The Apple Nexus

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I’ve reading a great deal in the past few months about all of the new Nexus phones that have been coming out recently, reviews by people who have used iPhones and tried to switch but failed, reviews by people who are avid Android users who love them, and most people who are somewhere in between. I’ve heard arguments as to why certain operating systems have more future, certain phones are objectively better, and really just stand somewhere in the middle, looking at all of this with a little bit of a quizzical look on my face. I’m not trying to take sides here, but I believe that Apple’s position in this market is much better because of one main reason: NFC.

While it’s true that Google’s Nexus phones have had NFC built-in for some time, it has been clear that the feature has been little more than a bullet point in a presentation in order to build some buzz and give Android pundits something to hold over Apple’s head. I thought the inclusion of NFC in the first round of Nexus phones to be half-baked, mostly because I looked around at the places I visited every single day and saw literally nothing that used NFC in a way that was available for public interaction. The only usage for NFC that I’ve seen implemented anywhere was in the TouchPad. We all know how that went.

The key here is this.

If users wave a NFC-equipped iPhone at a NFC Mac (they need to be in close proximity to interact), the Mac will load all their applications, settings and data. It will be as though they are sitting at their own machine at home or work. When the user leaves, and the NFC-equipped iPhone is out of range, the host machine returns to its previous state.

This is huge, and with Bluetooth coming back in a big (or perhaps little, as in low-power) way, this may be even more effective.

“The usual idea is that you would use NFC to set up the link between the two devices and then do an automatic hand over to a different protocol for doing the actual transfer of data – eg Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, TransferJet etc – and that’s what I imagine would be happening here,” she said.

The above coming from Analyst Sarah Clark of SJB Research.

This idea still has so much potential. As Steve Jobs said when he unveiled iCloud, Apple is demoting the computer to just another device, one that accesses your data in its servers in North Carolina somewhere. With the computer being just a gateway to your computing state anywhere, any device can also theoretically access this saved state and allow the user to resume their previous session wherever they are.

Let’s also look at another piece to the puzzle: Apple TV. We don’t know what Apple is planning for this theoretical Apple TV later this year, but let’s take a look at the Apple TV in its current incarnation, the tiny little black box that, quite frankly, is a little Wünderdevice.

For starters, you can now do this. I think that’s a pretty big deal. So the Apple TV, in its current state, can run iOS apps. It can access iCloud. It can play music and movies, and also allows a compatible device to mirror its display through a Wi-Fi connection. Let’s talk about that for a moment, as well.

If you haven’t already, check out Gameloft’s Modern Combat 3. It’s basically a Modern Warfare clone, but it has one killer feature: the ability to mirror the game on an Apple TV, which turns the iOS device you’re holding into a controller and puts the game on the big screen. I tried this on my iPad and was amazed with the results. This is truly something that game developers need to be looking at, but it’s also something that regular developers need to be looking at, as well. Think about it–if a device that is mirroring its display output to an Apple TV can display different content on the device than on the TV, a word processing app could essentially turn the tablet into a wireless keyboard, while the main workspace is displayed on the TV. The iPad or iPhone (or both!) could display a suite of controls or “function” keys, or function as pointing devices, or really anything that you can think of. The idea of a “technology appliance” holds even more water here, since these devices can be used synergistically to create an effect that one device on its own is technically capable of, but is better when spread out among several devices. Look at Keynote, for instance. With an iPad and iPhone, a person can run an entire professional presentation with no bulky equipment and a minimum of technical prowess.

In the context of the aforementioned connection to an Apple TV, this capability becomes even more important, since it allows the TV to function like a traditional “desktop”, but without the bulk of wiring, an extra device to draw power, and connections to set up. NFC handles everything, and the bulk of the transfer can then take place over Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or some other protocol that is standard in Apple devices.

And this, my friends, is why Apple is positioned so much more powerfully in this market than any Android device manufacturer. While other manufacturers will essentially be playing catch up with all of this anyway, they will also have to contend with consumers who will be presented with each manufacturer’s take on this idea. Where Samsung may offer one type of connectivity, Asus may not, since it doesn’t have a TV of its own, but LG might. The consumer will stand in front of his TV and scratch his head wondering why his Motorola Xoom isn’t connecting to his Samsung TV, while his neighbor with an iPad and Apple TV is able to transition from room to room in his house without missing a beat.

The aftermath of this whole shebang would be the equivalent of a Destruction Derby, with all of these companies vying for the consumer dollar, blowing themselves to bits and waging a war of attrition while Apple’s devices still lead the way due to their simplicity and interoperability. The next thing that will happen is that these other manufacturers will start listing even more specs on their TVs, things like gigs of ram, processor speeds, and core counts. The consumer will look at all this and once again scratch his or her head in confusion. The Apple TV will say something like “Best-in-Class Picture Quality, Siri, and [catchy Apple-fied name for NFC connections]. Say Hello to Apple TV.”

It’ll sell like gangbusters, and we’re all going to want one. Of course we will, it’s going to represent the future of computing. Can we even call it that anymore? No, not really, it doesn’t feel right, and in this one (admittedly long-shot) future, “computing” isn’t a thing. You just pick what you want or need to do, and you use well-designed, simple hardware to do it.

