A Novel Approach

So there have been a lot of approaches to this whole smartphone/tablet combo, and I struggle to see how any of them are truly good approaches to something that really isn’t a problem to begin with, and, truth be told, some of them seem actually harmful to the future of the PC that we’re currently headed toward.

The recent release of the Asus Padfone thing is just insane, like a tablet “turducken.”

For some reason, tablet manufacturers keep insisting that the tablet experience is hamstrung on its own, and continuously mandate the use of some sort of phone in order to complete the experience, or even use the device at all. Before anyone jumps on me for that sentence, I know that two of those examples aren’t even tablets, but take that in the spirit of the statement.

Companies designing these personal, productivity-driven devices that are reliant on smartphones are saying several things simultaneously. “You can do more!”, “You don’t have to manage the data on two devices separately!”, “You have more flexibility!” etc. What is really happening, however, is the cheapening of these devices and damage to the overall industry. Let’s take the Palm Foleo, the first of its kind and arguably the predecessor to the netbook. This device was “revealed” in an era when people got their data connections by tethering their devices to bluetooth-capable phones, so it made sense for the Foleo to then suck data out of its tethered Treo. Kudos to Palm for attempting to creating a great ecosystem, too. I applaud that. I think it was too revolutionary at the time, however, which led to its ultimate failure. (Side note: At the time, I was using a Nokia N800 paired with a Sony-Ericsson K790a (James Bond, FTW!). I loved both of these devices, but I kept thinking “I’d like to be able to use this tablet if I ever forget my phone,” and “I wish this phone was more capable at general ‘computing’ tasks so I can still use it if I ever forget my tablet.” Then I got an iPhone. At no point, however, did I think that the phone should be my gateway to the Internet for another device. It stood on its own and was perfectly functional.).

Currently, however, having this sort of dependence tells the consumer that

  1. Their device is not capable of real work (which is a lie).
  2. Their larger laptop/tablet is no more than a large phone (which is also a lie).
  3. The two devices are explicitly codependent.

This is really bad! It further solidifies the view that phones are “just” phones, and that tablets are “just” big phones. I have taken notes, written papers, and read books on my iPhone. The fact of the matter is that this device is powerful and capable of producing real work that I have gotten graded, real research that I have used to write papers and blog posts, and real communication with people oceans away. The reason that I have an iPad and an iPhone is because I want two separate devices, not some crazy Frankenstein monster of a device. There are times that I need to work on just one device, and, let’s face it, sometimes we just forget one at home. The key isn’t creating a physical bridge between the two that mandates the existence of one in order for the other to be used, it’s creating an invisible backbone that allows these devices to share information invisibly, so that the user can put one down,pick the other up, and resume working exactly where he or she left off. There have been hopes of iOS “state” cloud syncing for a little while, and this truly where this needs to go.

We don’t need devices that are tethered together using wires and plugs, we need devices and services that are smart enough to get out of the way and let our intention take center stage.

Update: Corrected spelling of “Padfone.”

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Singing in the Rain

When the MacBook Air came out last year with its super-sexy new design and blazing fast SSD, I knew I was in trouble. It’s hard for me to resist the siren call of a new Apple product, but it’s even harder when the thing looks and performs as well as that li’l guy. I was even looking to upgrade my Mac Mini, and saw that as the perfect opportunity to dive into something portable. Since that day, I’ve had to fight off the urge to buy one nearly every single day.

Then I realize that I have an amazing iPad 2, and I the conversation with myself ends. I don’t need a laptop, I already have an incredible machine. Sure, there are shortcomings, and there are certain incompatibilities here and there that make it difficult and/or frustrating, but by and large the experience is incredible, and very freeing. I have something with me at all times that I can use for *gasp* serious work (almost every blog post I’ve ever written has been with the help of an iPad, and all of my Grad school papers come from this tiny beast) as well as having fun and playing games. Truth be told, this is the best computer I’ve ever owned, and the reason is baked into the OS.

What a glorious feeling!

