Category Archives: computers

Why I Need an iPad

I’m one of those who feel the iPad is the right tool for the job.

This is mostly meant as a reply to this blogthread. But it’s also more generally about my personal reaction to Apple’s iPad announcement.

Some background.

I’m an ethnographer and a teacher. I read a fair deal, write a lot of notes, and work in a variety of contexts. These days, I tend to spend a good amount of time in cafés and other public places where I like to work without being too isolated. I also commute using public transit, listen to lots of podcast, and create my own. I’m also very aural.

I’ve used a number of PDAs, over the years, from a Newton MessagePad 130 (1997) to a variety of PalmOS devices (until 2008). In fact, some people readily associated me with PDA use.

As soon as I learnt about the iPod touch, I needed one. As soon as I’ve heard about the SafariPad, I wanted one. I’ve been an intense ‘touch user since the iPhone OS 2.0 release and I’m a happy camper.

(A major reason I never bought an iPhone, apart from price, is that it requires a contract.)

In my experience, the ‘touch is the most appropriate device for all sorts of activities which are either part of an other activity (reading during a commute) or are simply too short in duration to constitute an actual “computer session.” You don’t “sit down to work at your ‘touch” the way you might sit in front of a laptop or desktop screen. This works great for “looking up stufff” or “checking email.” It also makes a lot of sense during commutes in crowded buses or metros.

In those cases, the iPod touch is almost ideal. Ubiquitous access to Internet would be nice, but that’s not a deal-breaker. Alternative text-input methods would help in some cases, but I do end up being about as fast on my ‘touch as I was with Graffiti on PalmOS.

For other tasks, I have a Mac mini. Sure, it’s limited. But it does the job. In fact, I have no intention of switching for another desktop and I even have an eMachines collecting dust (it’s too noisy to make a good server).

What I miss, though, is a laptop. I used an iBook G3 for several years and loved it. For a little while later, I was able to share a MacBook with somebody else and it was a wonderful experience. I even got to play with the OLPC XO for a few weeks. That one was not so pleasant an experience but it did give me a taste for netbooks. And it made me think about other types of iPhone-like devices. Especially in educational contexts. (As I mentioned, I’m a teacher)

I’ve been laptop-less for a while, now. And though my ‘touch replaces it in many contexts, there are still times when I’d really need a laptop. And these have to do with what I might call “mobile sessions.”

For instance: liveblogging a conference or meeting. I’ve used my ‘touch for this very purpose on a good number of occasions. But it gets rather uncomfortable, after a while, and it’s not very fast. A laptop is better for this, with a keyboard and a larger form factor. But the iPad will be even better because of lower risks of RSI. A related example: just imagine TweetDeck on iPad.

Possibly my favourite example of a context in which the iPad will be ideal: presentations. Even before learning about the prospect of getting iWork on a tablet, presentations were a context in which I really missed a laptop.

Sure, in most cases, these days, there’s a computer (usually a desktop running XP) hooked to a projector. You just need to download your presentation file from Slideshare, show it from Prezi, or transfer it through USB. No biggie.

But it’s not the extra steps which change everything. It’s the uncertainty. Even if it’s often unfounded, I usually get worried that something might just not work, along the way. The slides might not show the same way as you see it because something is missing on that computer or that computer is simply using a different version of the presentation software. In fact, that software is typically Microsoft PowerPoint which, while convenient, fits much less in my workflow than does Apple Keynote.

The other big thing about presentations is the “presenter mode,” allowing you to get more content than (or different content from) what the audience sees. In most contexts where I’ve used someone else’s computer to do a presentation, the projector was mirroring the computer’s screen, not using it as a different space. PowerPoint has this convenient “presenter view” but very rarely did I see it as an available option on “the computer in the room.” I wish I could use my ‘touch to drive presentations, which I could do if I installed software on that “computer in the room.” But it’s not something that is likely to happen, in most cases.

A MacBook solves all of these problems. and it’s an obvious use for laptops. But how, then, is the iPad better? Basically because of interface. Switching slides on a laptop isn’t hard, but it’s more awkward than we realize. Even before watching the demo of Keynote on the iPad, I could simply imagine the actual pleasure of flipping through slides using a touch interface. The fit is “natural.”

I sincerely think that Keynote on the iPad will change a number of things, for me. Including the way I teach.

Then, there’s reading.

Now, I’m not one of those people who just can’t read on a computer screen. In fact, I even grade assignments directly from the screen. But I must admit that online reading hasn’t been ideal, for me. I’ve read full books as PDF files or dedicated formats on PalmOS, but it wasn’t so much fun, in terms of the reading process. And I’ve used my ‘touch to read things through Stanza or ReadItLater. But it doesn’t work so well for longer reading sessions. Even in terms of holding the ‘touch, it’s not so obvious. And, what’s funny, even a laptop isn’t that ideal, for me, as a reading device. In a sense, this is when the keyboard “gets in the way.”

Sure, I could get a Kindle. I’m not a big fan of dedicated devices and, at least on paper, I find the Kindle a bit limited for my needs. Especially in terms of sources. I’d like to be able to use documents in a variety of formats and put them in a reading list, for extended reading sessions. No, not “curled up in bed.” But maybe lying down in a sofa without external lighting. Given my experience with the ‘touch, the iPad is very likely the ideal device for this.