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The Revolution Will Be…Worn?

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Looking at the state of mobile technology today, it’s clear that the tablet form factor is the flavor of the week. A decade ago, however, the future of mobility looked a lot less like a clipboard and a lot more like a wristwatch.

For years, people were focused on wearing their computers. What is a thin, rectangular window to endless content now was a wrist-mounted portal to information then. The problem that designers always ended up getting stuck on, however, was the interface.

Designers tried to tackle this in a wearable computer concept, but the end result is still a mashup of the ideas of the last few decades and the fancy swirly graphics of today. The input method in the aforementioned concept (a swing-out keyboard? really?) is kludgy, at best, and the whole thing looks, well…huge. Would anyone actually wear that? No, no they wouldn’t because that sort of thing is a fashion nightmare.

Then there’s this one. Ouch. Really? I mean, sure this is military technology, so we’re not looking for haute couture here, but…I mean…really? This just won’t do.

The problem is that the input method for all of these concepts still involves directly interacting with the device, touching buttons, or tapping the screen with a tiny stylus. All of these options are unacceptable when it comes to wearable computing. A person cannot have devices oozing out of every pore and orifice just to get at a Wikipedia article. What they need is a device that is intuitive and simple, something that “just works”.

This is where it gets difficult.

Apple has already developed a powerful, revolutionary computing interface powered by speech. They call it Siri, and I’m sure that most people are familiar with it at this point. If not, the link should tell you everything you need to know. The bottom line is that it’s intuitive, and allows a person to perform almost every single task they usually need a computer to do with little else than a functional set of vocal cords. This powerful computing interface, however, requires a persistent connection to the internet to be able to send your voice to Siri, and to receive Siri’s reply. Furthermore, access to Siri’s beautiful mind is limited solely to owners of Apple’s iPhone 4S, at the moment.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Apple designs hardware. They also design software and build empires on their intuitive, simple interfaces. Siri is about as simple as you can get, but not everyone has the ability to talk to Siri, and there may be those who simply don’t want to purchase a new phone for the privilege. What if, however, access to Siri could be granted by wearing a watch? Apple’s design team could surely design a beautiful watch. What if this watch was actually a computer, however? Or, perhaps not a computer, but rather a gateway to this magical, intuitive, almost infinitely powerful computer? Follow me, child, the path to this potential future is an interesting one.

Apple has been doing a lot of work behind the scenes, as it usually does. It’s been chugging away at the internal components of the iPhone 4S, upgrading a little-loved part of the phone that may actually end up being the key to this whole new ecosystem that Apple has developed: Bluetooth 4.0. The main thing about the new Bluetooth 4.0 specification is that it allows for a very low-power state, which keeps certain communication avenues open while allowing others to close. This versatility means that a wrist-mounted “computer” doesn’t actually need to do any processing of its own, but requires a connection to a device that can. Furthermore, while previous iPhone models may not sport the swanky new Bluetooth 4.0-compatible chips, they can still perform admirably with normal Bluetooth connections. This opens up the possibility for previous iPhone models to access Siri through a special piece of hardware that piggybacks off of the existing iPhone data connection through Bluetooth in much the same manner a headset would.

The end result is that a person will be able to talk to Siri, but do so without any sort of visual feedback. Ultimately, this is the sort of interaction that Apple is going for anyway. The device doesn’t need a screen (but may have one like the iPod Nano) because the interface is completely invisible. Much like the iPod Shuffle’s tiny form factor that can still communicate with the user, the new “wearable computer” does not have to be anything more than a gateway. The magic of the iPod Shuffle is that it feels like it’s so much bigger. The power of the new wearable computer is not that it is super fast and spec’ed to the gills. The power is that it feels like the world is no more than a question away.

Dick Tracy would be jealous.


Now Accepting Warm Feelings

Navigating the latter half of this year of my life has been treacherous. Let’s leave it at that.

Apple’s new iPhone 4S continues to sell well, while competition from other phone manufacturers remains steady. In recent news, the focus has shifted away from the iPad and the tablet space, back to the iPhone vis a vis the competition. Competitors need to put out a real alternative to Siri, which really won’t happen because Siri is a thing, an entity unto itself, one that everyone has his or her own personal experience with. I just don’t think any voice interface will do. The experience has to be wholly natural, use no jargon or “commands”, and needs to integrate into the OS in a way that is basically ubiquitous. Good luck to everyone on designing that.

The iPad is also the only game in town when it comes to an authentic tablet experience. Yet, news surrounding the iPad and the tablet market has quieted of late. There was a tablet sporting nVidia’s new Tegra processor that was released and supposed to kill the iPad. I…maybe I missed that one? Doesn’t look like anyone’s favorite fruit-flavored tablet friend is in the crosshairs, so perhaps this new “Transformer Prime” is just waiting for Shia? Dunno.

Furthermore, other tablets that I’ve seen miss the point, entirely. Have you seen the Kindle Fire? Ouch. I was traveling at the time that it was released, but there was nothing about it that made me want to use it. I picked one up at a kiosk, hoping to walk away from the experience with my eyebrows still raised. Upon taking my seat at the gate, I found my eyebrows in their normal resting position. Mission failed, Amazon.