A while back, I went to the Apple store to ask some questions to the friendly folks there about the MacBook Air, to see if I should choose that over the Mac Mini. I came away with this realization: if you already have an iPad, skip the MacBook Air, and if you already have a MacBook Air, skip the iPad. They’re pretty close in form and function, anyway (despite one being a “laptop” and one being a tablet). The reason I say that is because of the use-case. People buy a MacBook Air because they need a computer that is:

  1. Portable
  2. Fast
  3. Long-lasting
  4. Simple
  5. With a full keyboard

The MacBook Air is that machine, among other things. So is the iPad, however, and I’ve found that the pseudo-multitasking of the iPad is far more preferable to me when I’m working because I know that the apps won’t crash, won’t interfere with anything else, and won’t start to bog down. The’re lean, simple, and engage me physically, why I need when I’m writing. The MacBook Air is essentially redundant…except that it runs the full MacOS, instead of iOS. This seems great, until you start trying to manage multiple media libraries, apps, save files, etc. Then it gets to be more of a pain to work with MacOS than an iOS device. But wait…the new version of MacOS, Lion, looks and behaves a LOT like iOS, doesn’t it? I mean…Apple expressly talked about the similarities in their “Back to the Mac” event. So then there’s this:

Most people had dismissed that rumor due to the compatibility issues that would be introduced with such a transition. Another major issue is that while ARM processors are more power efficient, they presently offer significantly lower performance than their Intel counterparts.

Sure, an ARM-based A5 wouldn’t make sense running MacOS…but what about iOS? Let’s even blow it up a bit and look further down the road a year or two. Let’s focus on a time in the not-too-distant future when iOS and MacOS start to merge, when the distinctions between the various Apple OSs start to become blurry. Then, ARM chips would make sense. They sip power, and (currently) iOS sings on those chips. It’s built for exactly that type of chipset. The two work in perfect synergy, and you can bet that Apple is spending a lot of time making sure that, when it’s time to make that jump, that they’ve gotten the whole machine tuned and tweaked so the transition is beautiful. If you look at it that way, it makes a whole lot more sense to be using ARM-based chips for your supermodel MacBook Air, while the MacBook Pros would still run Intel chips due to their more “Pro” nature. I’m willing to be dollars to donuts that most people are going to start shifting away from MacOS “Classic” and will absolutely love the new look and feel of Lion. Who knows, maybe the Mac OS “Classic” look and feel will persist, while everything else will run some new version of iOS that is fully scalable across any hardware, much like HP is planning to do with their new version of WebOS.

There’s also this little nugget:

Although not mentioned in the most recent rumor, one of the largest features may be over-the-air updates that would finally make iOS independent of a computer for all but backup and local media syncing.

So…like a “real” computer? Can you see it? Can you see how the walls are disintegrating? The distinction between a “mobile” OS and a “desktop” OS is not as clear now, and I think the lines will continue to blur.
And this, too:

Talk of Apple using Nuance voice commands in iOS was already supported recently by code mentions in Lion. Most also presume that Apple’s cloud music service may play an integral role in the new mobile software.

So we can infer here that iOS and Lion are very closely related (doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out, Apple said so), but that they share code is telling of Apple’s long-term strategy, and the strategies of several major players out there (Google, Microsoft, natch).

The jump from what we see in our hands and on our laps and desks and what we will be seeing over the next few years will be immense, and will change what every single person recognizes as a computer.

Mind the gap.


Two for Two

Nice job, Apple.Anyone out there have an iPad 2? Anyone out there experience a failure with their SIM card? About a week ago, I started noticing my internet connection spontaneously resetting while I was using 3G data. Soon enough, the spontaneous resetting became full-blown network dropout, followed by the iPad telling me “No SIM Installed.” Funny, because there most certainly was.

Being understanding of these types of things, I tried lots of things. I put a piece of tape on the back, cut to size, in the hopes that perhaps that might make the fit a little more snug. No luck there. I did the old Nintendo blow-in-the-slot trick (no heckling, please). No dice there, either. I’d have to manually eject the SIM card tray and push it back in every single time, which became quite annoying when the thing couldn’t hold on to a signal longer than a few minutes.

