The Medical Palm Review
March, 2004 (V5N3) - The Portable Web
Did you ever wonder why you cant read this newsletter on your Palm PDA? Well, now you can. But that raises a few other questions.
The online issue follows below, or download it in iSilo format. Don't have iSilo? Get it here.
Converting Websites for your Palm
John Campbell (the late science fiction editor) famously reworded the Law of Unintended Consequences as You cant do just one thing. And so it is with converting a website to view on your handheld device: it may not look the way you intended when you are done; you may need to download a new program to read it; and you may need to link up with third party websites to make it all work together.
Despite these cavils, there are advantages to having documents in web format on your PDA. For one thing, it's easy create web pages with a variety of tools. Even Microsoft Word allows you to save documents in web page format. Also, once you have a web browser on your Palm you can easily review web documents. With a modem or wireless connection to the Internet, the documents can reside on your handheld or on the Web. This is potent stuff, with the potential to change how we manage patients in hospitals, search medical reference books, and update emergency response system databases in real-time.
Of course, getting all that running on your Palm OS handheld may take some doing.
If you already have a Palm handheld with a web browser and a way of connecting to the web then you may be ready to go. Except that many websites are not formatted to be easily viewed on the small, low-res Palm screen. Tables and graphics are particularly problematic. Web page developers can follow guidelines to make their work accessible to mobile computer users, but most do not.
If you don't have a real-time connection to the Internet then you must capture web pages to your PC, convert them to Palm files, and HotSync them to your handheld. Each step has its own issues.
For a preexisting website there are several things to keep in mind. As noted above, the format and organization of the page may not scale down to a narrow screen (typically from 800 pixels to 160 or 240 pixels wide). Images may also need to be scaled down. But that may make them hard to view. And what colour resolution should be used? Tables also may not convert nicely either becoming truncated or requiring annoying scrolling from side-to-side. Links to other sites on the web or for file downloads cant be followed without a live wireless link to the Internet or a very much larger download to the handheld.
For conversion of websites when we don't expect frequent updating of content, we may be tempted to either:
- cut and paste text from large websites into Microsoft Word files because they can be easily read with a viewer on the Palm (eg. Documents to Go) or
- paste the contents of small text files into Palm Memo files
- or use FileLink (see the Palm Desktop Suite manual) to automatically update those memos when the original document on the PC is modified. This only works with files smaller than four kilobytes.
But these solutions are awkward and inflexible. Software specifically for converting websites is usually much more effective. These packages (eg. iSiloX, Avantgo, Plucker) can convert web pages (and other proprietary formats) into Palm documents but they all have their quirky features for dealing with tables and graphics. These programs swing into action when we HotSync, capturing previously earmarked websites, converting them, and downloading the resulting material onto our PDAs.
I encourage you to experiment with website conversion. AvantGo is easy to use. Plucker and iSiloX come with decent instructions. Turcic is a good place to keep track of websites (mostly online news services) that are handheld-compatible.
For this issue of the Review, I used the converter for iSilo (iSiloX). By tweaking a few settings, I arranged to keep the file small and simple. Here are a few tips for using iSiloX:
- If you set the conversion process to not incorporate any links, it just makes a list of them at the end of the file. That way, the file can be kept small and, if your handheld can browse the Internet, you can follow links just as you would when reading online. If you browse the file off-line (i.e.. If your PDA has no connection to the web), you can at least make note of the URLs to try from your desktop PC.
- The default settings are OK usually but you may have to fiddle with line breaks, margins, fonts, cell padding to get text to look the way you want.
- Shrink all images to 160 X 160 and convert colour to gray scale if necessary to be compatible with the oldest Palms.
- Tables can be tricky. I recommend the "Unfold full-page top-level formatting" setting in the "Table" setup tab.
It took a few tries to get things looking the way I wanted. You should be prepared to do some experimenting if you want file conversion to come out right.
Roll Your Own
If you are developing a a document to publish on a website and want it to be accessible Palm devices, there is lots of help available.
The AvantGo website has a developer area with some informative tutorials. YesWebmaster has an informative (but slightly dated) page about Avantgo-compatible development.
The same info is relevant to creating Palm pages for wireless browsing. See Palm's tutorials (eg. On web-clipping). This is not as esoteric as it might seem: as more and more people use cell phones integrated with PDAs, we will increasingly have online browsing instead of reviewing static converted documents. Palm has tools for web-clipping also. Intranet Journal has an article about building web pages that can be viewed on your Palm -- including background info and examples for web clipping These links all have good examples of how to code pages to make it easy for Palm apps to clip them for display but are all somewhat out of date due to the focus on Palm VII PQAs which are not, in the sixties phrase, a "happening thing" these days. There are lots of other websites worth information for the prospective web or Palm publisher.
