Use File Link to share corporate files with Palm users

Do you have corporate data, like a phone book, that changes often? If you do, and if you support users with Palm PDAs, read this Daily Drill Down. In it, Michael Jackman explains File Link, a great tool that keeps users' data up to date.

While a basic HotSync lets you synchronize handheld data with your desktop, another option lets you sync a file that all users in an enterprise can share. This option is called File Link, and it first became available with Palm desktop version 3.0. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll show you how to set up a File Link and offer some possible uses for the utility.

Get the latest desktop and OS
To use File Link, you’ll want to have the latest Palm Desktop and HotSync manager. As of this writing, the latest desktop is version 4.0, and the latest HotSync manager is version 3.1.1. You can download them directly from Palm. While you’re upgrading, you might as well get the latest Palm OS, version 3.5. The new OS contains many improvements, such as Autofill for your Address Book and the ability to beam an entire category. You can download OS version 3.5 here.

File Link overview
You can use File Link to load data from a shared file into your Address Book or Memo Pad. This makes File Link ideal for sharing periodically changing data with all PDA users. An example of such varying data would be your company’s phone list. During setup, you get to choose how often to schedule a File Link—whenever the file is modified, for example, or perhaps weekly. When you create a File Link, you’ll also create a custom category under which these records will appear on the PDA. Linked files can be located on your network, provided the client machine has permission to access them.

Preparing the linked file is easy. Palm applications, being databases, use a record and field structure. Therefore, for syncing data into your Address Book, you can set up the data in a spreadsheet program and save it as a comma separated value (.csv) file for File Link to use. (The file will separate each field in a record with a comma and each record with a line break.) Use a text file (.txt) for placing data into Memo Pad.
Documentation for File Linking on Palm’s Web site will inform you that you can use a tab separated value (.tsv) file for a File Link. This information is wrong. The File Link option only allows .csv files to be used. The one place where .tsv files are allowed is in the Palm Desktop Import feature. While you can import a tab-delimited file into your Desktop’s Address book, you cannot set up a permanent File Link with that format. This is an odd choice, and a shame, since .tsv files allow you to deal with situations where individual fields have data that includes a comma, such as a certification following someone’s last name. I hope Palm corrects this in future releases.
In addition to .csv, .tsv, and .txt formats, File Link also recognizes the Address Book Archive (.aba) and Memo Pad Archive (.mpa) formats. For situations where your standard form, such as a phone book in an Excel spreadsheet, differs in structure from the Address Book, you can create a template to map data from its fields to equivalent Address Book fields.

Preparing a phone list to link to Address Book
In this example, I’ll show you how to create a small Excel phone list that corresponds to the Address Book record structure. After you create your phone book, I’ll show you how to save it as a .csv, in case you’re unfamiliar with the process. If you prefer, you can create the files using any word processor or text editor.

Address Book record structure
In order to create a phone list compatible with Address Book, you’ll need to know the fields to use. I’ve presented this information in Table 1.

Palm Address Book record structure
Field Description
1 Last Name
2 First Name
3 Title
4 Company
5 Work phone
6 Home phone
7 Fax
8 Other
9 E-mail
10 Address
11 City
12 State
13 Zip code
14 Country
15 Custom 1
16 Custom 2
17 Custom 3
18 Custom 4
19 Notes
20 Private
Table 1

As you can see, the field definitions are straightforward. In case you aren’t familiar with custom fields (fields 15-18), they work as follows: Users can set the value of these fields by choosing Options | Rename Custom Fields from the Address Book menu. This can be done either using the Palm Desktop or on the PDA itself. You can’t name these fields yourself using File Link, however.

As for the remaining fields, entries in field 19 will show up in the Address Book as Notes. Field 20 determines whether or not that Address Book entry shows as a private record, which requires that the user enter his or her password to view it. Values for field 20 are 0 for a nonprivate record and 1 for a private record. Fields 19 and 20 can be left out—Address Book will simply default to no note, public record.

Setting up a spreadsheet
Once you know the Address Book record structure, it isn’t complicated to set up a spreadsheet phone list. For your reference, use the descriptions for column headings, one per column, and then type in the data. I’ve shown a sample listing in Figure A.

