One of the most recent and powerful innovations to develop in the mobile computing space has been the capacitative screen. First put into widespread use in the iPhone and later adopted by the mobile phone industry as a standard for mobile devices, the capacitative screen is amazing, but not without its drawbacks. Try tapping on something with the cap of a pen, or using the screen with gloves on, for instance, and you’ll be greeted with…nothing (unless you have those fancy gloves with capacitative pads on the fingers *jealous*).
This is a reaction to the early Tablet PCs, when the computer required what was called an “active” stylus. Active styli essentially have some sort of communication ability built into them (whether magnetic or otherwise) that tells the computer when the stylus is close and allows it to register input on the screen. The problem was that these devices were essentially useless unless they had their accompanying stylus. Lose that, and you’re left with what amounts to a fancy monitor.
The flip side to capacitative screens is that they respond (very well) to skin. While that’s great for your fingertip, it’s not so great for your wrist if you (like almost everyone on the planet) rest your wrist on a surface while writing. Go ahead and try it, chances are you do the same. People anchor their hands to their writing surface with their wrists. It’s just what we do. Try to do the same thing on the surface of an iPad, however, and you’ll be greeted with virtual ink all over the place. Some programs try to circumvent that problem by processing screen inputs to filter out unwanted “marks” on the page, but it isn’t perfect.
Witness, then, the triumphant return of the stylus.
There have been plenty of remarks about Apple’s magic tablet and its lack of a dedicated input stylus. Steve Jobs said clearly that he was against styli when he was first introducing iOS 4. What Steve wanted, was a simple start to a powerful operating system that didn’t require the user to learn “how” to use the stylus (the original styli for Tablet PCs were only semi-intuitive, mostly because users were forced to use an operating system that was never designed for that type of interaction). Steve wanted people to jump right in and start using the OS without requiring them to hunt for buttons with a stick. Fast forward a little while, and we start seeing that people actually do want a stylus, but not for the purpose Windows Mobile used it for. Now, people want to teach kids how to write. They want to teach kids how to draw, to create, and that’s difficult to do when all you’ve got is your finger.
Anyway, here’s a little tidbit:
The application, which proposed several different types of styli, such as a disk pivot and a powered conductive tip, for use with capacitive touch displays, was filed in July 2008, several years before the release of the iPad.
The pen paradox is that, for all the contention that has been fostered between multitouch and styli, the two can shine when used in tandem, assuming the user interface has been created with both in mind.
The crux of the argument is that people are interacting with a tablet using a tool they were born with (their hand), and they want to take the next evolutionary step: the writing utensil. Strangely enough, with this world of keyboards and texting, there is still something that people love about handwriting. I tend to wonder if the obsession with a natural handwriting is a waste of time. We keep chasing a writing system on these various tablets that replicates writing on paper…but why? Why should we be concerned with that at all?
I mean, fine, teach kids to write using a pen and paper, but why are we searching for a system of writing on an iPad, when typing is clearer, more efficient, and readily transferable to other media, as well? It doesn’t make sense to me, and it smacks of misunderstanding. If you need to jot a quick note, there are plenty of styli out there that will accomplish that for you (I use the Pogo Sketch), but for longer text, what is the advantage of writing over typing? I haven’t yet figured that out.
That isn’t to say that I don’t think that a stylus would have its value. Drawing is, without a doubt, easier with some sort of stylus. I imagine that CAD would be a natural fit, as well. The truth is that the real case for styli hasn’t been made yet. With all of the amazing talent out there and incredible ideas that the last two years have produced, I can’t wait to see the “killer app” that the stylus will enable.
One of the most powerful developments in recent years has been the creation of “cloud computing.” Folks familiar with the technology know that it’s essentially doing for your computer what email services like Gmail and Yahoo! have done for your communication–they’ve taken your messages, contacts, and other personal information and stored it on secure servers across the nation to make it easily retrievable in the case of an emergency or hardware failure. Instead of relying on a single storage point (your home PC, for example) to store all of your communication, Google, Yahoo, and dozens of other websites offer to handle of those tasks in exchange for showing you advertising or using some non-identifiable information to craft better algorithms.
