HP Palmtop Story Contest - My Contribution

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Back in 2005, there was a contest of personal HP Palmtop stories on the HPLX mailing list. Here is my contribution to that contest:

LX story contest
Contribution by Daniel Hertrich
Tuesday, November 15th, 2005

Once upon a time, my brother bought himself an HP 100LX 1MB for his studies (he studied mathematics and then worked as a scientific assistant at the university, now he is a professor of mathematics and works at the university of Vienna: http://www.dmg.tuwien.ac.at/hertrich-jeromin/). That was in about 1995, when I was 18 and my brother was 30 years old.

When he brought that device for the first time when visiting me, I was quite amazed about what he could do with it. He had a version of Derive running on it, and he used to write his papers in LaTeX, later in TeX, so he had syntax checkers for LaTeX and even a full version of Plain TeX on the palmtop. I considered him to be a power user then, and I started to begin to also want such a device. The power of DOS and the good keyboard made me consider what I could do with the machine.
In 1995, I would never have guessed what was really possible with the 200LX later...

It was in Summer 1997 when I finished school and started to study electrical engineering, when I finally decided to buy a HP 200LX. I went to a local HP seller, "Ariston" in Berlin Schoeneberg. They showed me the different available versions of the 200LX platform, including the 700LX, but the people there didn't seem to accept that I seriously wanted to buy such a device. They seemed to think I rather needed a gameboy or whatever.
After some discussions and consideration, I decided to buy the 4MB 200LX. The 700LX was too bulky for my taste, and the lower memory models were not capable to hold enough software. Flash cards were very expensive then (they offered me a 5MB HP flash card for almost 1000 DM or so, which equals about 500 EURO). I didn't know about any RAM upgrades at this time. If I had known, I'd never have bought a 4MB LX, but a 1MB or 2MB one, since every upgrade applied later would mean to sacrifice the expensive 2MB extra RAM in the 4MB machine anyway.

I paid 1200 DM (600 EURO) for the device, put it into the bag on my bike and drove home with a big smile on my face. It was my first PDA / handheld computer. Before, I only owned such a database-like device with a bad keyboard and a small 16x4 character display (but already with the clamshell form factor, only slightly smaller than the LX). I always wished to be able to enter long text and process it in many ways, which was not possible with that device.

Well, now comes the part that probably everyone of you knows. Unpacking the palmtop, eager to see it in action, putting in batteries, booting, entering personal information, exploring the application manager, trying the built-in apps. Later I began to load additional software on the device and examined the palmtop's limits (no VGA, no protected mode...).

Normally, I take apart every device I buy, just to see how it looks inside and to get a feeling how to handle it better, and to make full use of it. But for some reason I didn't dare to open the 200LX. I had a deep respect for it from the beginning.

But my brother visited us from time to time, and once he brought his 100LX, which was broken. He asked if we could have a look inside, to see what's wrong. So we opened his 100LX. It was a challenge. But we opened it successfully and then first wondered how small the mainboard is. We found the reason for the problem and fixed it. It was a minor mechanical problem, if I recall correctly.

So I was prepared...:

In 1998, I bought a double speed crystal from Tom Rundel. I sat down at my desk, took some hours of time for the surgery and began. My fingers were trembling. But finally I did it, successfully. Now my palmtop ran at the incredible speed of 16 MHz!

Oh, I should mention: This was my third 200LX already. I returned the first machine due to a software failure, and the second unit I got in return also showed that failure, so I returned it once more. The unit I had then was one with a serial number SG8..., so it was very new (manufactured in 1998) and had a great keyboard and hinge feeling.
BTW: The failure I returned the unit twice for is reproducible on all German machines. I don't remember the exact details, but it was somewhere in the setup application ("Konfig" on German machines). When you enter it, press F5 and look at the graph at the bottom, which shows the memory splitting between disk and RAM, the right value shows either "S stem=xxx" or "  stem=xxx". I considered this to be a problem which could lead to serious errors, e.g. a ROM or RAM failure, so I returned it. But seeing the third unit also having the problem I gave up and accepted it ;-).

Shortly after I upgraded the SG8 unit, I bought another one (used) and upgraded it, too, to have one for daily work. The new SG8 machine was my backup machine since then, and it still is.