Then, there’s the overall “multi-touch device” thing. People have already been quite creative with the small touchscreen on iPhones and ‘touches, I can just imagine what may be done with a larger screen. Lots has been said about differences in “screen real estate” in laptop or desktop screens. We all know it can make a big difference in terms of what you can display at the same time. In some cases, two screens isn’t even a luxury, for instance when you code and display a page at the same time (LaTeX, CSS…). Certainly, the same qualitative difference applies to multitouch devices. Probably even more so, since the display is also used for input. What Han found missing in the iPhone’s multitouch was the ability to use both hands. With the iPad, Han’s vision is finding its space.

Oh, sure, the iPad is very restricted. For instance, it’s easy to imagine how much more useful it’d be if it did support multitasking with third-party apps. And a front-facing camera is something I was expecting in the first iPhone. It would just make so much sense that a friend seems very disappointed by this lack of videoconferencing potential. But we’re probably talking about predetermined expectations, here. We’re comparing the iPad with something we had in mind.

Then, there’s the issue of the competition. Tablets have been released and some multitouch tablets have recently been announced. What makes the iPad better than these? Well, we could all get in the same OS wars as have been happening with laptops and desktops. In my case, the investment in applications, files, and expertise that I have made in a Mac ecosystem rendered my XP years relatively uncomfortable and me appreciate returning to the Mac. My iPod touch fits right in that context. Oh, sure, I could use it with a Windows machine, which is in fact what I did for the first several months. But the relationship between the iPhone OS and Mac OS X is such that using devices in those two systems is much more efficient, in terms of my own workflow, than I could get while using XP and iPhone OS. There are some technical dimensions to this, such as the integration between iCal and the iPhone OS Calendar, or even the filesystem. But I’m actually thinking more about the cognitive dimensions of recognizing some of the same interface elements. “Look and feel” isn’t just about shiny and “purty.” It’s about interactions between a human brain, a complex sensorimotor apparatus, and a machine. Things go more quickly when you don’t have to think too much about where some tools are, as you’re working.

So my reasons for wanting an iPad aren’t about being dazzled by a revolutionary device. They are about the right tool for the job.

WordPress MU, BuddyPress, and bbPress on Local Machine

Was recently able to install and integrate three neat products based on Automattic code:

  1. WordPress µ 2.8.1 (a.k.a. WPµ, WordPress MU… Platform for multi-user blogs and Content Management System).
  2. BuddyPress 1.0.2 (A social network system based on WordPress µ).
  3. bbPress 1.0.1 (A forum system based on WordPress).

Did this after attending WordCamp Montreal. The fact that the large majority of WordPress and WordPress µ are merging motivated me, in part, to try it out. I currently serve as webguru for the Society for Linguistic Anthropology.

This is all on a local machine, a Mac mini running Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard.

It took me several attempts so it might not be as obvious as one would think.

I wrote as detailed a walkthrough as I could. Not exactly for the faint of heart. And, as IANAC, some things aren’t completely clear to me. I wish I could say I’m able to troubleshoot other people’s problems with these systems, but it’s really not the case. I ended up working out diverse issues, but it took me time and concentration.

A few resources I’ve used:

  1. Andy Peatling’s tutorial on BuddyPress (and WordPress µ) on a Mac.
  2. Sam Bauers’s screencast on integrating WordPress and bbPress. (Not µ or BuddyPress. Requires login.)
  3. Trent Adams’s tutorial on BuddyPress/bbPress integration.
  4. This file: <WPinstall>/wp-content/plugins/buddypress/bp-forums/installation-readme.txt (also available here).

I’ve used many other resources, but they turned out to be confusing, partly because of changes in versions. In fact, the last file was the most useful one. It’s a very different method from the other ones, but it worked. It’s actually much simpler than the other methods and it still gave me what I needed. I now have a working installation of a complete platform which integrates blogging, social networking, and forums. In a way, it’s like having simple versions of Drupal and Ning in the same install. Perfect for tests.

Some conventions.

<dbname> commondb
<name> common
<username> alexandre
<bbname> forums
<adminpass> (generated) 5e6aee85e6d4
<blogname> uethnographer
<blogpass> (generated) 601a6100
<confkey> (generated)
  1. [T] refers to things done in
  2. [B] refers to things done in the browser ( in my case)
  3. Brackets serve to refer to installation-specific items. I could have used variables.
    1. <dbname> is the database name in MySQL (can be anything)
    2. <name> is the name used for the WordPress install (domain/<name>; can be anything)
    3. <username> is the abbreviated username on the local machine. ~<username> would be the user’s home directory. Determined in Mac OS X.
    4. <bbname> is the name for the bbPress install  (domain/<name>/<bbname>; can be anything)
    5. <adminpass> is the password for the WordPress admin (generated)
    6. <blogname> is the main username for a blog administrator (can be anything)
    7. <blogpass> is the password for that blog administrator (generated)
    8. <confkey> is a confirmation key upon creating that blog administrator (generated)

So, here’s what I did.