The problem is that all these companies are all playing catch-up, trying to create value in a market that is valued on features that Apple defines. It’s a tough market to be in, and it’s getting more crowded every day.

I remember when MP3 players were all the rage, and some of my friends got them. I was excited to get one too, but never more so than when the iPod came out. I could never find the money to plunk down on one of those beasts, but I yearned. I also wouldn’t accept imitations. My father, never one for paying full price, would buy lots of off-brand MP3 players and say “Look! Just like an iPod!” He was wrong, of course. They weren’t. My first iPod was an iPod Shuffle, which was, despite its unorthodox appearance, an iPod. Next came the iPod Nano, which my sister also received. We moved up, we enjoyed, and we haven’t looked back. I believe the same can be said of the experience many people are having or will have with the vast majority of tablets out there…they’re not the iPad. Nothing else is.


Treading Lightly

Hello rock!

The Travel Bug

Travel, whether it be to a neighboring state or outside our country’s borders, is an experience that many people crave. The problem is that travel is very stressful to many people, a feeling that is exacerbated by the sudden disruption in daily life that occurs when a person is “out of their element”. Little things, like the lack of cell phone service and non-ubiquitous internet, can compound the feelings of isolation that people sometimes experience. The “struggle” of travel, that is, the difficulty of moving from place to place with ease, can be compounded when baggage feels too heavy or cumbersome, or when the physical well-being of one’s belongings becomes an issue.

There’s no easy way to squelch these feelings, but there are ways to diminish them so that they become more or less irrelevant. I had the good fortune to be away from my home for over a month recently, and was able to put my mobile lifestyle to the test of international travel. I’d like to share all of my successes and failures with you so that you can be better prepared for any potential trips you may have coming up.

Getting there

One of the hardest things that any traveler will have to deal with is transportation. The stress associated with traveling—the documents, times, schedules, and logistics involved with shuffling belongings around—can be overwhelming at times. The simple solution, for me, was simply to know myself really well, and know how I handle things like documents, money, and tickets.

Wallets

Big Skinny

For those of you who are used to carrying around a fat wallet, this section will probably be pretty easy for you, since you’re used to having something juicy in your pocket. I’m used to a wallet made by “The Big Skinny”, which is super-slim and almost nonexistent. For day-to-day use, it’s ideal, but that’s in the good ol’ U.S. of A. For international travel, it just didn’t quite fit the bill…or the bills didn’t quite fit. It’s a small thing, but other world currencies tend to be more square than our long rectangles. Despite the fact that my wallet really wasn’t designed for international travel, Big Skinny makes wallets that are, and I would highly recommend them due to their light weight and ruggedness. For extra protection against electronic/RFID theft, put a single sheet of aluminum foil in the outermost pocket—it’ll protect your passport and any RFID-enabled credit or debit cards.

Some folks like to travel with those under-shirt money/passport holders, but I hate those. Nothing irks me more than something pressing up against my skin while I walk through some crowded marketplace or beautiful scenery.

Why Is This Technology?

I listed these wallets here because I believe they’re among the best wallets produced today. They’re simple, lightweight, and can store as much as a traditional leather wallet at a fraction of the weight and size. They’re washable, durable, and easily carried, which means that they’re an improvement on the wallet as most people know it. Big Skinny took the design of a wallet and updated it to accommodate a more mobile lifestyle.

Bags

Chrome Berlin

Recently, I’ve taken up biking, and have also taken a liking to stuff made by Chrome. If you’re a biker, then you know what I’m talking about. Their bags are made to withstand direct hits from nuclear weapons, and come with a lifetime warranty. They’re expensive, I’ll give you that, but they’re amazing.

Some people will stop reading at this point and say, “Traveling abroad is completely different than biking through an urban setting,” and I will agree with them wholeheartedly. If you’re like me, however, then you want options for your travel, and the Berlin has just that. This thing has more space than you’ll need, guaranteed, and is still considered carry-on for flights. It also has the benefit of being tough as nails, waterproof, and padded.

Now, this is no backpack, it’s a messenger bag, and I’m recommending this over my usual go-to hiking backpack because of its versatility. If you’re checking into a hotel or hostel, you can pull some of the unnecessary stuff out of it to leave behind in the room and carry just what you need for the day—the bag has straps to pull it into a more compact profile. If you decide to go shopping one day and need to bring home all your swag, just let the straps out and you’ve got a house on your back. Done.

Incidentally, I was actually traveling through Berlin with this bag with a group of around 30 high school students, who decided that it would be a good idea to go to a club one night. I had space to hold 27 of their jackets, raincoats, and the like while they danced, in addition to some of the standard stuff I keep in there (iPad, charging cables, journal, pencil case with band-aids and medical tape, hat, bandanas, bungee cords, Leatherman Multi-tool, blanket). So…a lot of space. They’re also damn near impossible to steal from, since they’ve got so many straps, velcro, and buckles that someone attempting to open yours while it’s on you will most certainly get your attention. before they can grab anything.

Why Is This Technology?