For most people, the immediate benefit of these systems was apparent. Access your mail anywhere, store contacts somewhere that won’t be affected in the case of a system crash or loss of a single device (like a phone), and integrate these services with your web browsing. Easy, and powerful. The systems that provided these services long ago have evolved significantly, now allowing entire operating systems to essentially run through your broadband connection, piping only the data necessary for input and allowing massive supercomputers to handle all of the processing.
That all sounds fine and good, but what does it mean for you?
Cloud computing, so named because of its pseudo-omnipresence, changes the role of computers significantly. They no longer exist as a single point of storage for all your information. Instead, the computer is more of a gateway, a portal to your data that is stored in massive servers. One analogy I can draw is that of a dry cleaner. With the old model of computing, it was as though you were standing at the front of a dry cleaning factory trying to look for a specific shirt. You might not even know where the shirt was located, but you’d still have to find it yourself. With the advent of search, that process was trimmed a bit- you tell someone else what to look for and where to look, and they find the shirt.
Now, with cloud computing, we see that yet another layer of interaction is slowly melting away. We’re doing away with the fetching entirely. You don’t even really need to know where you’ve stored your data, you just need to run a search, and you can pull down results from the stuff you have stored locally on your computer as well as the files floating up with the sun and moon. We are no longer limited by how much space is on our devices, how much storage we can buy. The only limiting factor is the infrastructure that connects all these devices together. Some people have asked me, almost accusingly, “Well what happens if the network goes down? What then, huh?”
If the entire United States suddenly experiences a simultaneous and catastrophic shutdown of all of its network infrastructure, we will have much bigger things to worry about than listening to our music or accessing the documents on our cloud folder. That’s akin to asking what would happen if all paper in the United States suddenly caught fire. I don’t want to hypothesize about the events or circumstances that would need to exist in order to facilitate such a terrible reality, but, assuming it was both spontaneous and total, I doubt anyone would be worried about their fourth grade diary.
In recent news, we’ve heard rumblings of Apple’s new iOS 5 being cloud-based, a total overhaul of the OS. I can’t even begin to fathom what that means. The OS seems just fine as it is, but the cloud is where it’s at these days, and that darn data center that’s been occupying so many of my thoughts and predictions seems like the perfect use of all those massive petaflops (or whatever they use to measure data centers of that magnitude). It all seems to be coming together now.
What we will start to see is more unity across Apple’s various OS products. Remember back in 2005, when Steve was asked what kind of OS the iPhone was running? Does anyone remember his response? Let’s recap, shall we?
Jobs admitted that Apple is a new player in the cell phone business, saying “We’re newcomers. People have forgotten more than we know about this.” Jobs noted that the operating system to run the iPhone — Mac OS X itself — has been in develop for more than a decade (its roots like in NeXT’s Nextstep operating system). Mossberg suggested that the iPhone doesn’t have the entire operating system on it, but Jobs protested.
“Yes it does. The entire OS is gigabytes, but it’s data. We don’t need desktop patterns, sound files. If you take out the data, the OS isn’t that huge. It’s got real OS X, real Safari, real desktop e-mail. And we can take Safari and put a different user interface on it, to work with the multitouch screen. And if you don’t own a browser, you can’t do that,” said Jobs.
This shift is not overnight, and it is not a new direction for Mac OS. Once Apple began work on the iPad, they started planning for this shift, possibly even before that. I seem to remember some folks discussing the origins of the iPhone, how it was actually rooted in an experimental side project that Steve Jobs somehow got a look at and recognized as brilliant, and that said side project was actually more akin to the iPad than the iPhone. At any rate, it looks to me as though Apple has been planning this shift for years, possibly even the better part of a decade. I believe that Apple designed iOS with unification in mind all along, seeing a desire to create a powerful OS for new mobile devices that hadn’t even been developed yet. It seems fairly obvious when you look at their last “Back to the Mac” event, and even more glaringly obvious when you see something like this coming out of Gizmodo.
Adobe demonstrated Photoshop for iPad yesterday. Not a sub-product like Photoshop Express, but the real Photoshop, with a new skin. Sure, it doesn’t have some of the advanced print and web publishing oriented features of the desktop behemoth. But it has everything you need, from layers compositing—including a 3D mode to show people how they work—to what appeared to be non-destructive adjust layers, levels, color controls, and all the features I use every day in the desktop Photoshop. From the little we have seen, the application was fast and smooth.