  1. Switched to a user with administrative rights on my Mac. I usually work with a non-admin user and grant admin privileges when needed. Quite cumbersome in this case.
  2. Opened
  3. Installed and configured MAMP
    1. Downloaded and copied the MAMP folder to /Applications
    2. Opened
    3. Changed MAMP preferences
      1. Preferences
      2. Ports: “Default Apache and MySQL ports”
      3. Apache: Choose: /Users/<username>/Sites
      4. Clicked Ok
  4. Clicked “Open home page” in MAMP
  5. Went to phpMyAdmin
  6. Created a database in phpMyAdmin with <dbname> as the name
  7. Edited /etc/hosts to add: localhost.localdomain
  8. Downloaded WordPress µ through Subversion: [T] svn co /Users/<username>/Sites/<name>
  9. Went to my local WordPress µ home: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>
  10. Filled in the necessary information
    1. “Use subdirectories” (subdomains would be a huge hassle)
    2. Database name: <dbname>
    3. User Name: root
    4. Password: root (changing it is a huge hassle)
    5. Title (title for the main WPµ install, can be anything)
    6. Email (valid email for the WPµ admin)
    7. Saved changes
  11. Noted <adminpass> for later use (generated and displayed)
  12. Changed file ownership: [T] chmod 755  /Users/<username>/Sites/<name> /Users/<username>/Sites/<name>/wp-content/
  13. Logged into WPµ admin: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/wp-admin/
    1. User: admin
    2. Password: <adminpass>
  14. Changed plugin options: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/wp-admin/wpmu-options.php#menu
    1. Plugins: check
    2. “Allow new registrations”: “Enabled. Blogs and user accounts can be created.”
    3. “Add New Users”: Yes
    4. “Upload media button”: Checked Images/Videos/Music
    5. “Blog upload space”: 100MB
    6. Clicked “Update Options”
  15. Installed BuddyPress directly
    1. [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/wp-admin/plugin-install.php?tab=plugin-information&plugin=buddypress&TB_iframe=true&width=640&height=542
    2. Clicked “Install”
    3. Clicked “Activate”
    4. Moved BP themes to the right location: [T] mv /Users/<username>/Sites/<name>/wp-content/plugins/buddypress/bp-themes /Users/<username>/Sites/<name>/wp-content/
    5. Moved the BP Default Home theme to the right location: [T] mv /Users/<username>/Sites/<name>/wp-content/bp-themes/bphome/ /Users/<username>/Sites/<name>/wp-content/themes/
    6. Activated the BP Default Home theme: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/wp-admin/wpmu-themes.php
      1. Clicked yes on “BuddyPress Default Home Theme”
      2. Clicked Update Themes
    7. Activated the BP theme
      1. [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/wp-admin/themes.php
      2. Clicked “Activate” on “BuddyPress Default Home”
    8. Added widgets to the BP theme
      1. [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/wp-admin/widgets.php
      2. Placed widgets through drag-and-drop
    9. Checked the BuddyPress install: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>
  16. Installed and integrated bbPress
    1. Downloaded bbPress using Subversion: [T] svn co /Users/<username>/Sites/<name>/<bbname>/
    2. Went through the install process: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/<bbname>/bb-admin/install.php
    3. Go to step 1
    4. Added the following details
      1. Database Name <dbname> (same as WPMU)
      2. Database user root
      3. Database password root
      4. Clicked Save database configuration file
    5. Check for configuration file
    6. Go to Step 2
    7. Added the following details
      1. Add integration settings
      2. Add user database integration settings (without the cookie integration)
      3. User database table prefix wp_
      4. WordPress MU primary blog ID 1
      5. Clicked “Save WordPress integration settings”
    8. Clicked “Go to step 3”
      1. Added the following details
        1. Site Name (Name of the bbPress site, can be anything)
        2. Key Master username admin
        3. First Forum Name (Name of the first forum, can be anything)
        4. Clicked “Save site settings”
    9. Complete the installation
    10. Ignored the warnings
    11. Went through the writing options: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/<bbname>/bb-admin/options-writing.php
      1. Username: admin
      2. Password: <adminpass>
      3. Clicked on XML-RPC Enable the bbPress XML-RPC publishing protocol.
      4. Clicked “Save changes”
    12. Went to the discussion options: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/<bbname>/bb-admin/options-discussion.php
      1. “Enable Pingbacks”: “Allow link notifications from other sites.”
      2. Clicked “Save Changes”
    13. Moved the BuddyPress/bbPress integration plugin to the right location: [T] mv /Users/<username>/Sites/<name>/wp-content/plugins/buddypress/bp-forums/bbpress-plugins/buddypress-enable.php /Users/<username>/Sites/<name>/<bbname>/my-plugins/
    14. Went to the bbPress plugin options: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/<bbname>/bb-admin/plugins.php
      1. Clicked “Activate” on “BuddyPress Support Plugin”
    15. Went to the WPµ site: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>
    16. Clicked “Log Out”
    17. Registered a new user: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/register
      1. Username <blogname>
      2. Email address (blog administrator’s valid email)
      3. Name (full name of blog administrator, can be anything)
      4. Clicked “Next”
      5. “Blog Title” (name of the blog administrator’s main blog, can be anything)
      6. Clicked “Signup”
      7. Checked for email at blog administrator’s email address
      8. Clicked confirmation link: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/activate?key=<confkey>
      9. Noted <blogpass> (generated)
      10. Gave administrative rights to the newly created blog administrator: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/<bbname>/bb-admin/users.php
        1. Logged in with admin/<adminpass>
        2. Clicked on <blogname>: Edit
        3. Clicked on “User Type: Administrator”
        4. Clicked on “Update Profile”
      11. Edited the bbPress configuration file:
        1. [T] open -e /Users/<username>/Sites/<name>/<bbname>/bb-config.php
        2. Added the following:
          1. $bb->bb_xmlrpc_allow_user_switching = true;
          1. (say, after /**#@-*/)
        3. Saved
      12. Went to BuddyPress options: [B] http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/wp-admin/admin.php?page=buddypress/bp-forums/bp-forums-admin.php
        1. Logged in with admin/<adminpass>
        2. Added the following details
          1. bbPress URL: http://localhost.localdomain/<name>/<bbname>/
          1. bbPress username <blogname>
          1. bbPress password <blogpass>
        3. Clicked “Save Settings”
  17. That was it. Phew!