I list this here because this bag was designed, tested, and produced by a company that knows mobility. They take pride in their materials, their craftsmanship, and the efficacy of their products. The bag is waterproof, incorporates a load-distribution system (by way of extra straps that can be tucked away when not in use), and has “hidden” compartments for things like blankets and hoodies that you may not need all the time, but are good to have around. This isn’t just any messenger bag—it’s the evolution of the messenger bag as interpreted by people who need to get around quickly and efficiently.

Swissgear Sling Bag

If you’re one of those people who would rather not have a large bag, swing by Target and pick up a Swiss Gear Sling Bag. If it’s out of stock, grab something similar, since they can pack flat and are lightweight. These can be great as a simple day pack, since they’re maneuverable and don’t get in the way of enjoying the moment.

Shoes

Vibram Fivefingers TREKSPORT

There are lots of opinions on shoes, so I’m just gonna throw mine into the ring. I haven’t discussed these shoes before because I was holding off on picking up a pair for a while. Spending a month walking around in them, however, has totally changed my mind. Trucking through Berlin, Disney World, and now Chicago was an eye-opening experience. I don’t think my other shoes will be seeing a whole lot of use now that I’ve got these bad boys.

The shoes in question are the Vibram Fivefingers TREKSPORT, and they’re amazing. I picked them up on clearance from REI, so they were cheap for me, around $80. I’d recommend looking around a little to find a pair discounted from regular retail, since these may not become your everyday shoes. Vibram has introduced several new models of the Fivefingers shoes, so look around to see what fits you best.

Berlin was a relatively damp experience for us. By “relatively damp”, I mean the whole lot of us were completely soaked for four straight days on account of rain. These shoes aren’t waterproof, so my feet were absolutely sopping wet for almost four days straight. Everyone else’s feet were, too, but since there’s just a scant few millimeters between your foot and the pavement, stepping in a puddle is one of those “instant feedback” situations, in that you’ll know right away. You won’t have to worry about cutting your feet on glass or rocks since the sole is quite tough, but you will have to worry about sloshing through street water. If your travels are going to take you through destinations with lots of water-borne diseases, you’ll have to look elsewhere for footwear. If you’re going to be moving through cities and uneven terrain, however, these shoes can handle everything.

A further plus is the fact that you can just toss these in the washing machine when you’re all done (cold water only). Just let them air dry afterwards and you’re back in business. Just remember to take a brush to the soles beforehand so you remove any clinging gunk and organic matter from the shoes so you don’t have really gross stuff floating around in your washing machine water with the rest of your clothes.

A potential downside is that these shoes attract attention. Everywhere I went with them, I’d hear people talking about them. Potential thieves will, of course, see them as well, and if you’re in a country where these shoes aren’t sold, or where the shoes are a relatively new item, you’ll be pegged as a traveling American from a mile away, so be careful.

Why Is This Technology?

I listed these shoes here because they’re designed by a company that knows shoe soles looking to move the idea of a shoe into the 21st century. They’re lightweight, durable, and healthier for your feet than normal shoes. One look at these shoes communicates forward-thinking design and a novel approach to bone and joint health.

Having Fun, Staying In Touch

Once you’ve actually gotten to where you need to go, it’s time to set up shop, so to speak. There are lots of ways to go about doing this, but I’ve found that there are some well-known gadgets that make this process a whole lot easier.

Gadgets

Here’s my forté. I’m gonna rip right through some of the tech I brought with me to illustrate how it was useful or not.

iPhone

As I thought before I left, I really didn’t like using the iPhone overseas, mostly because the one I was using was locked to AT&T and not useful abroad. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t just pop in a foreign SIM card to make calls without first unlocking the device. Despite great advances in the simplicity and efficacy of that process, unlocking is still potentially dangerous, and most people won’t want to touch it. I didn’t, and I found my iPhone fairly useless. Sure, I could still use it like an iPod Touch when in range of a Wifi signal, but that didn’t cut it most days. I’m sure my experience would have been different if my iPhone was carrier unlocked, but purchasing an unlocked iPhone is prohibitively expensive right now. If the Apple rumors pan out, maybe Apple will introduce a carrier-agnostic handset that people can take with them anywhere in the world. Fingers crossed, right?

The one place where the iPhone performed famously was in photography. I’m no professional, but the pictures I was able to capture simply because I had my iPhone handy are nothing short of spectacular, in some cases, and the ability for the iPhone to take panoramic shots with the help of apps like Microsoft’s Photosynth give it a huge leg up over traditional point-and-shoot cameras. Other apps that produce different effects, like SlowShutter help capture more drama. Hipstamatic is really a no-brainer, but spend some time exploring the app and learning to use the various lens-film combinations, since that will really help you snap the right photo with the right mood when you need it. Hipstamatic is incredibly versatile, so don’t discount it as a fad or toy—I’ve seen and taken some beautiful shots with it.

iPad/iPad 2

An amazing piece of technology that has changed the face of the mobile landscape completely, and also incredibly versatile while traveling.