I believe Apple has succeeded in ushering in a new age already; I can’t wait to see them throw the doors wide open to a future we’ve only dreamed of.
Over the weekend, we got news that AT&T will be buying T-Mobile USA for something to the tune of $39 billion. That’s a hefty chunk of change, but I’m going to focus down on a few things that I read in GigaOM that caught my eye. GigaOM present a fairly decent argument as to why this is really really bad for customers, and I have a tendency to agree with a lot of what was said, namely in this piece, look at what they say about Android smartphones:
Don’t be surprised if you see AT&T impose its own will on what apps and service are put on its Android smartphones. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the worst phone company in the U.S.(according to Consumer Reports) tries to create its own app store and force everyone to buy apps through it.
Notably, the paragraph talks specifically about Android-powered handsets (which are “open,” mind you). Not only are a whole pantload of atrocities to net neutrality being committed due in large part to this whole “open” malarkey (which is another story for another day), I’m sure we’re going to see even more horrible stuff perpetrated by AT&T and Verizon as time rolls on. Having a choice between all of two carriers in the US is not a happy solution to me, which is why I’m looking forward to a future that doesn’t explicitly involve me having to fork over half a paycheck every month just to use my phone. As these companies become more powerful, they limit the amount of innovation that can occur in the portable computers and smartphones that are out on the market, mostly because they can then restrict what devices can be used on their network. There are always ways around this, but it’s a scary future, backed up here:
Phone Handset Makers. Before the merger was announced, the handset makers such as HTC and Motorola had two major carriers who could buy their GSM-based phones. They just lost any ability to control price and profits on handsets because now there is a single buyer that can dictate what GSM phones come to market. Even with LTE becoming the standard for the 4G world, it would essentially be a market dominated by three buyers (should Sprint go with LTE), which would place handset makers at the mercy of the giants.
That isn’t to say that this is the end of the road for handset manufacturers, however. Specifically, I think Apple has seen this coming for a while, and has been looking at things from all angles for some time now. On the one hand, they had to give a lot to be able to partner with AT&T, but AT&T gave in and netted themselves with millions of subscribers because they took on Apple’s revolutionary phone when no one else would. I imagine they also looked at the uphill battle they had to fight to get there and said, “What if we couldn’t partner with a carrier, what then?”. The answer came in the form of last year’s iPod Touch. In an article from Engadget:
…and it’s the most glaring sign yet that the next generation touch will flippin’ finally boast a camera (or just a way around that SMS-based activation?)…
Also, from Apple’s support site:
What information do I need to call someone using FaceTime?
To call someone using FaceTime, you need their phone number or email address. Which one you use is determined by the device you are calling:
When calling an iPhone 4: Use the phone number of the person you are calling.
When calling an iPad 2, iPod touch, or FaceTime for Mac user: Use the email address designated for FaceTime of the person you are calling.
So, in short: Apple is trying to craft an ecosystem that is not reliant upon any single carrier to deliver the sort of innovation, creativity, and communication that has taken the world by storm. All you need now is an Internet connection, and that can be found just about everywhere. Think about it: instead of paying through the nose (in addition to losing an arm, leg, and first-born child) to use an iPhone, all you’ll need in the future is a cheap mobile hotspot, the kind that are available everywhere right now. The kind that you can get for $50/month or less. The kind that can have five devices tethered to them. The kind that enable face-to-face conversations with your friends through FaceTime. Brilliant.
When I stood in line for an iPad 2 and came away from the experience empty-handed, I started wondering why. After asking the Apple folks that were present, it became pretty clear to me that they had massive stock of wifi-based models, but very few 3G models1. I considered that for a moment as I ordered my new one online, and realized that this was Apple’s gambit. They’re trying to push their devices away from reliance on anyone or anything. (via)
The end result is still grim for most people, however, since the average person shopping for an iPhone isn’t going to be savvy to Apple’s future plans, they’re just looking for nice piece of kit to throw in their pocket or handbag. If control is taken away from consumers (control=choice), then the carriers will dictate how much and when people pay for each device. They’ll be able to perpetuate this madness with words like this:
Further, we recognize that there have been meaningful recent moves toward openness, including the introduction of open operating systems like Android. In addition, we anticipate soon seeing the effects on the market of the openness conditions we imposed on mobile providers that operate on upper 700 MHz C-Block spectrum, which includes Verizon Wireless, one of the largest mobile wireless carriers in the U.S.