I ended up with a nice testing platform. All plugins I’ve tried so far work quite well, are extremely easy to install, and give me ideas about the SLA’s site.

It was an involved process and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s afraid of fiddling with a bit of code. But I did try it out and it seems fairly robust as a method. I could almost create a script for this but that’d mean I might receive support requests that I just can’t handle. I could also make a screencast but that’d require software I don’t have (like Snapz Pro). Besides, I think copy paste is easier, if you remember to change the appropriate items. Obviously, anyone who wants to use this procedure as-is should replace all the bracketed items with the appropriate ones for your install. Some are generated during the process, others you can choose (such as the name of the database).

I’m not extremely clear on how secure this install is. But I’m only running it when I need to.

You can ask me questions in the comments but I really can’t guarantee that I’ll have an answer.

Mac Tip #1: Get RAM

Part of the series.
(Series created on August 13, 2011, and applied retroactively…)

Two years ago, I’ve said something similar about my XP machine (emachines H3070). But now that I’m getting , I’ll say it about Macs too: get more RAM!

I recently got this used Mac mini Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz (early 2006). It’s a low end machine but it’s much better than the Mac mini G4 I was buying from somebody else. One thing, though, is that with 1 GB of RAM, the G4 felt snappier than the Core Duo did with 512 MB of RAM. I just maxed the Core Duo’s RAM to 2 GB and it now feels snappier than the G4 did, for the brief amount of time I had it.

Of course, for casual uses, differences in speed aren’t that noticeable, which is the main point of my previous post on coming back to Mac. But, in this case, the difference between the same Mac mini Intel Core Duo with 512 MB of RAM and the same machine with 2 GB is quite noticeable, even in casual use.

I bought the RAM through NCIX, one of the better known online retailers of PC equipment in Canada. Two Kingston-branded 1 GB PC2-5300 SO-DIMMs for 48.17$, shipping included. It cost me as much for a single 1 GB PC-2700 DIMM (also Kingston-branded), locally (without shipping). This might have been one of the most trouble-free online buying experiences I’ve ever had.

For one thing, NCIX accepts Interac Online. Interac is the main system for debit cards in Canada and it’s accepted in almost any “brick and mortar” business. Despite having lived in the US where “flash cards” debit cards with credit card numbers are common, I still prefer Interac over flash cards.  It’s the first time I’ve used Interac Online and I wish all businesses accepted it.

Then, the whole order was well-documented, with a clear description of the step-by-step process. Too often, online retailers rely on the one confirmation message “we received your payment and we should ship your item soon.” One part of that documentation came from my bank, because I’ve used Interac Online. Contrary to Paypal, the operation happens directly.

The item was shipped rather promptly. It could have been faster but that wasn’t an issue. And it arrived quickly, over air, through Purolator. That part cost me about 3$, which is very good for prompt shipment of such a low-cost item (“super saver” shipping usually applies only to more costly orders). The items were properly packaged, with recycled paper.

All in all, I’ve had a very good experience with NCIX.

Then, there was the matter of installing the RAM. My experience with doing this on the Mac mini G4 was rather painless, in part because the box had already been opened. But the Mac mini Intel Core Duo is also much more difficult to upgrade because the SO-DIMMs are hidden under the chassis.

In both cases, I used the Method Shop tutorial on Mac mini RAM upgrade. These instructions are quite good overall. I wish there had been pictures of the four screws which need to be taken off, but it’s mostly a matter of making sure I had the right one. Contrary to  what this tutorial implies, I didn’t have any issue taking these screws out and in, even though my screwdriver (the same I’d use for glasses or sax screws) isn’t magnetized.

One thing I did find difficult, though, was plugging back the tiny black cable by the computer’s (PRAM?) battery. Sounds silly but it was actually pretty difficult.

Inserting the top SO-DIMM was also a bit difficult but it’s mostly because I wasn’t clear on how angled it had to be. At the same time, those SO-DIMMs were much easier to secure in than most DIMMs I’ve installed in the past, including the one on the Mac mini G4.

I had a short moment of panic when I tested the mini while it was still “naked.” When I powered it on, I got a screen with a missing folder. I turned the mini off, played with the chassis a bit, and heard a “click.” Turns out the connection to the hard drive hadn’t been made. Because of the episode with the infamous tiny black cable, I worried that it might have been an issue with a cable I hadn’t noticed.

Putting the computer back together was actually easier than with the G4. No idea why, but it worked right away.

So, for less than 50$, I have greatly improved performance on this Mac mini. And it’s such a neat machine (small, quiet, practical) that this RAM installation marks the end of a rather successful process of getting Back in Mac.

Before installing the RAM, I’ve transferred a number of things from a previous Mac OS X machine (had saved everything on an old iPod) and from my XP machine. That machine now sleeps under my desk. I can VNC to it if I need to, and it still holds my ca. 100 GB iTunes Music library. But once I buy a 1 TB 7200 RPM external hard drive, it probably won’t be that useful.

Back in Mac: Low End Edition

Part of the series.
(Series created on August 13, 2011, and applied retroactively…)

Today, I’m buying an old Mac mini G4 1.25GHz. Yes, a low end computer from 2005. It’ll be great to be back in Mac after spending most of my computer life on XP for three years.