Figure A
Use a spreadsheet program to create records you’ll link to your users’ Address Books.

When you’re finished creating your spreadsheet, save it, as usual, as an Excel file (.xls). This is the file you’ll use to make your changes.

What about commas within fields?
As you can see, Figure A contains several fields with commas. For example, I entered my last name as “Jackman, A+.” You may be wondering whether having commas within fields messes up your record structure when a comma is the character used to separate fields. The answer, at least in Excel, is no. When you save as a .csv file, Excel is smart enough to add quotes around each field containing commas. In that way, these commas are viewed as part of the field and not as field separators. For example, my entry in a .csv file will read as follows:
"Jackman, A+",Michael,
"Track Editor, Windows Client,
"9900 Corporate Campus Drive,
St 1500",Louisville,KY,40223,USA,,,,,
This is a note,0

Saving your .csv file
Most spreadsheets will save .csv files in a manner similar to Microsoft Excel. If not, consult your documentation. First, you’ll want to remove your column headings. Otherwise, they’ll show up in your users’ Address Books as an entry. Delete the header row by clicking the Row 1 box to select the entire row. With the header row highlighted, choose Edit | Delete from the menu.

Now you’re ready to save your phone list as a .csv file.
  • Choose File | Save As from the Excel menu bar.
  • From the Save As drop-down list, choose CSV (Comma Delimited) (*.csv).
  • If you want to change the file name, do so in the File Name text box.
  • Navigate to a folder your users have permission to access and click Save.

When you save a .csv file in Excel, you’ll receive the following two warnings:
  • The Selected File Type Does Not Support Workbooks That Contain Multiple Sheets

  • Click OK to save the active worksheet.
  • FILENAME.csv May Contain Features That Are Not Compatible With CSV (Comma Delimited)

  • Click Yes to save your file.

    Creating a .csv file using a text editor
    Although this is a tedious way to prepare an Address Book entry, it is possible to create a .csv file using a text editor such as Notepad. At the very least, entering one record will give you an idea of how .csv files are structured. (And it will create an appreciation for spreadsheet programs!) Below is the record for TechRepublic. It appears as a text string where some text is separated by commas. There are no spaces between, before, or after commas.
    "9900 Corporate Campus Drive, St 1500",

    You’ll notice that three commas precede TechRepublic. These commas mark three empty fields: Last Name, First Name, and Title. When you create a .csv manually, it’s vital that you don’t skip any fields. If you do, entries will appear in the wrong place. Notice, as mentioned above, that any fields containing commas are surrounded by quotes. Make sure these quotes surround the text only, and not the field delimiters. Finally, notice the very last field entry, “1.” This marks TechRepublic as a private record. A “0” would cause it to be nonprivate.

    Setting up a File Link
    Once you’ve saved the .csv file, your users can create a File Link to it. This can be done from the Palm Desktop by choosing HotSync | File Link from the menu bar or by right-clicking the HotSync icon in the Taskbar and selecting File Link. The File Link wizard begins. Make your selections on the following screens:
    • File Link: From the drop-down list, Set Up A Link For, choose the Palm user who will use this File Link. Select the radio button Create A New Link. (You have one other choice that will be useful in the future, Modify Or Remove An Existing Link.) Click Next.
    • Create A New Link: On this screen, you have three choices. First, select the application, either Address Book or Memo Pad, to which you will link. Second, click the Browse button to select the .csv file that has the data you want to share. Third, enter a Category Name in which this data will be displayed. For example, I used the category TR Phonebook (see Figure B). Click Next.

    Figure B
    Set up your new File Link by selecting your Palm application, a linked .csv file, and a category.

  • Specify Import Fields: On this screen, you can scan records to see if they have been correctly set up (see Figure C). Although there are other options available, such as deselecting fields and changing the field order, I don’t recommend using them for this operation. Remember, the purpose of File Linking is to make it easy for users to share files. If there is an error with your .csv file, correct it before continuing. Click OK to continue.

