Me and my Sidekick

Volume 8, Issue 5; 11 Jan 2005; last modified 08 Oct 2010

Is it time for convergence? Can I really replace my Palm Pilot with the Sidekick combination phone/PDA? Maybe.

Sidekick II is T-Mobile’s brand name for their version of Danger’s Hiptop2 combination phone, PDA, voice/data device. Deb’s mobile contract expired in December, so I have an earlier than expected opportunity to take one for a test drive.

The device is really marvelous. It's just a fraction larger than my current Nokia 3650 and a little bigger than my Palm Tungsten T, which it will replace:

Palm Tungsten T, Sidekick, and Nokia 3650
Palm Tungsten T, Sidekick, and Nokia 3650

Its clever swivel design exposes a quite reasonable keyboard:

Sidekick (Open)
Sidekick (Open)

It's not big enough for touch typing, but it's a useable “thumb board”.

What really sets this device apart is its integration with the web. With the Sidekick, you don't “start GPRS” or “open a connection” when you want to use the web, it's always connected. For a reasonable flat rate (currently $20/mo), you get unlimited data usage so there's no reason not to always be connected. Combine that with a pretty reasonable web browser that understands most HTML and a lot of CSS (but no JavaScript, alas), a couple of instant messaging clients (ndwmob on AIM or Yahoo IM), and even a useable mail tool (ndw+pager at nwalsh.com), and you've got a useful internet device that fits in your pocket. The SSH2 client is an added bonus (yes, that's emacs running in a terminal window up there, what else?) This is what I want from a mobile device.

The ergonomics and user interface are really first rate. It makes other attempts to do data on a PDA-sized device seem pretty clunky. And all of the data is constantly synced with servers at T-Mobile, so there's an always-accurate web interface to your data. These servers also provide an XML-RPC interface that allows you to download the contents of your device. (A big “thank you” to Dan Connolly for helping me get things working. He's been the trail blazer here.)

All this for less than half the price of a Treo 650, its only obvious competitor.

But it's far from perfect. In fact, it's a testament to just how good the device really is that I'm still considering it despite a laundry list of flaws ranging from the worrisome to the inconvenient:

It isn't really my device. My Palm device is clearly my piece of hardware, my data is stored on it in my local storage, and what I do with it is my business. With the Sidekick, things are much less clear. The data is really on T-Mobile's servers, though it's cached locally, and there's no easy mechanism to develop or distribute third party applications for it. T-Mobile's clearly got a very closed view of who can do what with it.

No local syncing. There's a USB port, and apparently developers can use that to send data and applications to the device, but it's not something that's supported for regular users. And it's not clear to me how many hurdles I'll have to jump through if I want to become a developer.

Those issues are hard and partly philosophical, the rest I think are simply limitations and bugs in the device.

No timezone support. I'm used to using the fabulous DateBk5 calendar on my Palm. It has robust timezone support, allowing me to enter events in a specific timezone and always keeps them correct in my local timezone. No such luck on the Sidekick: all events are in “local” time. And, alas, changing the timezone on the device doesn't change what “local” time means. This is going to be inconvenient when I'm on the road.

Absurd field length limitations. Only 255 characters for a note field? Only 30 for the name of a company? What sort of brain damaged stupidity is this? It's going to make using the Sidekick as my “information appliance” a bit more difficult. On the other hand, with constant connectivity, moving some data off the device and onto the web will be more reasonable.

Only 10 categories and labels. You can specify categories for contacts, but only 10. And you can specify labels for phone numbers, email addresses, and web pages, but only 10. This'd be that brain damaged stupidity thing again.

Phone number mangling. The device thinks it knows what phone numbers are. Fair enough, I guess, since it's a telephone. But mangling the numbers I put in (changing punctuation, removing spaces, shifting letters to uppercase) is a little annoying.

No notes on phone numbers. So, per the previous point, I can no longer have “+1.555.123.4567 (Gold)” as a phone number (it becomes “+1-555-123-4567GOLD” and I bet the device dials the 4653 part too). But there's also no where for me to put a note on this phone number to indicate that it's for the Gold desk. I could use a special label, except they only give me 10, per the point before the previous. I'll probably just live with the mangled number and the hope that dialing extra random digits never confuses anyone.

US-centric addresses. You can have multiple addresses per contact, that's nice, but they're all US addresses. Anything you put in the “state” field gets shifted to upper-case, for example. Brain damaged stupidity again.

No bluetooth. Oh, well, maybe in the next model. Until then, I can live with a wired headset for as often as I'm likely to use the device as a phone.

The calculator sucks. I mean, it really sucks. It sucks more than even a regular non-RPN calculator. If I write any apps for this thing, the first one is going to be an RPN calculator.

I have about another week to decide if I'm going to keep it. So far it's looking pretty positive, bugs and limitations not withstanding.