This mini is slower than my XP desktop (emachines H3070). But that doesn’t really matter for what I want to do.

There’s something to be said about computers being “fast enough.” Gamers and engineers may not grok this concept, since they always want more. But there’s a point at which computers don’t really need to be faster, for some categories of uses.

Car analogies are often made, in computer discussions, and this case seems fairly obvious. Some cars are still designed to “push the envelope,” in terms of performance. Yet most cars, including some relatively inexpensive ones, are already fast enough to run on highways beyond the speed limits in North America. Even in Europe, most drivers don’t tend to push their cars to the limit. Something vaguely similar happens with computers, though there are major differences. For instance, the difference in cost between fast driving and normal driving is a factor with cars while it isn’t so much of a factor with computers. With computers, the need for cooling and battery power (on laptops) do matter but, even if they were completely solved, there’s a limit to the power needed for casual computer use.

This isn’t contradicting Moore’s Law directly. Chips do increase exponentially in speed-to-cost ratio. But the effects aren’t felt the same way through all uses of computers, especially if we think about casual use of desktop and laptop “personal computers.” Computer chips in other devices (from handheld devices to cars or DVD players) benefit from Moore’s Law, but these are not what we usually mean by “computer,” in daily use.
The common way to put it is something like “you don’t need a fast machine to do email and word processing.”

The main reason I needed a Mac is that I’ll be using iMovie to do simple video editing. Video editing does push the limits of a slow computer and I’ll notice those limits very readily. But it’ll still work, and that’s quite interesting to think about, in terms of the history of personal computing. A Mac mini G4 is a slug, in comparison with even the current Mac mini Core 2 Duo. But it’s fast enough for even some tasks which, in historical terms, have been processor-intensive.

None of this is meant to say that the “need for speed” among computer users is completely manufactured. As computers become more powerful, some applications of computing technologies which were nearly impossible at slower speeds become easy to do. In fact, there certainly are things which we don’t even imagine becoming which will be easy to do in the future, thanks to improvements in computer chip performance. Those who play processor-intensive games always want faster machines and they certainly feel the “need for speed.” But, it seems to me, the quest for raw speed isn’t the core of personal computing, anymore.

This all reminds me of the Material Culture course I was teaching in the Fall: the Social Construction of Technology, Actor-Network Theory, the Social Shaping of Technology, etc.

So, a low end computer makes sense.

While iMovie is the main reason I decided to get a Mac at this point, I’ve been longing for Macs for three years. There were times during which I was able to use somebody else’s Mac for extended periods of time but this Mac mini G4 will be the first Mac to which I’ll have full-time access since late 2005, when my iBook G3 died.

As before, I’m happy to be “back in Mac.” I could handle life on XP, but it never felt that comfortable and I haven’t been able to adapt my workflow to the way the Windows world works. I could (and probably should) have worked on Linux, but I’m not sure it would have made my life complete either.

Some things I’m happy to go back to:

  • OmniOutliner
  • GarageBand
  • Keynote
  • Quicksilver
  • Nisus Thesaurus
  • Dictionary
  • Preview
  • Terminal
  • TextEdit
  • BibDesk
  • iCal
  • Address Book
  • Mail
  • TAMS Analyzer
  • iChat

Now I need to install some RAM in this puppy.

Handhelds for the Rest of Us?

Ok, it probably shouldn’t become part of my habits but this is another repost of a blog comment motivated by the OLPC XO.

This time, it’s a reply to Niti Bhan’s enthusiastic blogpost about the eeePC: Perspective 2.0: The little eeePC that could has become the real “iPod” of personal computing

This time, I’m heavily editing my comments. So it’s less of a repost than a new blogpost. In some ways, it’s partly a follow-up to my “Ultimate Handheld Device” post (which ended up focusing on spatial positioning).

Given the OLPC context, the angle here is, hopefully, a culturally aware version of “a handheld device for the rest of us.”

Here goes…

I think there’s room in the World for a device category more similar to handhelds than to subnotebooks. Let’s call it “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU). Something between a cellphone, a portable gaming console, a portable media player, and a personal digital assistant. Handheld devices exist which cover most of these features/applications, but I’m mostly using this categorization to think about the future of handhelds in a globalised World.

The “new” device category could serve as the inspiration for a follow-up to the OLPC project. One thing about which I keep thinking, in relation to the “OLPC” project, is that the ‘L’ part was too restrictive. Sure, laptops can be great tools for students, especially if these students are used to (or need to be trained in) working with and typing long-form text. But I don’t think that laptops represent the most “disruptive technology” around. If we think about their global penetration and widespread impact, cellphones are much closer to the leapfrog effect about which we all have been writing.

So, why not just talk about a cellphone or smartphone? Well, I’m trying to think both more broadly and more specifically. Cellphones are already helping people empower themselves. The next step might to add selected features which bring them closer to the OLPC dream. Also, since cellphones are widely distributed already, I think it’s important to think about devices which may complement cellphones. I have some ideas about non-handheld tools which could make cellphones even more relevant in people’s lives. But they will have to wait for another blogpost.

So, to put it simply, “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU) are somewhere between the OLPC XO-1 and Apple’s original iPhone, in terms of features. In terms of prices, I dream that it could be closer to that of basic cellphones which are in the hands of so many people across the globe. I don’t know what that price may be but I heard things which sounded like a third of the price the OLPC originally had in mind (so, a sixth of the current price). Sure, it may take a while before such a low cost can be reached. But I actually don’t think we’re in a hurry.

