User Profile: Get Out of the Office and Still Do Your Job

While sitting on a park bench in New York City or vacationing in Scotland, he keeps his office is in his pocket with an HP Palmtop.

By Michael Allgood

Last summer on a business trip to New York City, I found myself sitting on a bench at the South Street Seaport near Wall Street. I was early for an appointment and had about a half an hour to kill. It was about 80 degrees, the sky was blue and bright, the humidity was comfortable -it was a good time to be outdoors! Almost without thinking I pulled out my HP 200LX and used it to answer the twenty office E-Mail messages I had downloaded earlier via CompuServe. Then I looked at my To-Do list and returned all the telephone calls I had pending using my cellular telephone. While walking to my next appointment I realized that just five years ago if someone had told me that I would be performing my normal business routine, not in my office, but on a bench in the Great Outdoors, I would have doubted their rationality. The future is here and it is the HP 200LX Palmtop and cellular technology.

I am the Chief Financial Officer of a publicly traded international leasing company headquartered in San Francisco. As part of my job, I am also in charge of the MIS department, although I am not particularly technically competent and I have never been a programmer. However, I understand and appreciate technology for the increased productivity it offers me.

My job requires me to travel, and when I am away from the office I need to have financial data, projections, spreadsheets and other information at my fingertips. I also need to monitor the financial condition of the company daily, which I do through several computer generated reports. Based on the information in these reports, investments are made or sold, projects are accelerated or delayed, and other decisions are made which may have a considerable financial impact on our investors. For these reasons I need tools which allow me to remain in contact with my office wherever I am, to receive the data necessary to monitor the company, and to manipulate that data as necessary to reach the proper decisions.

Better than a laptop

For years I traveled with a laptop computer -- starting with the luggables -- but was never satisfied with the power, battery life, or weight. No laptop battery ever survived a Trans-Atlantic trip for me. The hassle of getting a laptop through security, customs, and even past the security guards in banks and other office buildings, made carrying the laptop unpleasant. It seemed I was always carrying the weight around when I didn't need it, and never had it with me when I did.

Three years ago I discovered the HP 95LX. I initially bought it to replace the oversized address and appointment books I had to carry in addition to the laptop. The fact that it had Lotus 1-2-3 built-in intrigued me, but I never thought I would use it for serious work, since I had 1-2-3 installed on the laptop. I had tried other PDA's in the past but had not been satisfied with them either. They kept breaking and I couldn't back them up on my computer. Although expensive, I bought the 95LX because it could be backed up and I couldn't afford to lose the data it contained.

Like so many other users, the 95LX impressed and surprised me more and more each day with its unexpected uses. Over a few months it went from being just a PDA to being essential to how I worked and traveled. With its small screen and small keyboard, I always had it with me, and thanks to spare AA batteries, it was always powered up. I found myself writing spreadsheets on the 95LX rather than on the laptop or in my office, as I could get it out easily, turn it on, and work away while waiting in offices, airports, and on planes. It seemed like the only place where I could be reasonably uninterrupted long enough to finish a spreadsheet was on an airplane, and the 95LX was easy to use. I was writing all of my memos, notes, and faxes on the 95LX. The one thing I was never able to do on the 95LX, however, was communicate through a modem.

Connecting to office E-mail with the 200LX and acCIS

I had seen various comments on the HP HAND forum of CompuServe from people who used acCIS on their 95LX to communicate with CompuServe. However I was unable to configure it on my Palmtop to work properly with my PPI 14.4 Pocket Fax/Data Modem. Hence, I still needed to carry a laptop with me to communicate with my office.

That situation changed with the announcement of the HP 200LX. It probably changed with the 100LX, but I resisted buying that computer, thinking that it was only a cosmetic improvement over the 95LX. In addition, when I looked the 100LX over, I didn't appreciate the utility of its new DataBase program.

I bought the 200LX because it was available with 2MB of RAM and came with Pocket Quicken built in. I use Quicken for both home and business, and the 200LX immediately became a necessity. About the same time, Shier Technologies introduced acCIS 3.0, a newer commercial version of the program mentioned earlier.

acCIS 3.0 Main Screen: Graphic

 acCIS 3.0 came with a built-in communications package and used Memo on the 200LX as an editor. It worked fine right out of the box and had an understandable manual. I was laptop bound no longer.

Our office E-mail system, Da Vinci E-Mail, supports Novell's MHS, Novell's mail handling standard for its Netware Networking system. This allows me to forward my incoming office messages, reports, binary files, and faxes to my CompuServe mailbox via a MHS hub we set up at CompuServe. This E-mail hub is quite useful for all of our traveling executives and has recently been expanded to tie our 12 remote offices to our office E-mail system. This service is quite easy to set up at CompuServe and can support all commonly used E-mail formats. Most of the popular E-mail software today, i.e. MS Mail, cc:Mail, etc., have utilities that make the setting up of a private corporate mail hub simple and economical even for a small business. The E-mail hub allows me to access my office by making a local call from anyplace in the world that has a CompuServe access number. I can download my mail, faxes, CompuServe forum messages, and binary files together in 3 to 5 minutes. Using acCIS communications software makes this an automatic and unattended procedure.

