A Novel Approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Corrected spelling of “Padfone.”

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The Target Demographic

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

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

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

TechCrunch’s take:

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

And:

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

Good stuff all around. Well done, EBA.


Dysgraphia

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.

And this!

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.


Use the Force, Paul, or: How I Beat the AT&T Death Star

What a great movie.In case you haven’t noticed, the 21st century is upon us. Aside from my flying car, there are a few other neat Jetson gadgets that I’m looking for that I have, in a way, already found.

One of the other things that I’m looking for is freedom from this ridiculous carrier-centric phone world. There should be no reason that an iPhone (or any other phone, for that matter) cannot be used on other networks (barring technological incompatibilities between technologies like GSM and CDMA). There should also be no reason for carriers to charge me an exorbitant amount of money for “minutes” that I do not use. Before reaching through the void into the world of sweet, sweet data, my monthly phone bill was around $175.00 for two lines, unlimited messaging, 700 voice minutes, and unlimited data. I had almost 4,000 rollover minutes accrued since I re-upped my plan last July (when I got the iPhone 4).

Four. Thousand.

Clearly, the majority of my monthly bill (about $80.00) was being put towards minutes that I was very rarely using. Some months would see both phones using less than 100 minutes combined. I was paying for more minutes than I would ever want to use, but there was no way for me to get a data-only plan on my phone unless I a) could prove that I was hearing-impaired, or b) devised some way to get a data-only SIM card and somehow provision my phone to take advantage of that.

I went with option b.

What I noticed when I first started playing with my first iPad was that the SIM card in both the iPad and iPhone 4 are of the “Micro-SIM” variety, which means they’re just a fraction of the size of a normal SIM card. Surely there had to be a way to use the iPad SIM card in the iPhone, right?

Sadly, a quick swap of the SIM cards yielded no results for the iPhone, and while the iPad could receive data, it couldn’t make any calls. Not that I’d want to hold that up to my head to talk, anyway. I gave up on the idea of a cheap pocket web portal and decided that I’d just start sterilizing my arm for removal.

Fast forward almost a year, over a thousand dollars in payments to the Empire, and I’m fed up. I don’t need this. Time to bust out my Jedi skills on this Death Star.

The key player in all of this is a powerful and evolving service that Google offers called Google Voice. For those familiar with the service, Google voice can be leveraged to free your number from your carrier and place it “in the cloud,” allowing you to open up a new line of service with any carrier, but with a little extra weight behind your bargaining because you don’t have to purchase a heavily subsidized phone. Plans can be purchased on a month-to-month basis instead of on a contractual basis. Negotiating with those carriers can be tough, though, so you’ll have to brush up on your Jedi Mind Tricks.

Porting Your Number

The first thing you’ll need to do is port your number over to Google Voice. For true freedom, this is really the only way to go. When I had separate Google Voice and AT&T phone numbers, people were simply confused when I would contact them from one or the other. They’d constantly be asking me which number was my “real” number, or why I keep changing phones. For my friends, it didn’t matter that much. For my family, it was confusing. I’ve always been on the cutting edge of technological trends, and trying to explain this cutting-edge VOIP service was difficult, especially since my parents have had the same phone plans for the better part of a decade. Porting is easy, but there are a few things you need to know. Here’s what it boils down to:

  1. Porting your number to Google Voice will cancel your current phone line with your carrier. This is effective almost immediately, despite taking a while for the transition to complete on the back end.
  2. Google charges you $20.00 for porting your number.
  3. If you are still under contract with your carrier, you are on the hook for the ETF. This is can be pretty high, depending on how much time you have left before your contract is up.
  4. Text messages will take several days to route properly. If, like me, you sometimes suffer from communication overload, this will be a blessing for you. When people ask you if you got their message, you can legitimately say, “Nope, I was porting my number over to another carrier.” Done deal.
  5. You cannot make outgoing calls using Google Voice. Technically. You can, however, use Google Voice to approximate the normal “phone” experience really well. I’ll go into that soon.
  6. Google Voice software for the iPhone leaves a lot to be desired. It works, it’ll get you where you need to go, but none of it is perfect. I’m sure Google will get around to updating its iPhone app eventually, but it needs a lot of work right now. Just a heads-up.