I guess I’m just thinking of the electronics (and global) version of the Ford T. With more solidarity in mind. And cultural awareness.

Google’s Open Handset Alliance (OHA) may produce something more appropriate to “global contexts” than Apple’s iPhone. In comparison with Apple’s iPhone, devices developed by the OHA could be better adapted to the cultural, climatic, and economic conditions of those people who don’t have easy access to the kind of computers “we” take for granted. At the very least, the OHA has good representation on at least three continents and, like the old OLPC project, the OHA is officially dedicated to openness.

I actually care fairly little about which teams will develop devices in this category. In fact, I hope that new manufacturers will spring up in some local communities and that major manufacturers will pay attention.

I don’t care about who does it, I’m mostly interested in what the devices will make possible. Learning, broadly speaking. Communicating, in different ways. Empowering themselves, generally.

One thing I have in mind, and which deviates from the OLPC mission, is that there should be appropriate handheld devices for all age-ranges. I do understand the focus on 6-12 year-olds the old OLPC had. But I don’t think it’s very productive to only sell devices to that age-range. Especially not in those parts of the world (i.e., almost anywhere) where generation gaps don’t imply that children are isolated from adults. In fact, as an anthropologist, I react rather strongly to the thought that children should be the exclusive target of a project meant to empower people. But I digress, as always.

I don’t tend to be a feature-freak but I have been thinking about the main features the prototypical device in this category should have. It’s not a rigid set of guidelines. It’s just a way to think out loud about technology’s integration in human life.

The OS and GUI, which seem like major advantages of the eeePC, could certainly be of the mobile/handheld type instead of the desktop/laptop type. The usual suspects: Symbian, NewtonOS, Android, Zune, PalmOS, Cocoa Touch, embedded Linux, Playstation Portable, WindowsCE, and Nintendo DS. At a certain level of abstraction, there are so many commonalities between all of these that it doesn’t seem very efficient to invent a completely new GUI/OS “paradigm,” like OLPC’s Sugar was apparently trying to do.

The HftRoU require some form of networking or wireless connectivity feature. WiFi (802.11*), GSM, UMTS, WiMAX, Bluetooth… Doesn’t need to be extremely fast, but it should be flexible and it absolutely cannot be cost-prohibitive. IP might make much more sense than, say, SMS/MMS, but a lot can be done with any kind of data transmission between devices. XO-style mesh networking could be a very interesting option. As VoIP has proven, voice can efficiently be transmitted as data so “voice networks” aren’t necessary.

My sense is that a multitouch interface with an accelerometer would be extremely effective. Yes, I’m thinking of Apple’s Touch devices and MacBooks. As well as about the Microsoft Surface, and Jeff Han’s Perceptive Pixel. One thing all of these have shown is how “intuitive” it can be to interact with a machine using gestures. Haptic feedback could also be useful but I’m not convinced it’s “there yet.”

I’m really not sure a keyboard is very important. In fact, I think that keyboard-focused laptops and tablets are the wrong basis for thinking about “handhelds for the rest of us.” Bear in mind that I’m not thinking about devices for would-be office workers or even programmers. I’m thinking about the broadest user base you can imagine. “The Rest of Us” in the sense of, those not already using computers very directly. And that user base isn’t that invested in (or committed to) touch-typing. Even people who are very literate don’t tend to be extremely efficient typists. If we think about global literacy rates, typing might be one thing which needs to be leapfrogged. After all, a cellphone keypad can be quite effective in some hands and there are several other ways to input text, especially if typing isn’t too ingrained in you. Furthermore, keyboards aren’t that convenient in multilingual contexts (i.e., in most parts of the world). I say: avoid the keyboard altogether, make it available as an option, or use a virtual one. People will complain. But it’s a necessary step.

If the device is to be used for voice communication, some audio support is absolutely required. Even if voice communication isn’t part of it (and I’m not completely convinced it’s the one required feature), audio is very useful, IMHO (I’m an aural guy). In some parts of the world, speakers are much favoured over headphones or headsets. But I personally wish that at least some HftRoU could have external audio inputs/outputs. Maybe through USB or an iPod-style connector.

A voice interface would be fabulous, but there still seem to be technical issues with both speech recognition and speech synthesis. I used to work in that field and I keep dreaming, like Bill Gates and others do, that speech will finally take the world by storm. But maybe the time still hasn’t come.

It’s hard to tell what size the screen should be. There probably needs to be a range of devices with varying screen sizes. Apple’s Touch devices prove that you don’t need a very large screen to have an immersive experience. Maybe some HftRoU screens should in fact be larger than that of an iPhone or iPod touch. Especially if people are to read or write long-form text on them. Maybe the eeePC had it right. Especially if the devices’ form factor is more like a big handheld than like a small subnotebook (i.e., slimmer than an eeePC). One reason form factor matters, in my mind, is that it could make the devices “disappear.” That, and the difference between having a device on you (in your pocket) and carrying a bag with a device in it. Form factor was a big issue with my Newton MessagePad 130. As the OLPC XO showed, cost and power consumption are also important issues regarding screen size. I’d vote for a range of screens between 3.5 inch (iPhone) and 8.9 inch (eeePC 900) with a rather high resolution. A multitouch version of the XO’s screen could be a major contribution.