Mobile Communications

While I initially traveled with the PPI Pocket Modem, I have recently converted to a Motorola CELLect 14.4 PCMCIA cellular modem used with a Motorola TAC Lite cellular phone. Each unit cost about $325, so I have $650 invested in this setup. I really preferred the external PPI modem as I didn't have to remove my memory card to use it. At the time I bought the cellular modem there were no external cellular modems available. I tried using a Fujitsu cellular modem interface between a Fujitsu cellular phone and my PPI modem, but couldn't get it or a similar Nokia interface to work.

I connect to regular telephone lines about 90% of the time as it is cheaper and transmission is faster. I use the cellular phone to access my E-mail while changing planes, traveling in a car, or when I am engaging in some outdoor activity far from dataports. I can only achieve about 7,800 baud while transmitting via cellular and some places I only can get 2,400. I can always get 14,400 when using regular telephone lines. Using the cellular phone, I have lost connections when transmitting in a moving car occasionally but never when stationary. I haven't tried my cellular outfit in Europe yet, as I know my phone will not work. I intend to rent a local Motorola cell- phone the next time I'm there to try the modem out on a European phone. I don't know why it wouldn't work.

Several other colleagues and clients have seen acCIS in action on my 200LX and now have a Palmtop. They originally bought one to get their E-mail, but eventually started using the built-in applications as well. The 200LX has gone from being an office joke to the most coveted business tool in the company.

Setting up the 200LX with acCIS software is at first time consuming. But once configured properly it becomes an effective, low-maintenance system.

Importing spreadsheets and word processing files

Although we use Excel in the office, my staff knows to save their spreadsheets as Lotus .WK1 files to send to me. This is done using the "Save As File Type" command in Excel. Without this file conversion Excel files are unreadable in my Palmtop's Lotus 1-2-3 or Memo applications. Microsoft Word documents can be saved as ASCII text documents and loaded into Memo. However, Memo reads regular Word documents (sans formatting) with no problem. When a Word for Windows file is loaded into Memo, the first nine or ten lines are formatting instructions which are unreadable and unnecessary for Memo. The text that follows is formatted by Memo to fit on the 200LX screen. I do not ask my colleagues to save Word documents they wish to send me in ASCII format as scrolling down through the formatting instructions is no big deal.

Reading Faxes on the HP Palmtop

I copied Da Vinci's DCX fax reader to the 200LX. This lets me read faxes that are received through our E-mail system. I have a fax/data modem for my Palmtop, allowing me to not only connect up to CompuServe via the modem, but to send faxes directly as well. However, I find it easier and faster to send faxes through CompuServe using the modem and acCIS.

DCX Reader Displays FAXES: Graphic

 I have a 20MB SunDisk card, which allows me to download files without worrying about running out of disk space. It also allows me to take quite a bit of complex financial information with me when I travel. This information consists of spreadsheets, database extracts from our Sybase system, and text files. Unfortunately, even that card is filling up. If I had it all to do over again, I would have probably bought a 40MB - 80MB card.

Pocket Quicken tracks travel expenses

As I mentioned earlier, one of the main reasons I bought a 200LX was Pocket Quicken. I use it to keep track of travel expenses in US. and foreign currencies. When I travel to foreign countries, I press (F2) from the main Pocket Quicken account list and create a temporary account such as "sterling lodging", "dmark dining" or "peso transportation." When I incur an expense, I'll open the account, press (F2) to add the expense, and enter the amount of the expense in the Amount field. I use the "Trip" box in the Quicken Add screen to identify expenses by the main location traveled to and then print a report of only these trip expenses upon my return.

Pocket Quicken Add Transactions Screen: Graphic

 This report then serves as my expense report for reimbursement of out of pocket expenses and for IRS purposes.

On the airplane home I convert each entry to U.S. dollars and post them to the permanent dollar accounts in Quicken using "reimbursable expenses" as the expense category. I do this conversion either manually or using a system macro, depending on how many entries there are.

Once this task is finished, I delete the temporary foreign currency accounts and their expense category entries as all of this information is saved on the trip report I use as an expense report. When I receive an expense reimbursement, I credit it to "reimbursable expenses" as well. In this way I know that if there is a balance in my "reimbursable expense" account, then my company owes me money and I can follow up if necessary. I don't need to keep track of business expense categories for personal reasons so deleting the expense categories after a trip keeps my personal budgeting manageable. I used to use a Lotus spreadsheet on the 95LX to track expenses, but I find Quicken even easier and more "sortable", and being able to synchronize the Pocket Quicken files with my desktop Quicken files means I am no longer surprised when the credit card bills come.