Finally, I took it into an Apple store to have it looked at. A really nice guy helped me out, but seemed to think that, at least initially, the failure was caused by a faulty SIM tray, and that replacing the SIM tray would fix it right up.

For those who don’t know, the iPhone and iPad 2 (and some other phones, as well), have a SIM card tray that slides into and out of the phone instead of an integrated slot buried somewhere under the battery. This allows the entire design to be more or less seamless, while still allowing the owner to swap SIM cards in and out, if necessary. It has very little to do with the phone spontaneously being unable to recognize the presence of a SIM card. If the tray were broken or out of alignment, sure. But the idea that swapping the tray out for a new, identical one is just silly.

Needless to say, the Apple Genius realized that the swap wouldn’t work, and was advised to replace the whole shebang. I picked up the new one yesterday, synced the bad boy up, and it’s been working flawlessly. This swap also had the neat fringe benefit of getting me an iPad 2 with a much better screen that didn’t leak light. My first one did, and, although it wasn’t a big deal, when you buy an Apple product, you want it to look and work like a million bucks. They usually do, but it looks like the first iPad 2 I got wasn’t quite ready for prime time. This one, however, is fantastic.

I think the whole process went incredibly smoothly, and I’m really happy that the Genius Bar folks were able to acknowledge that there was indeed a problem that needed fixing.

My girlfriend also had a problem with her MacBook Pro, namely, her hard drive came down with a slight case of death. Anyone who’s ever had a laptop that I know of has, at some point in time, experienced a catastrophic and total hard drive failure. This is essentially a standard part of owning a laptop. She had the foresight to purchase AppleCare when she got the laptop, so the Genius Bar folks took it in, replaced the hard drive, and got it back to her the next day. If this isn’t awesome customer service, I don’t know what is. Since she also had her data backed up with the awesome BackBlaze, she didn’t skip a beat. A day of inconvenience (if you can really call it that), and she’s back in action.

Moral of the story: AppleCare is a necessary part of owning an Apple computer (sorry, it just is), and always always always back up your data. Twice, if possible.


Where’s the Beef?

What a turd of an iOS app.

Skype software update tackles startup crashes.

It’s been ages since I abandoned the Skype app on my iPhone for any sort of serious communication. The push notifications are totally bogus, and their ability to actually handle an incoming call is pathetic. Not to mention this little thing called the iPad 2 with a front-facing camera that they seem to have ignored.

Now that Microsoft has purchased them, I hope there’s some sort of renewed interest in the iOS app. Otherwise, stay away from this one and go with the much better TextFree for making calls and/or Tango for video chat.


The Cap’s the Limit

Aren't these gentlemen just the dapperest?

There was a recent incident over the border with our friends in the north regarding internet usage and the billing thereof. Those silly Canucks thought it would be appropriate to put ridiculous data caps (50 GB? seriously?) in place to make sure their customers were doing anything cRaZy, like using the internet they paid for. No, silly person! You can’t watch streaming video on the internet or rent movies from online providers! That’s silly! You need to drive out to a video rental store and take home a physical disc so you can watch it in your deeveedee player. What’s that you say? All the video stores are shutting down because all of these super awesome streaming movie companies are putting them out of business? Pish posh. Less talking, more driving to video stores. They don’t have what you want? Just rent something anyway. Rent it. Just shut up and rent something.

Ahem.

Before I get too carried away, this is what I’m referring to:

Canadian cable provider Shaw hit back at mounting complaints of restrictive bandwidth caps by unveiling a new set of Internet plans with much looser caps and increased speeds.

The whole thing is ridiculous, and honestly degrading to consumers in general. There is no need to be imposing these types of restrictions on the average consumer. If there’s a problem with a few users eating up hundreds upon hundreds of gigs of data each month, then address the issue with them. Otherwise, putting data caps in place, even large ones, as listed below, is asinine.