That must have been the time when I subscribed to the HPLX mailing list. This was certainly the greatest virtual community I have ever joined. I have received so much support with my questions, people there were so enthusiastic about the interest which we had in common. And last but not least: The majority of people on the list were, and still are, simply unbeatably kind.
How many times did the pun appear on the list: Al Kind, the maintainer of the list, and the kindness of him, or of the members. Although a coincidence, it was worth mentioning from time to time!

I have met some members by now: I met Stefan Peichl in Berlin, Helmuth Günther in Neufahrn near Munich. I met Don Chow, Mark Willis and Rod Clapper in Vancouver BC. And I met Peter Eberl, them aintainer of the new HPLX mailing list, in Munich. I almost met Stephan Luettjohann, developer of the first version of LxTeX and of the palmtop serial port thrmometer, in Duesseldorf. And I met John Thorsell in Berlin, at the Technical University where I studied. I think he was or is also a list member.
I hope I did not forget anyone here.

But (blush) I did not yet make it to one of Tom Rundel's palmtop meetings in Waiblingen. Too bad! But I will attend one some day! I will also meet Andreas Garzotto some day, whom I have not met in person yet (only email and phone so far). I will meet Gaby Burghardt soon in Munich. And maybe I will meet some other list members as well. Who knows. I have received a lot of invitations from list members into a lot of different places on earth. And I have saved these invitations in a special email folder. So when I ever have the time to travel, I'll contact those people and maybe meet up with them!

After joining the HPLX mailing list and reading about all the possiblities to use the LX, I loaded tons of interesting software onto it, from scientific programs (Derive, PalmtopCircuit, PSpice, calculators) over Andreas Garzotto's freeware programs (PE, PIM) to commercial programs I bought, e.g. PalmtopCircuit, WWW/LX, Mindmap/LX (yes, I paid for it in the first place! ;-)...
In fact, I spent more money for palmtop software than I have ever spent for software for my desktop PCs!
And with time I tried hundreds of freely available programs from the Internet. My setup grew and grew. Many of you could see how my setup grew from my notes on my home page and on the HPLX mailing list. It grew until March of this year, so I had a quite perfect (for my needs) portable computer system, which could serve me well in most situations.

The palmtop hobby became a passion, so I looked for more activities I could do. David Sargeant and Ian Butler looked for a new maintainer for the S.U.P.E.R. archive, the "Simply Unbeatable Palmtop Essentials Reporitory". So I became the new maintainer. I updated the archive with new software and new program versions for some years, until now. S.U.P.E.R. is now hosted and maintained by Peter Eberl. I was also involved in the process of moving the HPLX mailing list to a new home, when Al Kind got a new job and could not maintain the list anymore at the university of Conneticut.
I should also mention Mitchell Hamm at this point, who hosted and maintained a lot of these ressources for a long time and who owned the www.palmtop.net domain.

I also developed some hardware and software additions. For example the LED light, which could be plugged into the serial port of the LX and enlightened the screen and keyboard. I sold about 30-40 of these lights back in 1998-1999 (see http://www.daniel-hertrich.de/ledlight). By the way: Shortly after I have published the instructions for building the LED light, the first LED lights for laptops, pluggable into the USB port, became available. Too bad I did not claim a patent for the construction and idea!
I developed many small tools in C or as DOS batch files which were quite handy on the palmtop (see http://www.daniel-hertrich.de/download). My most important own works in the software area were probably LxTeX 2e, LXRTF and the PDB2X conversion tools. Later of course the additions and bugfixes I coded for Andreas Garzotto's programs (see below).

In the meantime I bought two 32MB upgrades from Tom Rundel to upgrade my main and backup unit, so I now had two almost identical units with doublespeed and 32MB. In case one fails, I could simply pop in my flash card into the backup machine, load the backup created automatically last night, and continue my work right away. I would have lost only the work of the current day. In fact, I almost never lost any data. If I had to use the backup machine, it was because I wanted the feeling of a like-new palmtop for a while, or when I wanted to clean my main unit or similar things.
I also bought more used units from ebay sellers for my research works, so my LX collection grew to over 10 units (Now, I have one of each kind: 95LX, 100LX, 1000CX, OG700LX, OG120. And still 4 200LXs.) I began to do some trade with palmtops, buying them, repairing and/or upgrading them and reselling them on ebay or via the HPLX mailing list.