Setting Up Seamless Calling

This is tricky. I’m not going to lie, I was extremely frustrated with my calls until I explored my options a bit. You can benefit from my experimentation here.

Google Voice isn’t a phone. Instead, Google Voice connects phone numbers together. For the tinfoil hat crowd out there, this might be a dealbreaker. Google is going to have your voice passing through their servers, period. There’s no way to do this without having Google act as the middleman. I don’t care about this, because I figure they’ve got enough data on me already. If you’re already here, though, you probably don’t care too much about that.

Because Google Voice doesn’t actually make any calls, you have to find a reliable way to receive calls on your phone without actually paying for minutes. I found the solution in a couple places. Skype and TextFree are all services with various degrees of free and paid options that provide VOIP service. Of those two, I’d say that TextFree is definitely, unequivocally, the best option I tested. The basic process for both, however, is the same. With Skype, you’re going to need two paid plans to properly route calls. One plan to allow unlimited incoming and outgoing calls, another to give you an “online number” that people can call. The combined cost of these two services is around $60.00. Not bad, especially considering that this gives you a year of unlimited calling to US-based numbers. You then need to add your newly-purchased Skype number to your Google Voice settings. Under normal circumstances, Google Voice would then call you, ask you to enter the code it displays on the screen, and you’d be all set. This is where it starts to break down,

I will say this as plainly and clearly as I can: Skype’s app is horrible. When I say horrible, I mean absolutely awful. I don’t know if they gave the coding and design over to a bunch of blind, epileptic monkeys or if they’re really just that bad. At this point, if they told me the monkey story, I’d say it makes sense. The fact that this software got out the door under human watch, however, is not good. There are so many failings, but here’s the biggest one: the Skype app doesn’t use Apple’s standard push notifications, it uses some sort of bastardization of local notifications. The end result is that 9/10 attempts to contact you will be lost to voicemail, and 9/10 attempts to contact someone else will result in that person being greeted by dead air. I could really go on and on, but it’s best you read my review on iTunes. It’s scathing.

Assuming you can get the verification to work, you’ll be all set to make and receive calls from your new Google Voice number. Google Voice acts as the middle man – it contacts you first; when you pick up (if Skype actually notifies you there’s an incoming call, that is), Google Voice rings the other number. Skype’s call quality is high, probably the highest of the possible apps I tried, so it wins points there.

The other solution is TextFree with Voice for iPhone. TextFree, as far as I can tell, is almost flawless. TextFree allows you to receive unlimited incoming calls, which is perfect. Once again, “placing” a call through Google Voice actually tells Google Voice to ring the number you select (TextFree), which then pops up on your screen as an “incoming call.” When you answer the call in TextFree, Google Voice rings the other party. This, however, is almost flawless. TextFree with Voice uses Apple’s standard notification system, so the incoming calls pop up instantly. It’s amazing. And it’s free. No monthly or yearly costs if you don’t want to pay. I dropped $6.00 to eliminate the in-app ads, because I feel like the developers made a damn good app.

There are other VOIP solutions that you can pair with Google Voice, but these two were the best I’ve found so far (even though the Skype app is made of fail). If you have any questions about this, email me, I’m happy to help.

The final steps to making your phone work with an iPad SIM can be found here.

I’ve gone from paying $175.00 a month to $75.00 a month for two phones, unlimited texting, and all the voice I can eat. My data usage (including the occasional video chat on 3G) comes to about 2-3 GB/month, which means that I get the occasional $10.00 overage charge for an extra gig of data. No big deal. Wifi is, as always, free, so I don’t pay for data when I’m home or at a Starbucks banging out posts.

