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April 2, 2002
The saga of Russell's Palm Pilot (Russell)

...or, "Why you haven't heard from us lately."

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As far back as New Zealand, Russell -- pictured here last July -- has had his Palm Pilot at his side (what a dweeb...)

One of our most important technology tools during our entire world trip has been Russell's Palm Pilot IIIxe.  This little handheld computer holds our address and telephone book, our trip notes, and our only universal email program.  While our original digital camera proved inadequate, our PC disk drive failed, and our "AOL Anywhere" turned out not to work everywhere, the Palm Pilot has been infallible for the last eight months... until now.

It was while waiting in line for the Lipizzaner Stallions in the 3°C cold on March 25th that Russell suddenly discovered that the digitizer in his Palm Pilot had become uncalibrated.  (The Palm Pilot works by tapping the screen with a stylus.  You input text and issue commands by tapping "buttons" on the screen.  If the digitizer is broken, then the Palm Pilot no longer recognizes where on the screen you are tapping.)  So while the rest of the family watched the Lipizzaner Stallions practising, Russell sat off by himself trying to fix his Palm Pilot.

There is a utility on the Palm Pilot that enables you to recalibrate the digitizer.  However, in one of the most asinine design features of the Information Age, you must be able to tap the screen in order to access this utility.  In other words, in order for you to fix the digitizer, the digitizer must already be working.

Back at the K & T Boardinghouse in Wien, Russell used Tina's PC to log onto Palm's Web page for support help.  According to Palm's support page, the only alternative is to perform a hard reset, where you completely erase all programs and data on the Palm Pilot.  Needless to say, this is a rather drastic measure.  It is also the only other way to get the digitizer calibration program to appear on the screen.  The documentation recommends that you back up all of your data to your PC using the hot sync utility before you actually perform the hard reset.  Unfortunately, Russell had left his hot synch cradle at home and brought only a portable cable instead.  The only way to initiate a hot synch was from the Palm Pilot... and this was impossible because the digitizer was broken.  (In one of the second most asinine design features of the Information Age, there is no way to initiate a hot synch from the PC.  It must be done from the docking cradle or from the Palm Pilot.)

Fortunately, Russell had done a hot synch just a few days ago, and he felt confident that the backup data already on his laptop PC was fairly current.  Sweating bullets, he performed the hard reset.   The Palm Pilot screen went blank, then the familiar introductory screen appeared, along with the routine for calibrating the digitizer.  So far, so good.  Russell fixed the digitizer, then tested it.  It worked.  Russell connected the cable from the Palm Pilot to the PC, and tapped the hot synch button.  Nothing happened.  A minute went by.  A message appeared on the Palm Pilot screen: "Unable to establish a serial connection."

Russell now had a Palm Pilot that worked... but it was completely blank.  He connected and unconnected the cable.  He restarted, rebooted, and shut down the PC.  He connected the Palm Pilot, the cable, and the PC in different orders, as well as turning them on and off in different orders.  "Unable to establish a serial connection."

The only thing Russell could figure is that perhaps the initial hot synch must be initiated from the docking cradle instead of the Palm Pilot itself.  Therefore, the solution lay in finding a docking cradle somewhere.  By now we were in Praha, not exactly the high-technology capital of Europe.  Karel, our tour guide, recommended an electronics store near Václavske Námĕstí, but they were unable to help (keep in mind that Palm no longer manufactures the IIIxe, so we were looking for an obsolete piece of equipment).  While he was on the phone making reservations, Russell also tried calling the Palm telephone support line in the US.  The recording said that it would cost at least $25 to speak to an actual person.  Russell hung up.

We did not get another chance to look for a docking cradle until March 30th, in Berlin.  Russell had to rush poor Gail through the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie museum so that we could make it to KaDeWe before they closed at 4:00 PM.  Here, in Continental Europe's largest department store, we found a department that sold Palm Pilots.  An extremely helpful sales clerk rifled through several drawers before locating the last hot synch serial cable they had for a Palm Pilot IIIxe (actually it was for the series M100, but another clerk swore that it would work).  We got out of the store just as they were closing for the weekend.

Back at the Pension Alexis, Russell crossed his fingers and connected the new cable to the Palm Pilot and the PC.  He pressed the tiny hot synch button on the cable.  "Unable to establish a serial connection."

By now Russell was ready to pull his hair out.  One last idea occurred to him.  Both the Palm Pilot and the PC have infrared ports for wireless communications -- perhaps he could perform a hot synch via infrared.  He reconfigured both systems, enabled the IR port, and pointed the two devices at each other.  Once again, the hot synch failed... but... a utility popped up on the PC screen for transferring files to the Palm.

There was hope.  Russell spent the next two hours transferring two hundred backup files, one by one, from the PC to the Palm Pilot via infrared.  Cameron and Joss went to bed.  Gail read a book.  Russell finished transferring the files.  The digitizer had become uncalibrated again.  Gail wondered why Russell looked like a complete wreck.  Russell tried it again.  He performed a hard reset on the Palm Pilot.  This fixed the digitizer, but deleted all of the files.  He transferred the backup files from the PC back to the Palm Pilot.  This restored the files, but broke the digitizer.

One day later, after Joss had celebrated his birthday and gone to bed, Russell tried one more trick.  From the bowels of his suitcase, Russell found the original installation CD-ROM for the Palm Pilot.  He uninstalled the hot synch utility from the PC, then reinstalled it from the CD-ROM.  He connected the serial cable from the PC to the Palm Pilot and pressed the hot synch button.  It worked.

