The digital revolution: Put away that Filofax. Pick up that palmtop. Get with it

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Times are hard at Filofax Group. Yesterday executives at the company were surely flicking through their hand-tooled leather binders, seeking the names of companies or firms or friends or (who knows?) people they might have met once on a plane who would be interested in buying all or part of the company, or getting together for a "strategic alliance" (business-speak for rescue) or joint venture (business-speak for an escape hatch).

Am I surprised that they're finding life hard? Hell no. If your line of work is essentially producing a glorified paper-based address book and diary, of course life is going to get tough when electronic rivals spring up. And they're all over the place right now. Basically, we're all embracing the ideas of Nicholas Negroponte, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, and "going digital".

It was about the middle of last year when Filofax noticed that, for the first time in its decades of existence, British customers were spending more money on refills for existing binders than on new ones. That's bad news, for them anyway, since it means that people are turning to newer means of storing their lives. It's simple to see why pocket-sized computers are storming ahead. If even staff in Dixons can demonstrate them, they really must be easy to use.

If you consider the relative merits of the two forms of data storage - paper-based ring binder or pocket-sized computer - there's no contest. The computers' prices are storming downwards, while including features you could never put into a Filofax.

For example, when is a Filofax going to chime gently to remind you of a forthcoming appointment, and so drive everyone sitting near you half- mad because you happen to be away from your desk at the time and nobody can work out what "that annoying bloody chiming noise" is? Will a Filofax ever automatically dial a telephone number for you, saving wear and tear on delicate fingers?

Of course, I'll admit that the Filofax shares honours with the palmtop when it comes to the function that children find most essential in a world diary: both will tell you in seconds what the time is in Djakarta.

Also, palmtops bring their own set of frustrations to the business of having a life. Two friends who bought them with the intention of revolutionising their lives (on, I'll admit, my urging) and transferred all their contact numbers and essential must-remember facts on to their machines turned them on one day to find the memory wiped clean, returned to a sort of primeval electronic soup.

"But what on earth has happened?" said one friend querulously, as she contacted the helpline for the computer's manufacturer.

"Ah, that seems to happen with the new ones," said the man on the helpline, unhelpfully. "But the good thing is that it only happens once in their lifetime. Now you should be fine for the rest of its life."

Certainly, neither machine has since lost any more stored addresses, because both friends have put them with their other life-changing items, such as the exercise bike and the plastic stomach-flattener that lets you get fit while watching TV: under the stairs.

However, both those friends are female, and so obviously less likely to continue using a gadget in the face of adversity. For that you need a man. Another male palmtop user I know has continued with gritted teeth to use his ageing machine, even though the screen is now so broken that he has to hold it over his head to read it. Yet another discovered his machine didn't stand up well to being dropped. Now in order to get from the address book to the diary function, he has to stab the keys so hard onlookers think he is trying to shorten his fingers the hard way.

I'll admit that I was a bit stymied myself when my own machine was stolen a few months ago. Now that really did make it quite difficult to find numbers. Happily, it was recovered a few weeks later. The physical part, in fact, was undamaged. However, the thief had been through my database, deleting each entry, before getting bored. On getting it back, I found that names I thought I had put in weren't there. To this day, I don't know exactly what was lost.

But again, the gadget comes back into its own: it takes only moments to copy all the files from the machine on to a little backup disk, so that even if the machine disappears, I can refill another one (perhaps a friend's discarded one) with my personal knowledge and details.

Being so replaceable and copyable is what makes digital "bits" appealing, of course. Have you ever tried make a safety copy of a Filofax that's been used for a while? I haven't, but I'm assured that with a good photocopier and a determined attitude you can manage it in, oh, about half an hour. Of course, if your binder is stolen you'll have to transcribe all that data into your new one. While doing this, try not to snarl at the person uploading all their data on to their new palmtop from their old one in a matter of seconds.

Yet this very flexibility means that for some people, palmtops will simply never be an option. One cannot imagine super-rich people such as the exotic "Bride of Wildenstein" (who in her divorce case claimed that she didn't know how to make toast) ever wanting to plan her plastic surgery schedule on a palmtop (Tues: nose. Weds: Eyes again).

That of course instantly suggests precisely where the troubled folks at Filofax should focus their efforts. These days, you can get ballpoint pens, solar-powered digital clocks accurate to milliseconds and clothing such as sweatshirts and baseball caps for free, if you know the right place to stand. But rich people won't touch them. They prefer Mont Blanc fountain pens, Rolex Oyster watches, Calvin Klein shirts. Surely it's time for the hand-engraved, silver-edged, calfskin Filofax?