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Pilots of the Indiglo Twilight

Guest Column Wesley Chan

There's an invasion of Pilots on this campus. No, I don't mean the kind that fly airplanes. I mean those gray message-pad-like electronic organizers made by modem manufacturer U.S. Robotics that are smaller then the palm of your hand.

Depending on which flavor you get, Pilots sell for between $300 and $400. They allow you to schedule appointments, keep an address list, and search for any string of text - all at the touch of a button. The snazzier, more expensive version even lets you read and send e-mail when you connect it to your personal computer.

With all these flashy features, it's no wonder why almost everyone on campus seems to have a Pilot. I recently witnessed a bizarre situation in which, after one student pulled out his Pilot, four others followed suit, as though it were a natural reflex. After discovering that they were part of the ever-growing Pilot user community, they proceeded to discuss all the different programs that they've downloaded off the Web and "hot-synced" - as the initiated say - into their Pilots.

I've seen this sort of discussion happen several times, but with a number of different topics of discussion, from how much memory each person has in his respective Pilot to the latest accessories on the market to chic leather cases to spiffy screen protectors.

If all this weren't bad enough, most of my friends have Pilots, and even my adviser has a one. With all the Pilots I've seen so far, it may well be that there are more of these nifty gray gadgets at MIT than there are Athena workstations. In fact, even the MIT Coop is even selling Pilots in their new fall lineup of products, prominently displayed in a glass case right next to the HP48GX and TI-85 graphing calculators, which used to be the really cool items to have around MIT until the Pilot came along.

Is the Pilot really that much better than the traditional pen and paper organizers, and does it justify that extra $400 expense? Pilot users will always answer with a resounding "Yes!" But when you ask them why, you'll get a different answer from every user.

One Pilot user told me that his Pilot eliminated his need to carry - and lose - little scraps of paper that he would use to write down phone numbers. That was a problem he constantly faced when he carried his Dayrunner organizer. Another user professed that the Pilot "Indiglo" feature, which backlights the Pilot's screen, allowed him to schedule appointments in the dark - something, of course, he couldn't do with his old paper organizer. A third user even claimed that he could write and evaluate Scheme programs on his Pilot. He dared me to try doing that on a Dayrunner.

I admit that I, too, have fallen prey to the Pilot craze that seems to be taking over MIT. I purchased one

My dusty Dayrunner would probably suffice, and it would keep me as equally, if not better, organized than my Pilot. Most people who have Pilots would probably secretly agree with me about this. After all, it takes significantly more time to enter an appointment on a Pilot using pen-based handwriting recognition interface than just simply writing it down in a Dayrunner. (Why anyone would want - or need - to schedule appointments in the dark or interpret Scheme on the go is beyond me.)

It is, however, those same reasons that explain the long lines that zigged around corners outside computer stores when Microsoft Windows 95 came out over two years ago. U.S. Robotics is finding that it can't stock stores fast enough to keep up with the demand for Pilots. And I found myself visiting several stores before I forked over $418.50 to buy a Pilot.

Whenever casual observers ask me why I bought one, I'll always pull mine out and show them the nifty e-mail feature and the cool image of the MIT campus map I have stored electronically. I conveniently forget to mention that it really doesn't increase my productivity or make me any more efficient.

After all, I think everyone should have this overpriced toy. That way, I'll have plenty of people who will agree with me when I tell them that my Pilot was worth every penny of my $418.50 simply because it can defeat me in a game of chess. Betcha your Dayrunner can't do that.

Wesley Chan is a member of the Class of 2000