HP Calc replaces business calculator

The new improved calculator on the 200LX was a pleasant surprise. The cash flow, currency conversion, and date conversion applications have proven useful and have replaced spreadsheets for my most common calculations. I use the calculator everyday and have finally retired my beloved HP 12C. The cash flows application almost makes some financial analysis too easy. As a leasing company, we don't really know the total economics of a transaction until the equipment we lease is sold. Being able to list the cash flows and then to calculate the IRR (Internal Rate of Return) and/or NPV (Net Present Value) of each major transaction helps me check our profit assumptions made at the time of purchase and adjust these assumptions for future transactions as necessary. I am sure that better information allows you to make better decisions, so being able to check returns on investments "on the fly" prevents us from letting the assumptions we used (to make purchase decisions) get stale and outdated. The old 12C would do these calculations as well, but you couldn't see all of the input on the screen. It was difficult to find mistakes or explain the results to others. Again, I used a Lotus spreadsheet on the 95LX for these calculations, but the calculator is quicker to invoke, as there is no searching for files to retrieve.

HP Connectivity Pack integrates scheduling

I have installed the HP Connectivity Pack on our Novell Network. The installation was uneventful as I just told the install program to install CPACK on the network's shared F drive. Both my secretary and I have access to it on our desktop PC's so we can share files. I back up my 200LX everyday on to our shared drive, whether I'm in the office or traveling. My secretary uses the synchronizing utility in CPACK200 to track our individual appointment and phone book entries. I call my phone and appointment files JMA.PDB and .ADB respectively. She calls hers PMG.PDB and .ADB. Before she goes home she synchronizes the two JMA and PMG files. When I am traveling she receives them from me as an upload to her E-mail mailbox. From there she saves them to the shared F drive and then runs the synchronize routine. She and I can both enter appointments and telephone book entries, either on the 200LX or the desktop, knowing that we can synchronize them at the end of the day. In this way she always knows where I am, where I can be reached and can schedule my activities without fear of conflicts. This feature of CPACK has proven to be very useful and productive.

I have read complaints about the slow speed of file transfers in CPACK. Since I usually mark the files to transfer, begin the process, and then move on to something else -- I do not find the pace of the transfer annoying. I do the same with the synchronization of the file types. Quicken does take about 15 minutes to synchronize, so I time it to start as I am going off to a meeting.

System Macros save time

The macro utility in the 200LX has proven to be a great time saver. I use it to call up ACE's BATTman to check my batteries, to save E- mail messages and faxes to ACCIS.TXT for later transmission via acCIS, and to transport data between applications, especially between the calculator, the clipboard, and Lotus 1-2-3. I also use them ad hoc for repetitive calculations such as the currency conversions done in Quicken.

Company database in your pocket

Our company programmers wrote a comma delimited format file which downloads information from our Sybase database to the database function on the 200LX. Contained in this database is our equipment list, the equipment's purchase price and date, the depreciation expense, the net book value, the lessee, the lease rate, the lease expiration date, the various identification numbers, and some other minor data. Since some of our equipment is quite expensive, i.e. aircraft, ships, off shore oil rigs, etc., this information is constantly used for forecasting purposes and to decide whether to re-lease after the initial lease expiration, or to sell. Being able to sort 70,000 individual pieces of equipment quickly (the smaller equipment is grouped in pools or equipment types, so I only have about 600 records in the 200LX) makes us much more efficient and productive.

More effective at work -- more time for play!

The HP Palmtop has not only allowed me to give up my laptop, but I have been able to take more and longer vacations as well. I can now stay in touch while hunting in Scotland or Africa, fly fishing in Mon- tana, or skiing in Utah. A company in California named TeleAdapt sells telephone adapters for every country I have traveled in lately, so connecting has never been easier.

Without the 200LX, acCIS, and cellular phones I would be unable to leave the office for any length of time. While friends may complain about me working an hour or so a day while on vacation, I used to spend all of my time on the hotel telephone and couldn't enjoy vacations at all, or go where there were no phones available. I love the outdoors and most places I want to go to are far from telephone lines. But cellular cells seem to be popping up all over. A friend called me on his cell-phone from Mt. McKinley last May and I received a call on my cell-phone while on a hill in the Highlands of Scotland where there was no sign of human habitation. Recently, I closed an important transaction remotely from a ski slope and felt no need to be either in my office or at the office of the banker. All necessary documentation and information was sent to me as binary files and we negotiated the deal over cellular phones. I didn't miss the old office bound way of doing things even a little bit. Now that I've proven that I can effectively manage my department from afar thanks to the HP 200LX and cellular technology, I think I'll post my picture around the office so the staff will remember what I look like, as I won't be around much. The old adage, "My worst day fishing was better than my best day working" won't mean much anymore as I will be doing both simultaneously.