In terms of both audio and screen features, some consideration should be given to adaptive technologies. Most of us take for granted that “almost anyone” can hear and see. We usually don’t perceive major issues in the fact that “personal computing” typically focuses on visual and auditory stimuli. But if these devices truly are “for the rest of us,” they could help empower visually- or hearing-impaired individuals, who are often marginalized. This is especially relevant in the logic of humanitarianism.

HftRoU needs a much autonomy from a power source as possible. Both in terms of the number of hours devices can be operated without needing to be connected to a power source and in terms of flexibility in power sources. Power management is a major technological issue, with portable, handheld, and mobile devices. Engineers are hard at work, trying to find as many solutions to this issue as they can. This was, obviously, a major area of research for the OLPC. But I’m not even sure the solutions they have found are the only relevant ones for what I imagine HftRoU to be.

GPS could have interesting uses, but doesn’t seem very cost-effective. Other “wireless positioning systems” (à la Skyhook) might reprsent a more rational option. Still, I think positioning systems are one of the next big things. Not only for navigation or for location-based targeting. But for a set of “unintended uses” which are the hallmark of truly disruptive technology. I still remember an article (probably in the venerable Wired magazine) about the use of GPS/GIS for research into climate change. Such “unintended uses” are, in my mind, much closer to the constructionist ideal than the OLPC XO’s unified design can ever get.

Though a camera seems to be a given in any portable or mobile device (even the OLPC XO has one), I’m not yet that clear on how important it really is. Sure, people like taking pictures or filming things. Yes, pictures taken through cellphones have had a lasting impact on social and cultural events. But I still get the feeling that the main reason cameras are included on so many devices is for impulse buying, not as a feature to be used so frequently by all users. Also, standalone cameras probably have a rather high level of penetration already and it might be best not to duplicate this type of feature. But, of course, a camera could easily be a differentiating factor between two devices in the same category. I don’t think that cameras should be absent from HftRoU. I just think it’s possible to have “killer apps” without cameras. Again, I’m biased.

Apart from networking/connectivity uses, Bluetooth seems like a luxury. Sure, it can be neat. But I don’t feel it adds that much functionality to HftRoU. Yet again, I could be proven wrong. Especially if networking and other inter-device communication are combined. At some abstract level, there isn’t that much difference between exchanging data across a network and controlling a device with another device.

Yes, I do realize I pretty much described an iPod touch (or an iPhone without camera, Bluetooth, or cellphone fees). I’ve been lusting over an iPod touch since September and it does colour my approach. I sincerely think the iPod touch could serve as an inspiration for a new device type. But, again, I care very little about which company makes that device. I don’t even care about how open the operating system is.

As long as our minds are open.

One Laptop Per Child Was a Success

Repost of a comment to Bruce Nussbaum’s September, 2007 article about the OLPC project.

NussbaumOnDesign It’s Time To Call One Laptop Per Child A Failure, – BusinessWeek

While my comment is held for moderation, I thought I might post it here. I still have a lot more to say about these issues (and about the OLPC), and I should group everything I’ve written about that project and its outcomes. But it will have to wait for another time.

Isn’t it time to revisit this issue, now that the OLPC team and XO device are undergoing major changes?
Isn’t it time to call OLPC something?

I think the OLPC project was, indeed, a success. Negroponte was successful at giving exposure to the idea of low-cost laptops. The design team has succeeded in finding solutions to a number of technological issues, including Bitfrost security and Pixel Qi’s screen. Pilot projects have paved the way for projects by other teams. The G1G1 program brought fairly convenient subnotebooks to technology enthusiasts in the United States. And the multiple discussions we’re having about the OLPC contain a number of insightful comments about constructivist learning, constructionist teaching, the need for careful research in design projects, global inequalities, and the ways people empower themselves through the use of diverse tools.
As an education project, the OLPC worked.

But I also think the XO-1 should not, in fact, be purchased by education systems in different parts of the world.
No, I really don’t think I’m being stubborn or opinionated. I just think that this part of the OLPC project may distract us from the OLPC success.
After crash testing the XO-1 for a week and looking at a broad range of issues surrounding the machine, I would say that it’s a decent prototype to get people thinking about some interesting features (like ubiquitous mesh networking, journaling, and collaborative activities). But that laptop is too flawed to be the standard electronic device to make available to “children abroad,” let alone forced upon them through massive government purchases.
I could expand but I feel there is too much focus on the XO-1 already.

Cellphones have been mentioned several times in comments to this post and I sincerely think there’s something going on.
We need to keep an open mind, especially given the differences in how cellphones are used in diverse parts of the world.
Learners and teachers are, in fact, using cellphones in learning and teaching. For instance, cellphones are used for interactive quizzes ( Scholars at Sapporo Gakuin University and elsewhere have been using cellphones in connection with course management systems. A large part of what people throughout the world are doing with cellphones can easily be called “lifelong learning,” whether or not there is a formal structure with a teacher in front of a passive classroom.
Some people do write long-form texts (including novels) on cellphones. Some cellphones are, in fact, used to read textbooks and other (in my mind more appropriate) text formats. Making a digital drawing and putting together a music score are probably doable on several cellphones: they’re trivial tasks on a very basic smartphone. In fact, musicking with something like Bhajis Loops is as compatible with Papert-style constructionism as you can get. I dare say, even more so than Jean Piché’s TamTam on the OLPC XO (with all due respect to Jean and his team, of course).
It seems quite clear that a device design based on cellphones should at least be taken into consideration by people interested in “the rest of the world.”
Sure, some of the latest high-end smartphones can be quite costly, at retail. But even the difference between manufacturing costs for an OLPC XO-1 and an Apple iPhone is minimal. Clearly, there’s an economic logic behind the fact that global cellphone penetration already reached 3.3 billion.
I’m really not a cellphone fanboy. In fact, I’ve only been using cellphones for a few months and they have been very basic models lent by friends and relatives. But, as an ethnographer, I can’t help but notice that cellphones have a role to play, as “disruptive technology,” in helping people empower themselves. Especially in those parts of the world which were of interest to the old OLPC project.
Maybe cellphone-related devices aren’t the one solution to every child’s needs. But what evidence do we have that laptops were, indeed, the single device type to deploy to children in as diverse parts of the world as Nigeria, Peru, and Mongolia?
So, the naïve question is: if OLPC really was an education project, why did it focus so exclusively on a single electronic device? Why not plan a complete product line? Why not write a cross-platform application layer? Why not build appropriate factories in local communities? Why not build a consortium with local projects? Yes, all these things are being done now, including by former members of the OLPC team. But they weren’t part of the OLPC project. They can be potential outcomes of the OLPC project.