Then came the backlight project.
Being not entirely satisfied with the LED light solution I had developed, because it was one more part to carry around, and folding it up was not quite possible without damaging it over time, I began to look for more professional solutions. This was about the time when Thaddeus Computing started their backlight project, based on experiments by David Sargeant, John Musielewicz and others.

I was eagerly awaiting their announcement about availability of the backlight upgrade, but at the same time I was aware that it would be too expensive for me, so I'd probably never let my machine upgrade by them. Finally Thaddeus announced that the backlight upgrade would never be available. I discussed a lot with the involved people about the actual problems leading to that decision and finally started my own research. Hal and his colleagues at Thaddeus sent me a lot of their materials they used for their experiments (thanks a lot for that support!) and provided a lot of valuable information.
After about one year of research (2002-2003) and much support of Thaddeus, Tom Rundel and others (who mainly provided broken screens I could experiment with), and of Stefan Peichl, who wrote the great software driver for backlight control, I found a solution which is a compromise between feasibility and quality.

About at the same time, I stumbled across a web page of a guy called Stefan Kaechele, who offered backlight upgrades for some devices, and the website stated "A HP 200LX backlight upgrade is planned". I immediately contacted him and we shared our experiences. Outcome: He provided the hardware for the upgrade, which he had optimized over some years (combination of EL foil and driver circuit), and I provided the method for the upgrade. The materials I used for my prototypes worked quite well, but they had two disadvantages: I had to assemble the driver circuit by hand (takes a lot of time), he had a ready-made circuit board. And my solution needed about 7 times the power of an unmodified LX. His solution needs only twice the power when installed. His solution had one disadvantage, though: The light was not as bright as mine. But at the end this turned out to be good, because in total darkness, my solution would be too bright.

We marketed the solution. At first, his technician provided the upgrade service. But he didn't know the HP palmtop architecture enough to be able to provide reliable service. He had many problems with almost-defective palmtops or upgraded machines. So in 2004, I took over upgrade service, and now I offer the entire backlight upgrade service and buy the parts from Stefan Kaechele.

This was a very interesting project for me, which I learned a lot from, especially in the field of international cooperation, data exchange and trade.

I established many more contacts to other people and also some people contacted me because they read about me and my hobby on my homepage, and that way I was able to find some more sources for upgrade and accessory parts. For example I found a source for 4MB upgrade boards, which cost less than the T2T boards (but also have some disadvantages compared to the T2T ones), recently I found a source for 16 and 32MB upgrade boards in Japan, which may lead to a long-term supply of these boards (too bad we didn't get in touch some years ago, when demand was much higher!).

Another important mile stone in my 200LX "career" was when Andreas Garzotto announced that he would stop developing the D&A Software products. We were searching for a successor, asked on the mailing list for interested and skilled people and finally choose two or three candidates, none of which really continued the work. Finally I said to Andreas "I would like to try it myself". So Andreas gave me the sources of some of the D&A programs and I began to read the code and slowly - very slowly - began to understand his interesting but very straight-forward programming style. Not being a software developer, I had serious difficulties with these software projects. I had almost no experience with C. But I am a learning by doing type of person, so I got used to the source code by reading it and consulting some books for reference, and finally was able to apply some feature requests and bug fixes. That way I released new versions of PE, PIM, MM/LX, TT/LX and Post/LX. Also a project which I have learned a lot from. Not only could I collect programming skills by enhancing the programs I used daily for my own needs. But I also learned what it means to organize processes, to coordinate and delegate actions etc, which I also learned in the hardware projects a lot, but in the software projects these things are very different.
The people which supported me most in that project were certainly Andreas Garzotto and Avi Meshar and all the people on the D&A Beta-Testers Mailing list: Tony Hutchins, Martin Bergvill, Helmuth Günther, Daniel Legendre, Fred Kaufmann, Gary Spiers...