The hot synch problem had not been the cable.  It had been the PC.

The two hundred backup files passed magically and quickly from the PC back to the Palm Pilot.  At the end of the hot synch, a message appeared on the Palm Pilot's screen saying that it would now perform a soft reset to complete the installation of the programs.  Russell pushed the "OK" button.  The digitizer went out.

Russell performed another hard reset, followed by another hot synch.  The Palm Pilot would not complete the hot synch without performing a soft reset.  Every time it performed a soft reset, the digitizer went out.  Russell contemplated buying a new Palm Pilot.  Unfortunately, his only chance had been yesterday at 4:00 PM at KaDeWe.  The store was now closed today and tomorrow for Easter.

On April 1st, the day we left Berlin, Russell tried downloading email to the Palm Pilot using his Pocketmail modem even though the digitizer was broken.  He succeeded in downloading our email messages, but he couldn't read any of them because he couldn't select any of the messages with the stylus.  Before we left Berlin, we walked several blocks to an Internet cafe so that we could at least catch up on our email.  We were unable to update the Website or send any trip letters because this particular Internet cafe -- the only one we could find open on Easter Monday (a holiday in Germany) -- did not allow us to use our floppy disks.

Instead of proceeding directly to Denmark on April 1st, we drove only two hours north to Hamburg to stop for the day.  We did this specifically so that we could continue to try fixing the Palm Pilot.  After settling ourselves in at the hotel, Russell went to the payphones.  His goal was to call a different Palm Support telephone number -- he had a vague recollection that he had purchased an extended service contract a year ago, which might provide free service.  Even better, he was hoping that Palm's Advanced Exchange Program might even send him a replacement Palm Pilot at no charge.

On the telephone, Russell spoke with a support person named Denise.  Russell wanted to provide his Palm Pilot's serial number and find out if he was entitled to a free replacement.  Denise did not want to proceed until she had Russell's telephone number and address.  Russell explained that he was currently taking a trip around the world, that he didn't have a telephone number or address, and that he was currently calling long distance from Germany.  Denise then put Russell on hold for ten minutes.

When she finally returned, Denise told Russell that she was in Canada and couldn't help him -- apparently, Palm does not ship replacement products internationally.  Instead, she gave Russell a Palm Technical Support telephone number in Germany, as well as one in the UK.  Russell asked if the German support people spoke any English.  Denise replied that she had no idea; that's why she also gave him the number in the UK.  Russell asked if Denise had the country access codes for Germany and the UK (he was using his MCI International card to call).  Denise replied that she had no idea, and thanked him for calling Palm Support.

Russell wild-guessed the Germany country code and called the German Technical Support number.  He got a recording in German, and hung up.  Russell wild-guessed the UK country code and called the UK Technical Support number.  It did not connect.

Russell was halfway back to the hotel when he came up with another idea.  He went back to the phone and called his sister Joanne in the US (it was currently 7:30 AM in California).  He asked if she would be willing to let him use her telephone number and address in the US for Palm to send a replacement, then reship the replacement to him in Germany.  Together, they brainstormed several ideas, including Joanne sending her own Palm Pilot to him sooner, or Russell simply buying a new one in Germany.  The trouble was that Russell wasn't sure if his Pocketmail modem -- designed for the Palm IIIxe -- would be compatible with Palm's new Pilot models.  Joanne and Russell decided to table the discussion until Russell could check Palm's Website the next morning.

Russell was halfway back to the hotel -- again -- when he came up with another idea -- again.  He went back to the phone and called Palm Support in the US -- again.  His goal was to provide Joanne's phone number and address merely so that he could find out if his Palm Pilot indeed had any kind of extended service contract.  This time Russell spoke with Adrian, who turned out to be a great deal more helpful than Denise was.  Adrian explained why he needed a telephone number and address (which Denise had not done) -- it was to see if Russell already had a record in the database.  With this knowledge, Russell provided the telephone number and address he had used a year ago when he last called.  Adrian was able to find Russell's record; he confirmed that Russell's Palm Pilot was indeed still under the manufacturer's warranty.

At this point, Adrian's customer support skills really shined through.  He continued to ask Russell questions about exactly what kind of problem he was having with his Palm Pilot.  From Russell's description, Adrian declared, "One of the programs that you are installing is causing the problem with your digitizer."  In other words, it was not a problem with the Palm Pilot itself (the hardware); it was a problem with one of the programs being being transferred from the PC (the software).  Russell, jaded from experience, asked "Do you really think that's what's causing the problem?"  Adrian responded confidently: "I am one hundred percent certain."  Adrian provided a workaround for Russell to try, that involved using hot synch to install the programs one by one.

Back at the Hamburg hotel that evening, Russell performed a hot synch that restored only the Palm Pilot's internal programs and the Pocketmail program.  The hot synch worked.  The digitizer worked.  On the morning of April 2nd, at an autobahn rest stop outside of Hamburg, Russell dialed into Pocketmail for our email for the first time in a week.  It worked.

Russell's Palm Pilot is not completely repaired.  We have not restored the bulk of our programs that include spreadsheets, databases, several games for the boys, and worldwide star charts.  Our Wordsmith word processor became corrupted during the constant hot synchs, and is now unrecoverable.  But we have email again.  We can talk to our friends and family back home once more, and they can talk to us.

Stay tuned.  Who know what tomorrow will bring?

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A typical scene: Russell -- pictured here in Firenze -- at a payphone, using the Palm Pilot and Pocketmail to download email (what a nerd...)


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