The camera on the iPad 2 isn’t the best, but is great for capturing video, so take advantage of that, but also be aware that pulling either the iPad or iPad 2 out in public makes you a target. It’s not something that you can just slip into your pocket like a regular camera or iPhone/iPod Touch, and if you use the Berlin bag that I suggested above, you can’t exactly get it into or out of the bag rapidly, either. Exercise caution if you’re going to be shooting video with it in a crowded environment. If you want to shoot video scope out places you can shoot video from that aren’t too exposed, or that have limited access points. Getting used to doing this is a valuable travel tip in general, so make it part of your day-to-day preparation.

The main reason I suggest the iPad is due to its ability to fluidly transition from country to country. Since the iPad is not SIM-locked, you can purchase a data-only SIM card online or through a local retailer to use during your travels. This makes the task of communication much, much easier, and if you use a service like Google Voice, you’ll be able to communicate with anyone in the world the same as if you had a local phone. Skype is also a possible alternative, but I find GV to be a little more versatile and easier to use. Skype, however, has the ability to send SMS messages to more countries than GV, so consider that when planning which service to load up on.

Without an internet plan, however, the iPad is still more than capable. Any Wifi Hotspot can become a gateway to the world, and with the iPad’s ability to store hundreds of songs, books, magazine articles, and the like (not to mention a handful of your favorite movies), it’s easy to see why this little device is the ideal traveling companion. When I needed information about where to go, I checked with several of the guides I had downloaded, and language was never really a problem with dictionaries pre-loaded. The Google Translate app is really great, but requires that you have an active internet connection to function, so I recommend it only if you already have some sort of cellular data connection (or easy and ubiquitous access to Wifi).

While Android-powered tablets and phones will have some of these capabilities as well, they’re not as well-integrated, in my experience. Using an Android-powered tablet without internet, for example, is incredibly difficult, and many of the apps that I was able to enjoy on my iPad (The New Yorker, National Geographic, and Wired, just to name a few) really don’t exist on Android. Purchasing and reading books from the iBooks Store is incredibly easy, and having hundreds of books in my library makes long train rides bearable.

Writing on the iPad is also a great experience, but those who need an external keyboard for longer typing sessions should probably explore their options. I found the Apple Wireless Keyboard, coupled with the Origami Workstation to be a great solution, but can gladly go without either if necessary. If you have an iPad 2, then a Smart Cover is absolutely necessary. Not only is it great for protection, but propping up the iPad for typing is a great feature. I also have a clear screen protector just to make sure the screen stays safe.

To protect the whole shebang, I have my iPad in a Targus Crave Slipcase that I also picked up at a steal for under $20. this isn’t necessary, but it adds to my peace of mind when packing my bag , since I know nothing’s going to crush my iPad.

Jawbone JAMBOX

This one was a bit unexpected, but has proven to be a total life-changer.

The JAMBOX is a portable speaker. That’s it. It’s a really good portable speaker, though, and it’s tiny, and wireless, and for those nights that have you exhausted and sitting in your room (soaked to the bone, in my case), it makes a huge difference when you can fire up some tunes that take you back home, or remind you of all the things that make life wonderful. It has an amazing battery life, and the sound quality, in my opinion, is phenomenal. It’s not a set of home theater speakers, and it’s not going to fill the streets with your beats when you need to do a quick breakdancing session to make some money, but it’ll fill the room with enough sound to get you there.

Optoma PK102/201/301

Another unexpected gem that you can pick up relatively cheaply now, depending on the model you’re interested in. I snagged then PK201 (an upgrade to the PK102) for my travels, but you may want the PK301 for the extra brightness. The PK201 and PK301 are capable of displaying the same resolution, however (720p).

I doubt you’re going to need this one on your travels, but if you’re moving from country to country with friends, sometimes it’s nice to have the ability to have an impromptu movie-watching session. The PK201 plays nicely with the iPad 2’s new HD video mirroring, and can also display HD video at really huge screen sizes. You will need a relatively dark room, however, since the PK201 isn’t exactly a spotlight. For travel, though, the PK201 does fantastically.

I used this projector primarily to display supplemental material on the wall during a three day retreat at an old German castle. There is a little bit of “wow” factor in this one, but it’s not too much to be distracting. If you’re the kind of person who likes a little bigger image to work off of, or if you need to get your content displayed for lots of people to see it, take a look at this one (or its big brother, the PK301). Also, coupled with the JAMBOX and an iOS device, the PK201 creates a nice little portable theater with decent sound and fairly good picture. It’s the little things, right?

ZaggSPARQ

Naturally, having the right adaptors for the job is of huge importance, and knowing the relationship between voltage and amperage can save you a costly trip to an electronics store.

One of the benefits of traveling around with an iOS device is knowing that the chargers work on 100-120 V current as well as the 200-240 V current present in many other countries. As long as you have the proper adaptor for the outlet, you won’t need to lug around an expensive transformer. Finding a free outlet, however, is another story, one that is easily solved by a device that has multiple USB slots, or one that splits the outlet. I opted for the former by using the ZaggSPARQ.