The other thing this does is changes the feel of the iPhone from a phone to a portable web portal. This actually makes a huge difference in how I interact with it. Instead of pulling it out to make calls and send texts, I use it like an iPad mini, and it makes total sense this way. All data, all the time.

Plus, I get to be a rebel. Can’t put a price on that.


Kinaesthetics

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I’ve spent the past week or so using my iPad essentially sans home button, and it’s amazing. I’m convinced that this is how the iPad was meant to work. The multitouch gestures enable me to flip between apps with my hand like shuffling books around on a desk. Sliding four fingers up on the screen is so natural, like pushing a stack of paper slightly out of the way to peek underneath it. It actually feels tactile, like I’m actually moving the screen ever so slightly. It’s really an amazing way to interact with a magic window.

Aside from that, though, it’s incredible physical. I find myself getting into my work more, making larger gestures with my arms and body as I’m interacting with my iPad. Maybe that makes me look like a crazy person, but it makes the entire iPad experience that much more engaging. How many gadgets/appliances do you actually get into like that?

And, it’s that little extra geekery that gets me through the day, natch.


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.


AT&T is wrong.

As an avid iPhone user, I have had to put up with AT&T and their relatively lousy service for about a year now. My first iPhone was jailbroken and unlocked on the T-Mobile network, and it worked really well, despite the workarounds I had to implement to get it to full functionality. The iPhone really is a wonderful device, and even the first version handled the network switch like a champ. Furthermore, T-Mobile would consistently go the extra mile and support a phone that wasn’t even exclusive to them. They were awesome.

Now that I’ve had to deal with AT&T for a year, I realize how bad their service really is. There are so many points during my travels through dense urban environments at which I lose service or drop calls that I’ve resorted to communicating almost exclusively through text messages when I’m in those situations. Data is almost impossible. I’m upset by that. I have a premium device and I’m paying premium dollars for service that is *SURPRISE* not premium.

This latest move by AT&T? Completely asinine. Apparently, AT&T hates their customers. This is purely, PURELY motivated by greed. That’s it. Their decision is made on history. HISTORY. Not innovation, imagination, or forward-thinking. History. Hey, Randall. Try driving down the street only looking in the rear-view mirror. You’re going to crash. You know why? Because you’re making stupid decisions for the FUTURE based on what’s behind you. But wait…for YOU, this is a GREAT decision, because it happens on the verge of the introduction of a brand-new device with a brand-new operating system that could allow said device to, in theory, slurp up data 24/7.

I bet you started drooling when you started imagining all the brand-new yachts you were going to buy with all that money you were going to make, you turd. This is a statement that says, “Our customer satisfaction doesn’t matter to us. We want money, plain and simple.”

Let’s do an experiment, though. Let’s assume that you’re actually making this decision based on data usage history, and that it’s better for the customer. I’m going to clarify a few things just so we’re on the same page.

People with unlimited data plans are not using that much data, and most use less than 200MB each month, right? Even people who do use a lot of data are using less than 2GB, from what I understand. So they’re not really taxing the network. They’re not. I mean…that’s basically what you’re saying, right? Just because someone has access to “unlimited” data doesn’t mean they’re using it. Again, they’re not taxing the network. So why cap the data? There’s almost no reason…unless you’re a greedy pig.

You know what I’d wager? I’d wager that Netflix and Hulu both magically release their apps to coincide with the 4.0 OS release. And I’d wager that AT&T signs a bunch of people up with capped data. I’d also bet that people start streaming the bejeezus out of Pandora and last.fm and Slacker Radio. I think they’ll start using things like Air Video twice as much, and AT&T will be laughing all the way to the bank.

AT&T knows that people are using more and more data every day, and they see that as an opportunity to hold a gun to your face and rob you blind. They WILL take advantage of people.

June 7th will be a sad day for the wireless marketplace in the US.