, so there's something to say for them all. They come with varying amounts of memory. I like to have a lot because I want to try everything on mine, but some people are happy with the 2MB models. The III also comes in color. Soon there won't be any monochrome ones. I think that battery life is the biggest limiting factor and somebody is doing a good job on that problem without my help.


The Handspring guys are former Palm guys that left to try something different. The biggest difference in the products is that the Handspring Visor has an expansion slot where a person can plug in third-party devices such as memory expansions, modems, GPS devices, and the like. In general, there's a big price savings on the models with 8 MB of RAM compared to the Palms. The Handspring devices are running the same Palm OS as the Palm devices.


IBM recently announced a hard drive holding a gigabyte that will fit into a palm. A gigabyte, contrary to anything you may have heard, is really big.


Sony will be making a Palm device soon, and Palm itself will soon offer an expansion slot. No two manufacturers are talking about using the same expansion slot, so they're still playing the game at the level where they claim all the territory they can and try to lock up customers for a long time. Think of these devices like you do other electronic devices - they're completely disposable, the price will go way down the day after you buy yours, and in a few years you'll be embarrassed to show yours to the other guys.

Palm Culture

Let's face it, people shouldn't get these things for the fun of it. They should offer some functionality that helps them do something better, cheaper, and faster. Life is a constant set of experiments to find better ways to deal with the same challenges, over and over. The Palm Craze is just a normal manifestation of several million people looking for a better way to keep track of things that they can't remember, and to connect with others. That lab work can be very lonely, and as the weeks go by, Palm People are coming out of the back rooms and connecting with each other, comparing their lab notes and adjusting their schemes.


There are Palm User groups all over the country. I was at one last week in Arlington TX. It reminded me of the AA meetings I've seen on TV. "Hi, I'm Dave and I'm a Palm-aholic." It's a frantic phenomenon and many people are uncomfortable revealing their enthusiasm for this activity in public. In addition to the face-to-face meetings, there are several really good palm websites and a newsgroup (comp.sys.palmtops.pilot). 


I'm a great admirer of Cyndi Howells. You know Cyndi; she has more links than Imelda Marcos has shoes. She's the Contessa of Cyberspace, the principesa of TCP/IP, the keeper of the greatest card catalog in the greatest virtual genealogy library the world has ever seen. She is one of the most generous and friendly souls I've ever met. When I told her that I was getting a Palm Pilot, she did what only Cyndi does so well. She sent me some links.


Oh, and I'll get into this in the section on Palm Use, but Palm People have a completely different meaning for the phrase "beaming." Once you've done it, you'll never want to go back.

Palm Peripherals

A recent announcement from Palm Inc shows that it plans to introduce a new model with an expansion slot like the one for the Visor. Just about any device you buy can attach to a desktop computer with a "hot-sync cradle." They all come with a built-in or add-on modem. I find it quite convenient, on short trips, to take my Palm instead of a laptop. I can check and send email from just about anywhere.


Palm modems can be used with some cell phones. The manuals are fairly specific about which makes and models will work and I don't have the right cell phone for this activity yet. I liked plugging into a pay phone in O’Hare airport to check my mail during a layover. It's not really fast, but it's very convenient to carry and set up.


Writing on a palm screen, or tapping on the tiny keys on the screen, can be tiresome for a long message or document. Palm makes a keyboard that folds into four sections and will fit into a really big pocket. It's like having a laptop keyboard on a Palm, and works great on planes and conference room tables. If you type really fast, you'll want one for anything more than a few words of notes.


I don't have a GPS, but that's a very popular device to add to a Palm. There are also Palm cameras. Kodak makes one that's under $150 and isn't a bad digital camera. If you're big on pictures, you'll want a color palm - the monochrome ones don't show color images. They'll store and print them though.


All Palms have an infrared port, which can be used for "beaming" information to another palm, an IR capable printer, or any other IR capable device. I remember standing in the lobby before my old college buddy's daughter's dance recital, beaming addresses back and forth. "Hey, do you have Brian? Here it is. You want my parents?" More about beaming later.


In summary, Palms are like a lot of things where the accessories can really add up. I'd recommend a modem and a keyboard at a minimum, and suggest that you decide about the rest based on how easily you can get someone else to pay for it.

Palm Genealogy Software

Palm Software is still a cottage industry. There are not three to six producers, there are a bazillion. It’s a challenge to tell the brother-in-law software from the real thing. I often say that mainframe software is $3,000, PC software is $300, and Palm software is $30.  There is a lot of inexpensive software available and it's hard to know what you'll get before you buy it. As a result, there is a lot of shareware and demoware on the Internet for palms. If you buy shareware it's basically under the honor system. If you continue to use it, you are legally obligated to pay for it. Those developers don't get much money and it really hurts them if someone steals their products.