I think the ZaggSPARQ is the unsung hero of a mobile lifestyle, even more so on long overseas trips. The ZaggSPARQ, in addition to being a charger for multiple USB-powered devices, is also a portable power source all its own. It has a built-in 6,000 mAH, lithium-ion battery, which means that it can recharge your iPhone almost four times (real-world usage is probably 2-3 times), or get your iPad up to around 60% from 0% (real-world usage is closer to 55%). For anyone who’s ever been stuck without power for a while, this is HUGE. Thankfully, I was never in that situation, but the ZaggSPARQ is a powerful (haha…ha…) ally when it comes to being mobile in a foreign country. You won’t always have access to outlets, or may have to share them with people when you do, so having a way to keep your devices juiced up is pretty clutch. The downside is that, especially with all of the gadgets I’ve mentioned, this one brick won’t have enough power. You may want to get two, or try to find a power supply with a larger capacity (10,000 mAH or higher, if possible).

All the Rest

This section is for the little things that don’t really fit anywhere else. Some of these things will seem like common sense, some will be familiar to frequent travelers, and some may simply be a new take on an old standby.

Multi-tool

The TSA bans flying with most multi-tools, mostly because they contain some sort of knife of cutting implement. There are, however, multi-tools that the TSA does allow, but the TSA folks you encounter will most likely be ignorant of their own rules and as you to discard it. That being said, if you’re checking luggage, just put it in your checked luggage bag. If you’re not checking anything, but are traveling with someone who is, ask if you can stash it in their luggage for the flight. If you’re traveling alone, try purchasing a tool under seven inches and without any sort of cutting implements or awl/icepick/punch tools. If you can’t get a multi-tool without these things, consider sacrificing a tool and just file off the offending portions.

Just remember that even if you take all these steps, the TSA folks may still stop you and toss your stuff.

Why Is This Technology?

Tools have evolved over thousands of years into the forms that we know and recognize today, but are still made of materials that are heavy and difficult to transport. By re-imagining common tools, designing and engineering them to fit into more compact forms, and producing them with more advanced metals, people have taken age-old ideas and made them more portable without sacrificing strength or durability. Having a simple set of tools available in a compact form means that a traveler can be more mobile, confident, and capable than before. This adds to safety and security, since travelers can go places that may have been previously inaccessible.

Flashlight

Get a cheap LED-powered flashlight from Walmart or Target and bring a couple spare batteries. Or, pick up a USB-rechargeable LED bike light (red or white). I opted for the latter, since I already had a bike light. It fits the bill perfectly for when you need a little extra light, and the rechargeable nature means that you don’t have to worry about losing batteries. If you take my advice regarding the ZaggSPARQ, you probably won’t have to worry about running out of power, either.

Why Is This Technology?

Advances in battery and illumination technology have made it possible to carry around a light source hundreds of times more reliable, efficient, and powerful than flashlights of the past. Keeping a light source on hand at all times means that you don’t have to be afraid of the dark, and can even be used as a tactical tool to momentarily blind or distract an aggressor.

Velcro Straps/Bungee Cords

A few velcro straps can help keep your stuff together, and pack so tiny that they’re essentially nonexistent. Plus, you can usually daisy chain them together since they’re velcro. Grab a few and throw them in your pack for those strange times when you need to find a way to strap three umbrellas together to shelter your group’s bags while it’s pouring outside and the line to get into the bathroom is too long.

Bungee cords fill the same purpose. My favorites are the kind used for tents, since they’re simple and have no hooks to catch on things that don’t need to be caught. Again, grab a couple, and daisy chain if necessary.

Why Is This Technology?

Rope is heavy, cumbersome, and requires knowledge of knots to fit various situations. Velcro is easy to use and requires about one second to learn to use. People used to use rope because it was the only effective way to tie things together. With the development of elastic, even a short bungee cord could become much longer and more useful, so keeping these on hand will allow you to be more adaptable to whatever situations you may encounter.

Scarves/Bandanas

I was turned on to the idea of a Shemagh or Keffiyeh recently by a friend, and I’m now wondering why these wonderful things weren’t a part of my life before.

A shemagh or keffiyeh is incredibly simple—just a large piece of cloth—but incredibly versatile. In hot climates, they can be wet down to provide long-term cooling and heat dissipation, or can be wrapped around the head to provide shelter from the sun. They can be worn around the neck or head to provide relief from insects, and even fashioned to protect the eyes while still providing visibility in the case of blowing sand. In cold weather, the obvious use for warmth also belies the ability to use the cloth as a shield for the eyes from blowing snow similar to blowing sand. Due to their large nature, they can also be used to tie things together (if you run out of velcro or bungee cords, naturally).

Bandanas serve a similar purpose, but, due to their smaller size, are more limited in their application.

The one issue with the shemagh/keffiyeh is its cultural acceptance. While many people in the world view the shemagh/keffiyeh as an accepted part of everyday life, there are still many people who associate this simple piece of cloth with a specific ideology or mindset. If you feel that you may be treated differently or unfairly because you’re wearing one, take the obvious course of action, and simply take it off. You can also make your own out of simple, non-patterned fabric by cutting large squares (usually 40-45 inches per side) out of fabric you’ve purchased yourself.

Why Is This Technology?

The use of a simple staple of life to fit multiple situations is a technology in itself. Learning to use something to make life easier is what technology is all about.