If you approach the web document development systematically you will have a functional website that looks good and transfers easily to the Palm. Even if you are trying to ensure an existing website is Palm-ready, there are some advantages to starting over from scratch. With a fresh start you get a golden opportunity to ask a few questions and define some objectives at the outset. The answers make subsequent planning and coding much easier. Here are a few last pointers to help you get thinking (I have collected these at different times and places, so I apologize for not providing attribution or sources):
- Will your readers be accessing the website live with a web browser on their handhelds? If so, you can think about issues such as live updating, interactive content and links to other parts of your site or indeed any part of the web. Or will they use a site conversion utility such as AvantGo, Plucker, or iSilo to extract the site and put a static copy onto their PDAs?
- Whether a browser or a conversion program, different software tools make different assumptions about tables, fonts, margins, link handling, etc. Can you structure your site to play nice with every utility or will you favour specific tools?
- Are images important to your website? Images create problems for most conversions so it helps to minimize their use. You can also specify alternatives to large image files.
- Keep your graphics as small as possible. Drop them to gray scale or Black and White and keep them as few "bits" of gray as possible. If you must use color, keep that to as few color bits as possible. Reduce your graphics in size to as small as you can to retain reasonable detail... Keep in mind that many PDA screens you will author for will still be Black and White or gray. Those that have colour will forgive you for not having too much if you have the content there!
- With Avantgo, tables and some other formatting characteristics of html are stripped. If you are specifically designing a page for the PDA, you can put a metatag in the first line of your html code. The meta tag must be called "HandHeldFriendly" and have the value "true". This will then inform Avantgo to not strip tables and graphics and take the page as is.
- Keep everything in as simple HTML as possible. Stay away from Java applets, etc. CGI scripts are fine such as things written in PERL. Just make sure your PERL code provides html output that is portable to the PDA form factor and also has the "handheldfriendly" Metatag.
- Handhelds generally use a limited set of fonts. If you want a dizzying array of text styles on screen, you will be disappointed after the conversion process.
- Consider editing your page in a word processor with the window resized down to as close an aspect ratio of 240 x 320 as you can get. Even if you just re-size your window to what looks like PDA screen size. This helps you get things formatted on the page and your tables built as they should look on the PDA.
- Use of powerful website development software like Microsoft's FrontPage, or Macromedia DreamWeaver) is effective but you can also convert Microsoft Word or Excel documents into webpages.
- Keep each segment of your web documents to less than three to four screens in length. If you have really long pages, they load exponentially slowly compared to their length. If you keep the pages to one or two pages in length they just pop up.
10 screenfuls in length can take about 10 seconds or more to fully load.
- Most Palm web browsers will choke on frames and complex navigation schemes, so keep your website as clean and simple as possible.
- TEST EVERYTHING on as many platforms as you can.
Given the different screen size and resolution, font limitations, you may want to take some time to devise a different look and style for the PDA version of the website than that which appears online. However, as mobile devices increasingly gain access to the Web, you may as well build handheld friendliness into your online documents from the outset.
Getting Images Onto Your PDA
Database software like HanDBase can handle graphics. I have a library of ECGs and dysrhythmias for teaching. I have another library of photos of skin rashes. How can I get these onto a PDA?
First of all, think about hardware. Older, slower monochrome devices can usually only offer a painful experience looking at graphic images. Line drawings may work out on older models with their 160 X 160 pixel screens.
There are lots of programs that can convert JPG or BMP files to formats usable on a Palm PDA. Major file download sites like Tucows or PalmGear are good places to start. Some possibilities include IrfanView or other photo manipulation software (often comes with your digicam). IrfanView has the undeniable advantage of being free but it also has an excellent range of capabilities.
Kinoma Producer is now available for most Palms (not just Sony Clié), and can convert video files to Palm format.
PDF files can be imported and read with a PDF reader program. This can handle images but is rather slow.
Hack of the Month
Salling Clicker, is a program that will allow you to use a BlueTooth capable Palm (or BlueTooth enabled cell phone) as a remote control for a Mac. This has interesting potential -- for example, while giving a Powerpoint presentation. Versiontracker has the file and more info. Thanks to Patrick Linehan for this tip.
Unfortunately for Mac users, Palm has recently announced it will no longer support Mac HotSync and Desktop applications. Future versions of the OS will be more tightly integrated with Outlook and this will cut Mac out. It may also mess up other third party conduits for the Mac. Fortunately, third-party developer Mark/Space plans to continue supporting Mac HotSync. Palm has stated publicly they are relying on third-party developers like Mark/Space to fill the gap.
PC World surveyed PDA users and discovered (surprise!) that no brand of Pocket PC is considered as easy to use as Palm OS devices. So There...
In Times to Come
Mobile computing means different things to different people. I have been thinking about this myself and come up with some unexpected (to me) answers. More about this next month.
Until then, enjoy!