So, it’s time to call OLPC a success. And move on.
Let’s now look at other projects around the world which are helping kids learn, with or without some neat tools. Let’s not lose the momentum. Let’s not focus too much on the choice of an operating system or on the specific feature set the “educational technology version of the Ford T” may have. Sure, we can and probably should talk openly about these things.
But there are so many other important things to take into consideration…

Touch Thoughts: Apple's Handheld Strategy

I’m still on the RDF.
Apple‘s March 6, 2008 event was about enterprise and development support for its iPhone and iPod touch lines of handheld devices. Lots to think about.

(For convenience’s sake, I’ll lump together the iPod touch and the iPhone under the name “Touch,” which seems consistent with Apple’s “Cocoa Touch.”)

Been reading a fair bit about this event. Interesting reactions across the board.

My own thoughts on the whole thing.
I appreciate the fact that Phil Schiller began the “enterprise” section of the event with comments about a university. Though universities need not be run like profit-hungry corporations, linking Apple’s long-standing educational focus with its newly invigorated enterprise focus makes sense. And I had a brief drift-off moment as I was thinking about Touch products in educational contexts.

I’m surprised at how enthusiastic I get about the enterprise features. Suddenly, I can see Microsoft’s Exchange make sense.

I get the clear impression that even more things will come into place at the end of June than has been said by Apple. Possibly new Touch models or lines. Probably the famous 3G iPhone. Apple-released apps. Renewed emphasis on server technology (XServe, Mac OS X Server, XSan…). New home WiFi products (AirPort, Time Capsule, Apple TV…). New partnerships. Cool VC-funded startups. New features on the less aptly named “iTunes” store.

Though it was obvious already, the accelerometer is an important feature. It seems especially well-adapted to games and casual gamers like myself are likely to enjoy games this feature makes possible. It can also lead to very interesting applications. In fact, the “Etch and Sketch” demo was rather convincing as a display of some core Touch features. These are exactly the features which help sell products.
Actually, I enjoyed the “wow factor” of the event’s demos. I’m convinced that it will energize developers and administrators, whether or not they plan on using Touch products. Some components of Apple’s Touch strategy are exciting enough that the more problematic aspects of this strategy may matter a bit less. Those of us dreaming about Android, OpenMoko, or even a revived NewtonOS can still find things to get inspired by in Apple’s roadmap.

What’s to come, apart from what was announced? No idea. But I do daydream about all of this.
I’m especially interested in the idea of Apple Touch as “mainstream, WiFi, mobile platform.” There’s a lot of potential for Apple-designed, WiFi-enabled handhelds. Whether or not they include a cellphone.
At this point, Apple only makes five models of Touch products: three iPod touches and two iPhones. Flash memory is the main differentiating factor within a line. It makes it relatively easy to decide which device to get but some product diversity could be interesting. While some people expect/hope that Apple will release radically new form factors for Touch devices (e.g., a tablet subnotebook), it’s quite likely that other features will help distinguish Apple’s Touch hardware.
Among features I’d like to get through software, add-ons, or included in a Touch product? Number of things, some alluded to in the “categories” for this post. Some of these I had already posted.

  • Quality audio recording (to make it the ideal fieldwork audio tool).
  • eBook support (to compete with Amazon’s Kindle).
  • Voice support (including continuous dictation, voice interface…).
  • Enhanced support for podcasting (interacting with podcasts, sending audio/video responses…)
  • Video conferencing (been thinking about this for a while).
  • GPS (location will be big).
  • Mesh networking (a neat feature of OLPC’s XO).
  • Mobile WiMAX (unlikely, but it could be neat).
  • Battery pack (especially for long trips in remote regions).
  • Add-on flash memory (unlikely, but it could be useful, especially for backup).
  • Offline storage of online content (likely, but worth noting).
  • Inexpensive model (especially for “emerging markets”).
  • Access to 3G data networks without cellular “voice plan” (unlikely, but worth a shot).
  • Alternative input methods (MessagEase, Graffiti, adaptive keyboard, speech recognition…).
  • Use as Mac OS X “host” (kind of like a user partition).
  • Bluetooth/WiFi data transfer (no need for cables and docks).
  • MacBook Touch (unlikely, especially with MacBook Air, but it could be fun).
  • Automatic cell to VoIP-over-WiFi switching (saving cell minutes).

Of course, there are many obvious ones which will likely be implemented in software. I’m already impressed by the Omni Group’s pledge to develop a Touch version of their flagship GTD app.