Starting June 7, capped plans will start with at least 400GB of data per month at 50Mbps down, 3Mbps up at $59 per month for those with a Legacy TV package, moving up to 100Mbps down, 5Mbps up and 750GB of data for $79 per month.

A second phase in August will add a 250Mbps download, 15Mbps upload plan with a 1TB cap for $99.Both phases will have genuine unlimited plans. In the first phase, a 100/5 unlimited plan will be available for $119 on top of the TV plan. From August onwards, this plan will be replaced by a 250/15 version for the same price. Existing 1Mbps, 7.5Mbps, and 25Mbps plans are getting an immediate boost from 15GB, 60GB, and 100GB caps to 30GB, 125GB, and 250GB respectively.

It sounds all fine and good, right? To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever hit anywhere near that amount of data in all the time I’ve been using the internet, so I’m not complaining about the size of those limits, I’m complaining about the idea that caps need to be instituted on a large-scale basis. It’s condescending and hostile towards consumers. The article then taps into the ongoing discussion going on in the United States right now:

Internet providers in North America have regularly tried to claim that the rapid growth in online video has raised the costs of maintaining their networks and that they allegedly need to institute low caps to keep these costs check. Critics, including smaller providers and advocacy groups, have shown evidence the claims are often false since the cost of bandwidth has often gone down. They have at times accused companies like Bell and Rogers of using low caps to either delay network upgrades or to discourage competition from nimbler rivals to traditional TV, such as iTunes and Netflix.

The fact of the matter is, Internet usage is increasing, and telecommunications companies are shaking in their boots because their fat paychecks are going to start dwindling. I’m all for making money, but not when it comes at the expense of customer satisfaction. The trend here is, as I said before, hostile. No company should treat its customers like they’re harming its business. Your customers are the reason that you’re here to begin with, and don’t you dare try to justify your actions by pointing the finger at innovation and progress.


Getting It Done

DONE AND DONE

Anyone who knows me understands that my mind is mush of things I haven’t done, things that I’m about to do, and things that I’m just not gonna do. Somewhere in there, somehow, I manage to get some stuff done. I know, it’s a mystery to me, too.

That being said, there are a ton of apps out there that are designed to help keep your life on track and relatively ordered (not that anything can order the desolate wasteland that is my mind, but it’s always worth a shot). Some of these apps are stellar, and some aren’t. I’ve used a couple of these apps in the past, but they’ve always fallen just a little short of my expectations and/or usage case because they’re all lacking some specific feature or service integration and just don’t measure up to my expectations. Again, because my mind seems to take all incoming information and immediately smash into a million tiny fragments, I have to intercept stuff and put it in some form that is manageable and understandable later on before I lose it. For instance: If I need to write a letter to someone, I cannot simply create a “To-do” item or task labeled “Write a letter to Bob.” Later that day, or even five minutes later, I might look at that to-do and wonder why I’m writing a letter to Bob. I’ll see no clear purpose for writing the letter, so I’ll just delete the “to-do” or task and move on with my day (which usually involves looking up pictures of koalas or pandas or pallas cats.

You see the dilemma.

I need to spell everything out for my future koala/panda/pallas cat-drunk self, or else I’ll forget it lickety-split. I also need all this information to be ubiquitous so that I can’t possibly miss it, meaning that it has to sync with everything I could possibly need it to sync with. If it could sync with my coffee mug or shaving soap dish, believe me I’d be in 100%.

