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PDAs keeping users organized, connected

By clay Wilson

Once upon a time, the acronym "PDA" stood for "public display of affection," and blackberries were used to make pies and jams.

But in the Internet age, a "PDA" is a personal digital assistant, and Blackberrys can come in handy for getting people out of jams.

As computer and wireless networks continue to evolve, the vehicles for using such technologies continue to get smaller. In the past few years, PDAs and Blackberrys – hand-held, computerized personal organizers and Internet-based communications devices – have become more and more popular.

Indeed, to hear some aficionados tell it, they have become practically indispensable.

"My whole life is in that thing," said Stockbridge resident Ray Hudalla. The chairman of the Henry County Board of Education, Hudalla often brings out his Palm M-130 PDA during board meetings to check his calendar, jot down notes or make a to-do list.

"It is the greatest thing," he said.

Hudalla said he once used the 1990s power business tool – the notebook-style day planner. But it would frequently become "crammed full of junk and garbage," he said.

Then, about four years ago, a friend who had also fought the battle of the planner bulge introduced Hudalla to a PDA. After a period of resistance followed by hesitant trial, Hudalla got hooked.

Now he uses his PDA to organize his personal, family and school board calendars, as an electronic address and phone book, to take notes and to "beam" "Documents to Go" such as Word files to compatible PDAs.

And that's just a sampling of what today's PDAs can do. The Internet mega-store Amazon.com lists about 150 kinds of PDA, ranging in price from $19.99 to more than $900.

Hudalla says that his is "not top-of-the-line, but it's not the most basic, either."

A Palm M-130 such as Hudalla's allows its user to "sync" with an Internet-capable desktop or laptop computer to send and retrieve e-mails and access limited Internet content. However, more recent "wi-fi," or wireless, technology allows PDAs to access the Internet or e-mail servers remotely.

The "Blackberry" brand of handhelds are often associated with the e-mail function. Blackberry's Web site bills the products as "the leading wireless enterprise solution that allows users to stay connected with secure, wireless access to email, corporate data, phone, web and organizer features."

The site also lists companies and organizations that use Blackberrys – companies such as investment giant Salomon Smith Barney and organizations such as the Department of Defense.

Other PDA types offer wireless capabilities, and Reid Burch, manager of network services at Southern Regional Medical Center, uses one of these.

Burch has a Palm Tungsten C. He said that while most of SRMC's Information Technology employees mainly use the organizational capacities of PDAs, he also uses his to communicate with the office while he's away.

He even uses it to keep in touch with colleagues while he's in meetings within the hospital. He estimated that he uses his PDA to communicate with co-workers at least 10 times each day.

"I take my (PDA) with me pretty much everywhere when I'm at work," he said. "If I lost it or didn't have one, I'd be in a world of hurt."

Rob Beall, president of McIntosh State Bank in Locust Grove, said his PDA's "sync" feature – which also allows its contents to be uploaded onto a desktop or laptop computer – has saved him from a world of hurt before.

He said that once he dropped his PDA in a parking lot, and it shattered to pieces. Fortunately, though, he had recently "backed up" the information to his desktop computer.

The ability to back up information, Beall said, is "critical, because I have had a PDA completely fail on me, and you're dead in the water if you depend on it heavily."

Beall said he uses his Sony Clie to store hundreds of phone numbers and addresses, remind him (with alarms) of appointments and tasks, and download maps and news stories. It can even download the "joke of the day," he said.

Like Hudalla's, Beall's PDA downloads from the ?Net while it "syncs" with a desktop or laptop computer. But Beall indicated that he doesn't miss having wireless Internet capability.

"I don't find that necessary, really," he said. "I'm pleased that mine helps me to get to appointments on time, and – having so many names and phone numbers (immediately available) is a valuable resource."

Besides, Beall said he's been using electronic organizers for about eight years – since the time when they were "basically – electronic address book(s).

"They've come a long way since then," he said.