In light of these considerations, we conclude it is appropriate to take measured steps at this time to protect the openness of the Internet when accessed through mobile broadband.
What a crock. Also: scary, because that’s where we’re headed. Now that AT&T and Verizon are effectively the only carriers in the US, you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll be throwing their weight around in the government to try to get ignorant legislators to give them even more power.
AT&T points out that the combination of T-Mobile USA and AT&T “provides fast, efficient and certain solution to impending spectrum exhaust challenges facing AT&T and T-Mobile USA in key markets due to explosive demand for mobile broadband.” What we’re seeing here is AT&T using what some call a manufactured spectrum crisis — which the FCC has built to a fever pitch in the last two years — in order to shove this deal through the regulatory process. This is a deal that will ultimately be worse for consumers by reducing the number of nationwide wireless providers and consolidating much of the high-quality spectrum in the hands of the nation’s two largest carriers.
This is horrible for the consumer. Sure, AT&T will sugar coat the whole thing and make it look like they just handed you the world on a silver platter, but the bottom line is that they want to control what you get and how you get it.
Now I understand that carrier dependence is not the same as Net Neutrality, but there are certainly more similarities than differences. While Apple can’t necessarily fix the problems with Net Neutrlity, they can change the way people communicate around the world and create more alternatives for more people.
With iOS devices proliferating throughout the world at an amazing rate, it won’t be long until calling your friend in France and talking to them face-to-face from the palm of your hand will be commonplace and free. If you read the writing on the wall, you’ll see that it’s already begun.
1 I’d imagine that Apple also knows that 3G is reaching its EOL (end-of-life) soon, and doesn’t want its customers having a poor experience. If I were Apple, this would be something I’d be seriously considering, as well. The 3G versions are different from the wifi-only models in small ways, and it makes a difference to the overall experience. For the record, I do like the ease of the 3G model a whole lot more.
Thanks to Dazzie D for the picture.
As the Apple news starts reaching a fever pitch, mostly surrounding the very imminent launch of the iPad 2 and perhaps some other things that Apple has up its sleeve, my attention is drawn to the unsung and curiously short-lived news regarding the MacBook Pro refresh and this new Thunderbolt port. I’ve been reading some other news throughout the day and it appears that there are some things that folks have missed so far, things that signal a great future for Apple and the personal computer industry as a whole.
One of the first of these important bits is, of course, Thunderbolt. Great technology, lots of bandwidth, high transfer speeds, etc. Generally a good thing. The article I linked to has a lot of great information regarding the specs and capabilities of this new transfer protocol. This, by itself, tells us that Apple’s current-gen displays will look gorgeous, that they’ll be able to run free while also co-existing nicely with other peripherals (hard drives, cameras, iOS devices). Good news, but what caught my eye was this little tidbit that came up a little while ago about Lion’s support for a desktop Retina Display.
But one particularly interesting under-the-hood change that we’ve learned about is an evolution of Mac OS X’s “resolution independence” features. Resolution independence has been a long talked about feature that would eventually provide support for high DPI (dots per inch) displays. While there has been the beginnings of support for it starting in Mac OS X Tiger (10.4) and into Mac OS X Snow Leopard (10.6), full support was never realized.
This is something that I was very interested in when it first rolled out, but never really saw the fruits of. With Thunderbolt (née Light Peak) technology, very high-resolution displays will become the norm. The incredible transfer speeds required to display all those juicy pixels are now present in Thunderbolt, and Apple has a way to get all those ports out there now, into the hands of the exact folks (photographers, filmmakers, journalists, designers, etc.) who would soak themselves with drool over a double-resolution display. Target audience, check.