Palm Genealogy software has two basic features: it reads GEDCOM files from your PC and it's not really good for storing research. It's pretty good for storing conclusions. I don't recommend trying to enter changes on a palm and then sync them with your normal research program later. I recommend carrying your conclusions for lookups, and entering your research as text, or digitizing it with a camera. I have tried two programs. I’m going to show you some examples from GedPalm and My Roots. There are many other programs out there, and they change rapidly. This is just a snapshot and I don’t think that things will sit still for long. The feature sets and products change too quickly.



I think that GedPalm is a very simple program. I have version 3.0.1.  It's from GHCS Software, found on the web at When I say that it's simple I don't mean that it isn't good. I think it's a terrific program for certain kinds of information.


I want to point out the DATABASES screen first, because you can see a couple of interesting things. First, it can handle a 4261 record GEDCOM file just fine. Second, it says "Beam" at the bottom. Yes, you can beam a GedPalm file to another GedPalm user. It takes GEDCOM files from the PC, so you can send it a filtered GEDCOM, say, only your Propes family, and it will let you look them up pretty easily.




Figure 2. GedPalm Options

The options are useful - you can look at the names in your GedPalm database in one of the four orders shown. I use Names all the time.






Figure 3. GedPalm List


The GedPalm list shows the names of the people in the database, and the years when they were born. You can search by the first letter of the last name. It would be nice if you could keep typing letters and have it specify the search, but when you type the second letter, it jumps to names that start with that one.





Figure 4. GedPalm group sheet view

The thing I'm usually after when I get to this point is the family group sheet, and here's how it looks in GedPalm. The P in a circle is a button that takes you to the group sheet for that person's parents. Other than the ability to make a note about each person, that's about all I could do with GedPalm. At that, it's quite useful. I've found myself in libraries wondering if the Donald Propes I'm finding a record for is one that I have. I can tell a lot from this program, and it's worth having in your palm if you have the storage space.






My Roots


My Roots version 1.50 from Tapperware is a very different program from GedPalm. Written by Thomas Ward, it can be found at


When you start My Roots, you see a name list, with name, birth year, and death year displayed. If you type a letter, you will jump to the list for people whose last names start with that letter. Type another letter, you get other people with THAT first letter.


My Roots allows you to "categorize" people in your file, one category per person. I can make some people Sharbroughs, some people Propeses, and the great unwashed are Unfiled. You can filter the display by category, so you can just see the people you've flagged as Propes, for example.


The group sheet in My Roots shows a number of events that you don’t see in GedPalm. If you click on event you'll see a number of event types. You can group the event types and then just see a particular group, such as legal events, LDS events, or common events.


While viewing the sheet for a given person, you can display their ancestors or a tree of their descendants. You can have more than 50 in a tree, and more than 2500 people in a file, at present. While viewing the tree of ancestors or descendants, you can tap one and they become the focus of the tree.

Other Palm Software for Genealogists

It is my opinion that genealogists will get more non-genealogy use from a palm than genealogy use. That's because you can sync it with the normal components of your office suite. For documents I use SmartDoc (I have to use PalmDoc to convert them from Word format for download) and it allows me to read and change documents that get updated the next time I hot-sync. I use QuickSheet to do the same with Excel worksheets. I use ThinkDB to read MSAccess databases.


My email, addresses, and appointments link up because I have the Franklin Covey Outlook program. The email would link up in basic Palm software but I prefer the Franklin Covey program. If I write emails on my palm pilot, the next time I hot sync, they are uploaded to Outlook and placed in my mailbox.


If I'm not in town, I use a program called HandMail to send and receive email straight to and from my POP3 mailbox. The palm also features a version of ICQ, AIM, Proxiweb for browsing the web, and my favorite web feature: AvantGo.Com. When you hot sync, web content formatted for the palm is automatically downloaded for reading later. I always get the movie listings near my home from, the Economist editorials, the New York Times and USA Today. I also get the Fort Wayne News@Sentinel because I want to see if Curt Witcher is on the front page. I have fun asking Curt about current events, but the real power of AvantGo is that you get your content from anywhere in the world and you can travel without missing the local news.


I can also get MapQuest driving directions loaded into my palm when I hotsync, via AvantGo. If I don't have to give a PowerPoint presentation on a trip, I can take my Palm and do everything I want to do.

Palm Use

Now that you know a little about what hardware and software you might use with a palm computer, I'd like to close by talking about how it can be used. Of course the availability of vast amounts of storage changes things. Palms have historically been the last bastion of tight code. Kiss that goodbye. But what you'll see in exchange is a lot more information than you’ve ever had before. They'll all be color and wireless soon. I'd love to use mine to unlock my house and car.


Some people beam rude comments about others in meetings. This should be discouraged - everyone can read it! Still, beaming is a great capability for genealogists to share information whether it's on the web, in a word processing document, or in a spreadsheet.


I suspect that people will not keep using desktop PCs much longer. Soon you'll just connect your Palm to a big monitor and printer and keep running. If that happens, a lot fewer people will need Win03 on their systems (assuming that Windows 2003 is ever shipped).


The day when a Palm Pilot is the only computer that a genealogist will need is not far away. The Palm Craze has not really begun in earnest. Someday, we'll all be Palm People.