Document Sleeves

I tend to have a difficult time keeping papers in readable condition, so I always carry a set of plastic document sleeves with me to protect any sort of paper documents I may have. These are simple, and can be purchased from any number of office supply stores. I favor the kind of sleeves that are open on two sides, which allow me to get paper in and out quickly without having to worry about closing mechanisms that can rip or tear, compromising the structure and usefulness of the sleeve.

Why Is This Technology?

Folders have been around for as long as I can remember, and probably a great deal longer than that. I hate folders, simply because they have to be opened in order to be useful, and tend to tear fairly easily when twisted or stressed. My plastic sleeves are simple, have withstood years of my abuse (although I try to keep them as safe as I can), and keep all of my important documents together so I can travel more effectively.

Pens

Everyone and their mother will have an opinion about pens, but my favorites are the Zebra Telescopic pens and Parker Jotter, mostly because they feel great and write well. The Jotter is made of stainless steel, and I’ve used it to punch holes in leather, fish out keys from drains, and also, believe it or not, write a little. I tend not to go for the super-special space pens and write-anywhere pens because I don’t ever find myself writing upside down or underwater. That being said, if having a pen that writes while wet is important to you, go with the Inka, since it’s almost indestructible, refillable, and made in the USA.

Why Is This Technology?

Writing is arguably one of the most important inventions of all time, but writing implements have largely stagnated over time since, well, there’s not much more we do there. There are companies that are innovating constantly, however, like Livescribe. While pens like the Pulse or Echo are fantastic in classroom and meeting situations, most people don’t need them while traveling. The pens I’ve mentioned are more durable and more finely crafted than your run-of-the-mill ballpoint pen, and represent an intersection between research, quality materials, and good design.

The Best For Last

Sharpen your mind. It seems strange to bring this up at the end of a long article about stuff, but your mind will always be your best tool. When you travel, you will get tired, you will get hungry, and you will experience uncomfortable levels of heat, cold, and moisture (too little or too much). You will be surrounded by people you don’t know, who don’t know you, and who may even feel threatened by you. You may travel to countries that have a disdain for Americans, or see Americans as cash pots that they can take from.

All of these reasons compound the importance of having a sharp mind at all times. I’ve found that martial arts training, meditation, and yoga are all good ways to hone your awareness and center yourself in the moment. If you’re used to a life of comfort and trust, then find your nearest big city and spend time there as practice. People with questionable morals already take advantage of those they view as targets, and, when traveling, you’ll be identified as a target from halfway across the country. Making yourself more of a target by drinking in excess, taking drugs, and making poor judgment calls are all out of the question.

Also, understand that anything classified as “bad” at home will be classified as “absolutely horrible” when you’re in a foreign country. By that, I mean things like hospitals and jails. If you go out, do something illegal, and land yourself in jail, that’s it. The folks from the American Embassy might stop by to wave hello, but that’s about all they’ll be able to do. Traveling to a foreign country is the big leagues, folks, so remember that before you start buying cheap drugs or getting shlooshed at the nearest watering hole.

Why Is This Technology?

Martial arts, yoga, and meditation have been developed and practiced for thousands of years, but animal nature has not changed very much. The lessons you can learn through self-defense classes may not be able to win you a UFC tournament, but they’ll keep your mind focused on what’s important, while sifting out what’s not. Learning how to move comfortably, carry yourself well, and quickly ascertain peoples’ motives are very important tools that people have developed over centuries. Unfortunately, you can’t buy common sense or street smarts, but you can “update your firmware”, so to speak, by learning these skills.

Just like a firmware update, however, you can’t stop halfway through. Don’t think that a week or even a few months of training are enough to get you in the right mindset. Real training takes years. If you’re going to be a committed and regular traveler, consider joining a martial arts class before you start globetrotting.

Conclusion

As with any article you read regarding travel, it’s important to understand that not everything I’ve experienced will fit your situation. I use my resources in ways that other people wouldn’t consider, and other people would use the very same resources differently. There are also lots of things I left out here, things like clothing, hygiene, and laundry. I think there’s plenty out there that you can find on your own, though.

When choosing your gear, make sure that you’ve got what’s right for you. It’s easy to read just about any travel article and think, “I’m gonna do the same thing!” and then run out and buy a whole bunch of new stuff. I don’t recommend buying new stuff for travel, since you’ll probably use it for a short while and then consign it to the rubbish heap. I do, however, recommend getting new stuff if you know you’ll use it after you’re done traveling, since it will both have more character, and keep you in a lightweight, low-impact mindset.

Ultimately, you’ll have to keep in mind that things won’t work the same while traveling. Your typical routine will be disrupted (sometimes significantly), and you’ll just have to adapt to it. Things that were easy to do here may take many more steps while you’re in another country, and things that were difficult in your native country may suddenly seem easy for no apparent reason. Try to strip away all your creature comforts for a few days to see how you might function without easy access to power, internet, and transportation. If you can do well without these things, then slowly add your typical host of gadgets back into your daily life to find a balance of mobility and presence in the moment.