Then there’s this. Didn’t really happen, did it? Apple, however, has a history of releasing things that they (or Mr. Jobs, more specifically) expressly deny. So now we’ve got super high-res screens on the fuzzy horizon (Just over there! Can you see them?) powered by a transfer technology that will ensure that people using them don’t go cross-eyed or have their retinas burned out by anything other than sweet, innumerable pixels. Suddenly, all those touchscreen iMacs that were never supposed to be look like they can be.
Let’s also talk about how Lion fits into this.
Apple’s new OS is a powerful statement for user-friendliness without the expense of power. Lion, being designed with all kinds of iOS conventions baked-in, seems oddly reminiscent of a hardware/software duet that mysteriously disappeared right before the launch of the iPhone some years ago. The keyboard, developed by a company called “FingerWorks,” was a capacitative (if I remember correctly) keyboard that allowed for multiple fingers on the board simultaneously. I was going to buy one for my 12″ PowerBook G4, when suddenly the device was nowhere to be found. The company’s website stated that they had been acquired by Apple, and I started telling my friends to get ready for something huge.
I’m not sure where to find these videos anymore, but FingerWorks’ instructional videos on their pages look oddly like what I’m seeing in Apple’s own marketing material for Lion. While not expressly a touchscreen OS, Apple will undoubtedly start adjusting their future plans to be able to create computers that have that capability. Even though it isn’t what they’re designed for now, the older paradigm of keyboard percussion and mouse gymnastics will shift one day, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts that Apple wants to be at that bleeding edge.
While perhaps not quite where we’re headed, the idea of a beautiful, completely interactive table that syncs with the phone/camera/device that you lay on top of it (NFC, anyone?) and allows us to interact with our information naturally is a science fiction dream, and Apple’s vision is putting it within reach once again.
UPDATED: A couple folks asked about the title of the post. The title is actually a line from a poem written by a martial artist about Aikido, the next line is “Throw, like thunder.” Seeing as how the post is about Thunderbolt, I thought I’d add something related in there. Sorta esoteric, but fun.
Apple also made a small, but very meaningful change to their iOS app store, namely the shift to a button labeled “Install.”
While this may appear on the surface to be merely cosmetic, looking deeper reveals a lot of information in light of all the movement Apple has been making recently in building out the data center and rolling out the tall ladders for cloud (or pseudo-cloud) computing. AppleInsider discusses the physical processes that are beginning to facilitate this, but here is the first
What we see here is a blurring of the lines between local and cloud storage. If a button is labeled “Install,” it implies that the app is close at hand, just a tap away in order to be in front of us and usable.
Consider the language Apple uses when downloading and installing apps from the App Store. While the app is being downloaded, the user sees “Loading…” below the app, creating the impression that the app is not being fetched from some far-away place, but that the app is being unwrapped, that it’s simply starting up for the first time. As the process continues, “Loading…” changes to “Installing…,” which further increases the similarity to a locally-stored app. Shortly thereafter, the app is ready, and the user can go to town.
Displaying “Install” in the app store, instead of the app’s price, puts the user at ease that they already own this piece of software, that Apple is keeping track and taking care of all of their software for them, and that they have their own personal software vault from which any app they own is accessible to them at any time.
Think about that change in the juxtaposition to the old way of computing, when installing a program meant loading a physical disc into a tray and transferring the data onto a computer. Think about the programs that actually required that the disc be in the tray. This is a distinct and marked shift away from that type of application and media, a shift toward user-friendliness, toward ease-of-use.
Once again, this is good technology. The computer gets out of the way, and we are able to engage our information more quickly, without a break in thought, without losing ourselves to the process. We are able to focus, explore, create. We are able to be more human.
Came across an interesting post on TUAW today:
Some advantages of the newly integrated suite of server administrative software include a guided setup process for configuring a Mac as a server; “local and remote administration – for users and groups, push notifications, file sharing, calendaring, mail, contacts, chat, Time Machine, VPN, web, and wiki services – all in one place”; “simple, profile-based setup and management for Mac OS X Lion, iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch devices” with Profile Manager; Wiki Server 3, designed to make it “even easier to collaborate, share, and exchange information”; and WebDAV services that give iPad users “the ability to [wirelessly] access, copy, and share documents on the server from applications such as Keynote, Numbers, and Pages.”
