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.

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A Mixed Bag

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe several classes at a local school that had received significant funding for a project that I had not yet had the privilege of experiencing first-hand. Every single student in the school, from top to bottom, was given a netbook. The make and model chosen for the netbooks is irrelevant to this article; it is the profound impact on the class that I wish to discuss. As I observed classes over the course of several days, I was struck by the implications this technology had for the students, the classroom, and the teachers, and how I see it evolving in the near future.

To set the stage a little bit, some background…

The school I was observing at is, in a word, privileged. The community that the school services is one with deep pockets, and the decision to equip the students with netbooks (or other similar device) was inevitable. The unfortunate reality is, however, that you cannot gradually introduce a program like this without some students in the school feeling left out, or without giving some students an unfair advantage/disadvantage (depending on which side of the fence you’re on). The only way to implement a shift like this is to simply jump in feet first. Within a few months, the school received hundreds upon hundreds of tiny portable computers, padded sleeves to carry them in, and extra SMARTboards for the classrooms. Not every single classroom is equipped with one, but most are.

Teachers had to receive training on the usage of the new technology, and students were also taught how to use some of the essential software that was installed on each netbook. Thus begins our tale.

By the time I got into the classroom to observe, the students and teachers had already spent some time using the hardware and software, and most were acclimated to the entire setup. Despite having time, training, and resources available to help troubleshoot any possible hiccups in the workflow (there tech support staff available in the school during the day), I was amazed at how much time was spent simply getting the technology to work. On some days, literally a third of the period was spent troubleshooting various problems that the students encountered while using their netbooks, getting the software to work, etc. The number of problems the students encountered was staggering. From connecting to their home’s wifi network to connecting to the school’s file servers from home, to even saving their work reliably, the students came in every single day with new issues. After spending a few minutes trying to address these issues the teacher would usually be left without a clear answer, and send the student(s) for tech support. Clearly, there is a problem here.

In addition to the students’ woes, the teachers experienced their share of grief as well. For many teachers more accustomed to teaching without screens and gadgets glowing and humming out of every corner of the classroom, the addition of SMARTboards and netbooks was an unwelcome distraction and unnecessary hurdle to overcome. That being said, they did welcome many benefits these new additions could bring, but simply felt too stretched to learn to use the hardware/software in a way that would be beneficial for their students.

In addition to the simple issues of usability are those of behavior and focus. Due to the vast difference in experience between the students and the teachers with this sort of technology, students often take advantage of the teachers’ unfamiliarity with the more obscure capabilities of the operating system. What ends up happening is a sad mix of frustration and unnecessary stagnation. The students see the technology as an “out” since they don’t see much value in what the teacher is trying to impart in them.

The whole thing could be so amazing. The synergy could be flawless, the technology integrated into the lessons. The main issue is at the system as it is remains incomplete. The only option students have is to use a system designed for the corporate world, not the classroom. In the corporate world, the network exists outside the individual, despite the individual. Workers plug in to the network with their device (computer, tablet, phone, etc.), do whatever they need to do, and leave. The “network” existed before they got there, and persists after they leave. The classroom, however, is different. All of the “networking” done in the classroom is ad-hoc, spontaneous, and fluid. The network in a classroom setting exists because of the students; it is the students and only the students, without a common ground to unite behind, the network falls apart. The technology that the students and teachers are given does not take this into account, and the entire system suffers because of it. What could be a classroom that moves at the speed of thought has become a classroom hampered by uncooperative thinking machines.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t potential. I’m sure there are companies and groups of people out there devoted to creating a complete, top-to-bottom solution for the classroom that allows the teacher to explore their subject area in ways we can only imagine right now. Until I hold that solution in my hand, however, I will continue to hope.