Johnson's World: A Place For Everything and Everything In Its Place

Is an e-Swiss Army Knife truly the right tool for the right job?

August 1, 2015

An era ended recently. Last week I went over to an unused desk in our accounting department, unplugged a desktop calculator and brought it into my office. We are talking here about a machine that weighs fifteen pounds, has big keys that protrude a quarter inch above the keyboard and has a printed paper tape as well as a digital display.

I’ve been a believer in handheld multifunction electronic devices for decades, both for organization and communication. As smartphones flourished, it seemed obvious to me that a single such device could replace everything else. And so I began my crusade.

There is a graphic floating around on the Internet of an old Radio Shack flyer with a caption pointing out that every item in the flyer has been replaced by a smartphone.

I came pretty close. My Samsung phone could replace my old phones, calculators, maps, chronograph, dictaphone, music player, e-reader, calendar, camera, notepads, reference books, and even my flashlight, compass and bicycle odometer.

Take that desktop calculator, for instance. I found a free app that functioned like an old fashioned adding machine, right down to the “cha-ching” sound whenever I added a line of figures.

I complimented this with an app that emulated my trusty Hewlett Packard business calculator. In fact, I currently have 10 calculator apps on my phone, which allows me to make short work of any accounting, business, graphic arts or scientific computation I wish to make.

The real breakthrough came when I installed Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat emulators, which turned my cell phone into a real business computer with Excel, Word and Powerpoint. When I paired it with a Bluetooth-enabled keyboard I no longer needed any other portable or even desktop devices. In theory, anyway.

In practice, not so much; hence the return of my desktop calculator.

Even if I don’t want my calculator on my phone, couldn’t I live without calculator hardware? I could use a website such as Calculator Soup which puts hundreds of specialized calculators at my fingertips. I could use spreadsheet software, which actually functions much like an adding machine.

Fact is, these phone apps, software and websites all try their best to mimic calculators. Calculators aren’t trying to imitate phone apps.

I still have 10 calculator apps on my phone. They come in handy sometimes, but for day to day industrial strength number crunching I’m happy (and much more productive) with my big ol’ adding machine. I have the best of both worlds.

If you want to check out what is trending, be it in business or in fashion, check out twenty-something girls. In meetings or on the street, look at them. Specifically at their left wrists.

Young girls now wear watches. Big watches. Not Apple watches (that is an entirely different discussion) but analog watches with hour and minute hands. Watches that do nothing but tell time. Why? They could just look at their smartphone or tablet. Instead they’ve decided that a time-telling device is best for telling time.

Young girls also like cute little notebooks. In meetings and seminars, they are taking notes with a pen on blank paper bound into books. Wise move, ladies. Smartphones and tablets in meetings make you look shallow and inattentive, even when you are using them for a legitimate purpose.

Taking notes on paper has the opposite effect. Not only do you look smarter, but you really are. Multiple studies have confirmed that taking notes manually increases retention whereas doing the same thing electronically has the opposite effect.

"We want to eliminate the stupid uses of paper, but we want to embrace the good uses," says Evernote, makers of the world’s most popular note-taking app. They give the app away, but appear to make a small fortune selling paper notebooks with moleskin covers.

Using a smartpen such as Livescribe’s Echo or Adonit’s Jotscript help your image, your brain and your filing system by digitizing your pen strokes as you write. Once again, you can have the best of both worlds.

There is a place for everything. Make sure you choose the right tool for the job at hand.