What we’re seeing is a paradigm shift in home computer usage. More and more people are shifting away from traditional desktop configurations for their everyday computing and adopting the iPad as their primary method of getting access to the information they want. This as inevitable as it is surprising. Inevitable, because mobile computers have increasingly become the focal point of the technology world; surprising, because it happened so fast and so definitively. I need more than the fingers on my hands to count the number of people who use the iPad as their primary computer. As they become more powerful and ever more portable, that number will increase.
iPad sales have also been staggering, especially when compared to other manufacturers (HP, Samsung), and has captured huge percentages of the market (even markets that don’t even really belong to it). Hence, people are starting to wonder if it makes sense to even own a computer if this sort of thing starts becoming the norm.
Unfortunately, the iPad still needs to sync to something, and this something is quickly changing into less of a computing device and more of a server. The fact that Lion (Mac OS 10.7) will essentially allow any Mac owner to function as a server is quite interesting, and I believe it shows Apple’s future plans under the surface.
Apple likes Mac OS, and believes that it will survive for a long, long time. I agree with this, but I believe that the Mac OS will shift subtly away from its current place as the OS that people see to the OS that works under the surface. It’s a powerful statement about the future roles of the “computer” and “user.” In Apple’s future, the “computer” should be invisible, providing a means for people to access what they need, when they need it. The “user” simply gets access to what he or she wants through one of the many pipelines that transfer his or her data.
This is a trend that I have been participating in for a while, through apps like Simplify (RIP) and now Audiogalaxy, LogMeIn, and Air Sharing. The whole idea is that my iPad serves as a window/portal to everything that I may need.
Introducing a “server” option to a standard install of Mac OS Lion is Apple telling the world that soon, the computer they have sitting in the den will grow wings and live in the cloud.
Things are heating up, folks. When I originally posted about Apple’s move towards a unified payment system united under the iTunes umbrella, I was thinking pretty big picture, but there’s even more possibility here that I hadn’t considered. Run with me.
Recently, I was turned on to a company called Green Dot (GDOT) that has made a name for itself supplying pre-paid reloadable debit cards, mostly on the west coast. I was intrigued by the company’s quick growth during a time of economic recession, and I realized that, of course, people are moving away from credit cards and more towards debit transactions. Green Dot allows people from a myriad of income levels to have access to all the conveniences that a credit card allows in the modern marketplace with the added benefits of security and anonymity. Awesome.
So when I predicted a near-field payment system, I wasn’t considering a marriage of the two ideas, but the notion seems even more powerful now that I’ve read this piece by Tim O’Reilly and this post by Peter-Paul Koch. See what’s happening here, in my opinion, is a sea change in the way people are going to be managing their money, and it’s going to be Apple-based.
This may sound crazy, but we’re running with it, remember? Apple will introduce a mobile payment system, with the hardware to support it being present in all new models of iOS devices going forward (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad). As these devices proliferate (even moreso than they are now), we’re going to start seeing adoption of devices with these NFC capabilities start to rise significantly as the older models are phased out (think 2-3 generations of devices, which is 2-3 years in Apple land) and the NFC-equipped models become prevalent and cheap. As people start turning to these devices as their mobile wallets, they will also start using iTunes as their primary hub of payment, again with possible banking/credit services being offered by some new branch of Apple (not likely, but possible). As NFC becomes a de facto standard, people will start to see the iPhone as part of their lifestyle to a greater degree than they do now. At present, people still view the iPhone as a luxury item, something that is generally incompatible with their budget/spending patterns, or something that doesn’t fit their image. This will change as the iPhone begins to shift from a high-SES indicator to a mainstream societal mainstay. Apple will undoubtedly continue to produce products that will hold a significant amount of mindshare and indicate a high SES, but the fact is that the iPhone, or, more specifically, owning an NFC-equipped iPhone, will no longer be out of reach for the majority of people in just a few short years. This will bring about a massive paradigm shift in our handling of transactions across the country, and possibly the world. It will be a beautiful thing to see people of all income levels and socioeconomic strata using the same device, deriving the same enjoyment out of it. This may even signal a societal shift towards a resource-based economy, but I believe I’m being a tad optimistic there.
As Apple continues to grow, I am still amazed that their innovation does not show any signs of slowing down. Get ready, folks, this will be an interesting two years.