Personal Digital Assistants: Practical Advice for Clinicians in 2007

Andrew E. Craig, MSN, FNP-C


Topics in Advanced Practice Nursing eJournal. 2007;7(1) 

In This Article

Introduction to the PDA

The PDA emerged in the mid-1990s with the release of 3Com Corporation's Palm Pilot device. It was designed to be an easy-to-use, portable electronic personal planner. It came with a set of preloaded software applications: a calendar, notepad, telephone list, and calculator, and a small (2-megabyte [MB]) amount of memory for storing the data that users would input into the device with these programs.

Over time, processor speeds and memory in PDAs began to increase, allowing more data storage. Eventually, additional software was written for the PDA for a variety of specific functions, many tailored to relatively narrow segments of the population. Soon, PDA programs became available for topics that addressed specific interests, such as picking lottery numbers or tracking a diet plan. Likewise, programmers began writing software that medical professionals found useful. These applications became quickly popular as clinicians freed themselves from their office bookcases and began carrying reference materials wherever they went, stored in electronic format on their PDAs. Medical PDA applications are now quite sophisticated; in addition to stand-alone programs, many PDAs contain comprehensive software suites with several extensive modules.

Although Palm Corporation (a spin-off of 3Com) may have come out with the first widely used PDA operating system (OS), it wasn't long before they had competition. Microsoft released its Windows CE OS in the late 1990s on the basis of its popular Windows interface for the desktop personal computer (PC). In more recent years, the OS was known as Pocket PC; it is currently named Windows Mobile (WM), a term used to refer to both the OS and the devices that use it.

In earlier years, Palm OS had a clear advantage in that much more clinical software was available for Palm OS-based PDAs than WM PDAs; however, this is no longer the case. Most commercially available PDA medical software is now available for either OS. However, smaller, independent "freeware" applications still tend to favor Palm OS.

For much of the time that both Palm OS and WM OS have existed, debate has ensued over which one is superior.[2] Each OS has specific pros and cons that make choosing one a very individual decision. Palm OS is very utilitarian; it is a workhorse. Palm OS-based devices tend to be less expensive than WM devices. They are reliable and extensive. Although Palm OS devices can display graphics (pictures, video, etc) and play music, this is not their forte. Palm OS devices typically need third-party software to work directly with Microsoft Word and Excel documents. (This software is typically included with Palm PDAs when sold.) Palm OS-based devices generally work with Macintosh computers, although some models may have specific compatibility requirements.

WM devices tend to have higher screen resolutions than Palm OS devices, resulting in sharper, crisper displays. Some models boast true video graphics array (VGA) quality graphics, similar to what is found on a desktop PC monitor. The WM interface is similar in appearance and function to the desktop Windows interface, which some users find reassuring. WM devices display graphics and play music extremely well, much like a portable MP3 player. However, this graphics-intensive nature requires a faster processor and more memory, as it uses more PDA system resources. This contributes to increased cost. WM PDAs are not Macintosh-compatible, although some third-party products claim to overcome this limitation with software or special cabling. One specific advantage of a WM PDA is that, with properly configured wireless capability, users can directly access Microsoft Outlook email from their work network's Microsoft Exchange Server without having to first dock to a PC.

For a list of acronyms used in this article, with explanation, see Table 1 .


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