  • Figure C
    Using the Specify Import Fields window, you can tell if you have correctly set up your .csv file.

    • Confirm Your Link Settings: This screen shows a summary of your selections. If you need to make any changes, click the Back button. Otherwise, click the Update Frequency button to schedule your File Link.
    • Update Frequency: A variety of choices helps you set up the best schedule and reduce traffic on your LAN. Your data can be Automatically Updated Whenever The External File Is Modified, Updated Once A Day, Updated Once A Week, or Updated Once A Month. You can also Force An Update On The Next HotSync Operation or Disable The Link Temporarily But Maintain The Settings (see Figure D). When you’ve selected your update frequency, click OK, then click Done to exit the File Link wizard.

    Figure D
    Choose the best scheduling option for your File Link.

    The next time you HotSync your Palm, the new category and all its data will be added. From then on, the data will be maintained as you update the shared .cvs file.

    Setting up Memo Pad file links
    Setting up a File Link to the Memo Pad application is not significantly different from linking to the Address Book. The chief difference is that you will create a .txt file for each memo to be linked to. Keep in mind that Palm memos have a limit of 4,096 characters, including spaces and punctuation. Oddly, if your .txt file is larger than that, it won’t be truncated. Rather, each 4,096-character chunk will be stored as a separate memo. Each memo will add a header containing a number and a date and time stamp. For instance, a rather large text file I linked to, called Understanding VPN, was divided as follows:
    Underst1 03/05/2001 04:12:40 PM
    Underst2 03/05/2001 04:12:40 PM
    Underst3 03/05/2001 04:12:40 PM
    Underst4 03/05/2001 04:12:40 PM

    File Link troubleshooting
    As you can imagine, you have to watch out for a few glitches with File Link settings. Most of these glitches have to do with changes end users make. For example, if a user deletes the special category used by File Link from his or her Palm Desktop or PDA, all those records will be moved to the category Unfiled. In addition, the File Link using that category will be deleted for that user. The user will have to set it up again.

    Another glitch can occur when users modify the data themselves. Because there are no read-only settings for linked data, users can modify these Address Book and Memo Pad entries. As a consequence, the next time a HotSync incorporates changed records from the linked file, the user will end up with duplicate entries for each record he or she modified. Fortunately, the original linked file is never altered.

    Because their actions can detrimentally affect their linked data, users should be made aware that they should not modify records or categories from linked files. Perhaps in the future, Palm will address this issue with a read-only field.

    Other uses for Address Book entries
    If you think of the Address Book not as a single-purpose application but as a database with 18 fields and a free-form note field, then all sorts of possibilities emerge, limited only by your imagination. For example, you could create a data file where each record was a frequently encountered support issue. Another use for the Address Book might be a list of IP addresses; each record being part of the LAN. When I worked for the Courier-Journal newspaper, I used the Address Book to list all sorts of much-needed help information regarding their Atex production system. For example, I had one record for Atex commands, another for the queues I needed for retrieving my stories, another for using the digital library, and another with the computers and folders I needed to browse for graphics, stories, files, and programs. The chief advantages to using the Address Book for this type of data storage rather than the Memo Pad are the Address Book’s nicely organized display and better font choices.

    A note about the Note field
    Using the Note field in Address Book wouldn’t be practical if the entry consisted of one long paragraph of text. When you enter data into the Note field in Excel, you can add a line break by holding down the [Alt] key and pressing [Enter]. Because the entire note will be enclosed in quotes in the .csv file, your line breaks won’t signal a new record and thereby mess up your data structure. Even using quotes within your note won’t cause a problem by signaling a new field. Excel automatically uses double quotes for quotes within a field, the way a .csv file handles those situations.

    The File Link feature, introduced in Palm Desktop version 3.0, is a practical way to share essential, often-changing corporate data with many Palm users. When the data is updated, all users with a File Link will receive the update. Uses for this feature extend beyond Address Book and Memo Pad entries, and are limited only by your imagination. Informing your end users about a few possible glitches will help you avoid annoying problems.
    If you’re interested in using PDAs, read these other TechProGuild features:The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.