There were two main candidates to this process that I found and have been using for a little while. The first was an app called BusyToDo, made by the guys who make BusyCal. The latter has received high marks for its integration with iCal on the Mac. I never use iCal on my Mac, so I wouldn’t care about that. I mean, it’s there, but it’s not important to me, because it’s basically just a way to get stuff into the cloud. The BusyToDo app, however, is for iOS, which I use only all the time constantly always, so that’s gotta be stellar. Sadly, it’s good, but it’s not super awesome. The killer feature of this guy is that it syncs as you make changes, which means that startup and shutdown times for the app are essentially nonexistent. They make the whole thing really fast, but the app itself is really simple. Make a task, maybe add a note to it, but that’s about it. I haven’t yet discovered a way to make this app work for me. Sure, you can schedule repeating tasks, but I’ve never been one for these “repeating” tasks, because if it’s something I do every day, I’m not gonna friggin’ take time out of my day to check a box, AMIRIGHT? Don’t care about that. I had high hopes for this app when it was only for iPhone, since I thought that an iPad version would be awesome. It’s sorta meh. Not bad, not great. Gets the job done for ten bucks, if you wanna drop that on a so-so app.

I dropped a fiver back when it cost a penny less than that, so I’m not too disappointed, and I got good use out of it. Maybe I’ve got a healthy dose of OCD or some other crazy disorder, or maybe I’m a little bit autistic (everyone seems to be somewhere on that spectrum, these days), but I have this crazy obsession with tagging just about everything I do to give it some sort of context. As such, I’ve found that there’s another stellar app out there that needs mentioning: 2do.

Oh man. Awesome. I’m expecting to drop $15 on this bad boy, but no, the app itself was $7, with another $3 for the ability to sync with MobileMe, for all of $10. Lemme tell you folks, this is the real deal. I can create lists, projects, tag each to-do I create with places, people, things, add notes, audio, pictures…this thing does it all. For people with dysfunctional short-term memories (uh…guilty), this app is a life-saver. I know I have stuff going on, and this app pulls it all together beautifully in an interface that feels really great to use. It’s a top-shelf app with top-shelf features and at a middle-shelf price. If you’re looking for a rawsome to-do app that syncs with the cloud, you need to get this app NOW.

Although it syncs across devices through the MobileMe service (which is awesome), there are limitations. Sure, there are notifications that pop up, but they’re local notifications, not technically push. So yeah, you’re getting popups on your li’l screen there, but they’re coming from 2do. Normally, not an issue, but since this is a universal app, it means that if I add a notification on my iPad, I have to make sure I open 2do on my iPhone so it picks up all the changes (and vice versa), otherwise I may not get the memo I left for myself. This is also partly Apple’s fault. They have notifications enabled for calendar events that push to your iOS devices, but not for tasks (yet). I’ve been hoping that they add native support for tasks for a long time, so maybe iOS 5 will surprise me nicely with that.

That being said, I still love the app. I think Apple will get their act together and update MobileMe to support task notifications, which will add even more to the functionality of this app. Even if Apple does work their magic and updates MobileMe, it will be really, really hard to compete with 2do. It’s just that good. I highly recommend it, and I think you should give it a try to see how much it’ll do for your life.


The Target Demographic

One of the things that blows my mind about publishing, apps, etc. is the inability of most developers and/or app reviewers to actually get the target demographic and review said app from that perspective. It’s mind-boggling, really. It’s like all the different flavors of dog food at the store. We look at the “gourmet chicken and rice” that we’re holding in our left hand, and then turn our heads ever so slightly to the right to look at the “savory lamb and herb” in our right and decide either a) the gourmet chicken and rice is better because that sounds healthier, or b) the lamb is better because hot damn I love lamb. The dog? The dog doesn’t give a hoot.

As such, apps for kids are sparse because they’re designed for the people who are buying them- the parents. Kids aren’t buying apps, so the developers want to make apps that parents can look at and say “Wow this is really nice.”

Then there’s this app, which says to parents: “You really have no idea what your kids want,” and then it gives kids something fun to do with just enough silliness to keep them interested. Bravo.

TechCrunch’s take:

So how on Earth is this a product, let alone a real product, and a tech product? Because the founders seem to understand how kids think.

And:

Everything Butt Art is a children’s educational book and app that teaches step-by-step drawing. That’s where the crazy name comes in: every drawing begins with the kid drawing the shape of a butt.

Good stuff all around. Well done, EBA.