And now - well, I have saved a little surprise for you for the end of the story - now I am in the process of founding a little business to offer all the experiences and services "officially" to you. I'll do this not as my main job, but in my spare time, for several reasons:
1. I have a family to feed so I still need the safe job
2. it is for now "only" a hobby turned into a job, which will not suffice for feeding a family (maybe later, when I offer more services and have more experiences, especially with other kinds of PDAs, too)
3. Most of my customers are you - people I know well and respect, so I have to consider my prices well, because I do not want to "milk" you, but the prices still need to justify my activities. It is still more a passion than a business. Slowly turning into a business, though.

The address of my little business is http://www.hermocom.com. Not much online yet, but it is growing. Criticism appreciated! The pages should be HV- and Lynx-friendly ;-)

So the HP palmtop was finally a tool not only for my daily life, but also for my future. I have invested a LOT of time tweaking it, developing for it etc. And I assume I have learned much more with these activities, than I would have learned if I had spent the time for home work for my studies or with watching TV or playing computer games. By the way: I had a lot of games on my LX for all the years 1997-2005, but I almost never played one. I always had to do more important things, such as developing software, maintaining databases or finding a solution to a specific problem. Sometimes I even developed software while driving home from work in the car. The LX sat near me on the passenger seat and everytime a traffic light went red, I took it, modified some code, and started the compiler.
Now I have a family, so I cannot do this anymore, because Alina needs his daddy for some time to come.

For some months now, my 200LX is sitting in the drawer, almost unused. Most of you know the reason: I have moved to a new platform, the Sharp Zaurus PDA. The model SL-C3000 is a device which was for me the best replacement for a 200LX. Driven by Linux, still in clamshell format, and with almost all the flexibility the 200LX also had, but with more modern and powerful technology, in hardware and software. But this does not mean that I don't have anything to do with the LX anymore. I'm still reading and sometimes writing to the HPLX list, I use my LX for reference if the Zaurus does not do the job (my LX setup grew for 8 years, the Zaurus setup is only 8 months old, so I cannot expect that it is already as powerful as my LX setup). And I still repair and upgrade quite some LXs. I'll probably also cooperate with Michel Bel, who initiateed this LX story contest and who could make me happy with his spare parts supply, and so I will help him earning money with his risky and brave deal with Brazilian palmtops. I will try to continue cooperation with the Japanese manufacturer of the memory upgrade boards (16 and 32 MB) as long as possible.

Hal Goldstein, I know I owe you something for all your support, so I'm constantly trying not to compete with you too much. And I think the small amount of jobs I do (compared to the amount of repairs and upgrades you probably do) will not do any serious harm to your business. If it ever does, please let me know and we will find a solution!

I am not satisfied at all with any device on the mobile computer market today. Not even with the Zaurus. When the LX was on the market, it was near to being perfect (because it had only minor shortcomings compared to "normal" PCs, being a normal 186 PC with only less RAM and colors and speed). But imagine a PDA-sized Pentium 2GHz 512MB RAM 60GB hard disk 1024x768 TFT, 1200x1600 VGA-out and video (TV) output 5.1 surround sound 3D graphics accellerated computer with some weeks of battery life. That would be about an equivalent to the HPLX nowadays I think. But why isn't it on the market already? No interest? I don't think so. Techonology not available? Well, maybe some problems with the battery, but otherwise it would be possible.
Even the most expensive and most feature-rich available devices have their serious shortcomings (see the OQO's battery life and operating temperature for example). So with hermocom I'd like to find individual solutions, eliminating as many of the shortcomings as possible for the individual needs. And maybe some day I'll even participate in the development of "the perfect mobile computer". The 200LX is the best experience I could have made in order to reach this goal.

That was my LX story.

Now I am especially looking forward to read the stories of the prominent people here. Avi, your story please! Stefan Peichl! I will also ask Andreas Garzotto to post his story. Extremely interesting would be the story of Everett Kaser, who participated in the HPLX mailing list for a short time (he co-developed the palmtop at HP). I will ask him, too. Helmuth Günther! Stanley Dobrowski! Harry Konstas! Gilles Kohl! Hal Goldstein! There are so many. And all the people who left the list before I joined - I am sure there are very interesting stories, too. So if you know someone who left the list but could have an interesting story to tell, please contact him or her!

Thank you!