Warmer

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I think Iowa has the right idea:

Unlike other schools that plop computers on a student’s desk and walk away, Carver did away with traditional paper-based learning and actively used the laptops in a new digital curriculum

I’ve seen these non-traditional, “progressive” methods pushed on students, and they’re usually awful, mostly because the administration doesn’t get technology. They think they can just throw some iPads or netbooks at students and everything will be hunky-dory. Typically, that fails so miserably it’s not even funny. Teachers have to spend 10-15 minutes per class period just troubleshooting tech problems that they are ill-prepared for or have no patience for. The majority of these teachers were over a decade into their teaching, some nearing two decades, and some nearing retirement.

Across the board, the issue was that they were given little to no guidance as to how to integrate these new technologies into their classroom. Furthermore, a digital classroom needs to have a curriculum that moves quickly and takes advantage of the technology so that the teacher is engaging students, creating opportunities for them to think and synthesize information. Without that, progress becomes an illusion.


Capturing Rectangles

There are lots of approaches to mobile OS development these days. Some folks are closed, some are open, some are really stable, others risk stability for customizability, etc. There’s one OS that I’ve always admired for its cleanliness, integration, and overall user experience, and that’s WebOS. The underdog of the “Mobile OS Wars”, WebOS did a lot of really neat things that its competitors simply didn’t want to do or didn’t want to risk because they had too much on the table. Palm, which developed WebOS, had little to lose, and they bet most of it on WebOS. Some could argue that they lost that fight, but I think HP’s acquisition of WebOS recently was a phenomenal idea and a great long-term strategy. I get what happened there, and HP makes a good argument as to why they did it.

HP currently sells a lot of computer, possibly more than any other company, but they’ve long lacked any real brand identity. They’ve been plagued by the same problem just about every other computer company has had: reliance on Microsoft. When netbooks took the stage just prior to the tablet revolution, a lot of companies- HP included- tried to get on board with customer Linux builds that were easy to put together and load because they included no licensing fees. The problem was that the OS conventions didn’t quit carry over, and the software that people were expecting to run, well…it didn’t. For the computer-savvy individual, this didn’t matter much. For the older folks looking to get their first computer because it was “cute”, netbooks were a disaster.

So, HP’s acquisition of Palm and all of its resources- WebOS included- was smart. This is going to allow HP to finally create an OS that can be associated synonymously with the HP brand. I imagine that WebOS will eventually have its name changed as well, but it’s sticking for now.

What I also applaud is HP’s apparent commitment to bring WebOS to everything including possibly refrigerators. This is where things start to get really interesting because these devices can (theoretically) be aware of each other and include the ability to work right out of the box (in much the same way Apple is building iOS into other things), or open the door to the introduction of new features down the road which may not have been available at release.

The other interesting aspect to HP’s decision is to recognize that their new OS isn’t just about layering a “touch-friendly” shell over an ugly set of insides, it’s about designing a unique experience from the ground up using an OS that can be scaled to fit everything from phones to high-powered desktop boxes. Eventually, if the developer community is rich enough, people will realize that these custom OS builds are actually the way people want to work, not some of this crud.


If It Looks Like a PC and Acts Like a PC…

Then it must be one, right?

When Apple released its new AppleTV, I asked one of the questions that I should really learn to stop asking with Apple products: “So what?”

What I forget constantly is that Apple figures all of its new products into a wonderful long-term strategy that is often hard to decipher but beautiful to watch unfold. The AppleTV was one of those devices that didn’t really have a place in my heart until I started using it, and it’s become even more incredible with the recent unveiling of iOS 5.

When I started using my iPhone, I discovered a little jailbreak-only app that allowed me to mirror my iPhone’s screen on my TV, which allowed me to do things that were (at the time) not possible, like pump music from the iPod app out to the TV and show photos (without creating a slideshow). “It’s like having a computer in your pocket,” one of my friends remarked at the time.

Quite.

This is heating up now, and I think the barely-mentioned screen mirroring over AirPlay is going to be one of the most life-changing things I’ll experience this side of 2000. I already use my iPad for just about everything in my life, and the Mac Mini sitting just below my TV does very little. Sure, it has some apps installed for design purposes, but they’re all secondary to the writing and creation that I do on a daily basis on my iPad. Sometimes (rarely), I feel like it would be nice to be able to throw what I’m doing on a larger screen and just lean back a little, see the whole thing take shape in front of me. Why is this not a computer, again? Currently, I can do that (sort of) with my iPad via an HDMI cable…but that isn’t really ideal because it means that I have to jockey with cables, and risk damaging ports when things get inevitably jerked around or flexed in strange ways.1

Now, I can dock my iPad, throw the bluetooth keyboard on a desk, and type as much as my little fingers can type without a second thought. This is huge. It means that I can go to a friend’s house, and mirror my display on his or her TV without any setup, without digging around behind the TV to find his or her HDMI port, and without any cables to lose or forget. Just make sure the friend has an AppleTV (which have enough value proposition on their own) and I’m set. It means that businesses don’t have to worry about sales pitches going wrong due to configuration issues anymore. It means that we’re one step closer to a shared classroom where people can contribute anything they’re reading to a discussion without having to be an IT professional to do it.

One step closer to living in the future. Oh wait, we’re already there.

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1 I’ve always had problem with dongles or adapter cords. For some reason, the cables alway break or fray internally, and the whole thing fails within a few months of normal use. I like to avoid them whenever possible.