Tag Archives: Dasher

Speculating on Apple's Touch Strategy

This is mere speculation on my part, based on some rumours.

I’m quite sure that Apple will come up with a video-enabled iPod touch on September 9, along with iTunes 9 (which should have a few new “social networking” features). This part is pretty clear from most rumour sites.

AppleInsider | Sources: Apple to unveil new iPod lineup on September 9.

Progressively, Apple will be adopting a new approach to marketing its touch devices. Away from the “poorperson’s iPhone” and into the “tiny but capable computer” domain. Because the 9/9 event is supposed to be about music, one might guess that there will be a cool new feature or two relating to music. Maybe lyrics display, karaoke mode, or whatever else. Something which will simultaneously be added to the iPhone but would remind people that the iPod touch is part of the iPod family. Apple has already been marketing the iPod touch as a gaming platform, so it’s not a radical shift. But I’d say the strategy is to make Apple’s touch devices increasingly more attractive, without cannibalizing sales in the MacBook family.

Now, I really don’t expect Apple to even announce the so-called “Tablet Mac” in September. I’m not even that convinced that the other devices Apple is preparing for expansion of its touch devices lineup will be that close to the “tablet” idea. But it seems rather clear, to me, that Apple should eventually come up with other devices in this category. Many rumours point to the same basic notion, that Apple is getting something together which will have a bigger touchscreen than the iPhone or iPod touch. But it’s hard to tell how this device will fit, in the grand scheme of things.

It’s rather obvious that it won’t be a rebirth of the eMate the same way that the iPod touch wasn’t a rebirth of the MessagePad. But it would make some sense for Apple to target some educational/learning markets, again, with an easy-to-use device. And I’m not just saying this because the rumoured “Tablet Mac” makes me think about the XOXO. Besides, the iPod touch is already being marketed to educational markets through the yearly “Back to school” program which (surprise!) ends on the day before the September press conference.

I’ve been using an iPod touch (1st Generation) for more than a year, now, and I’ve been loving almost every minute of it. Most of the time, I don’t feel the need for a laptop, though I occasionally wish I could buy a cheap one, just for some longer writing sessions in cafés. In fact, a friend recently posted information about some Dell Latitude D600 laptops going for a very low price. That’d be enough for me at this point. Really, my iPod touch suffices for a lot of things.

Sadly, my iPod touch seems to have died, recently, after catching some moisture. If I can’t revive it and if the 2nd Generation iPod touch I bought through Kijiji never materializes, I might end up buying a 3rd Generation iPod touch on September 9, right before I start teaching again. If I can get my hands on a working iPod touch at a good price before that, I may save the money in preparation for an early 2010 release of a new touch device from Apple.

Not that I’m not looking at alternatives. But I’d rather use a device which shares enough with the iPod touch that I could migrate easily, synchronize with iTunes, and keep what I got from the App Store.

There’s a number of things I’d like to get from a new touch device. First among them is a better text entry/input method. Some of the others could be third-party apps and services. For instance, a full-featured sharing app. Or true podcast synchronization with media annotation support (à la Revver or Soundcloud). Or an elaborate, fully-integrated logbook with timestamps, Twitter support, and outlining. Or even a high-quality reference/bibliography manager (think RefWorks/Zotero/Endnote). But getting text into such a device without a hardware keyboard is the main challenge. I keep thinking about all sorts of methods, including MessagEase and Dasher as well as continuous speech recognition (dictation). Apple’s surely thinking about those issues. After all, they have some handwriting recognition systems that they aren’t really putting to any significant use.

Something else which would be quite useful is support for videoconferencing. Before the iPhone came out, I thought Apple may be coming out with iChat Mobile. Though a friend announced the iPhone to me by making reference to this, the position of the camera at the back of the device and the fact that the original iPhone’s camera only supported still pictures (with the official firmware) made this dream die out, for me. But a “Tablet Mac” with an iSight-like camera and some form of iChat would make a lot of sense, as a communication device. Especially since iChat already supports such things as screen-sharing and slides. Besides, if Apple does indeed move in the direction of some social networking features, a touch device with an expanded Address Book could take a whole new dimension through just a few small tweaks.

This last part I’m not so optimistic about. Apple may know that social networking is important, at this point in the game, but it seems to approach it with about the same heart as it approached online services with eWorld, .Mac, and MobileMe. Of course, they have the tools needed to make online services work in a “social networking” context. But it’s possible that their vision is clouded by their corporate culture and some remnants of the NIH problem.

Ah, well…

Apple's App Store for OSX iPhone Devices

Though it hasn’t been announced on its website, Apple’s App Store for OSX iPhone applications is now online. In fact, enterprising iPhone users can allegedly upgrade their phone’s firmware to 2.0 in order to take advantage of this online software shop. As an iPod touch user, I have no such luxury. As of this moment, the firmware upgrade for iPod touch hasn’t been released. Since that upgrade will be free for iPhone and paid for iPod touch, the discrepancy isn’t surprising.

With those third-party applications, my ‘touch will become more of a PDA and the iPhone will become more of a smartphone.

Still, I was able to access the App Store using iTunes 7.7 (which I downloaded directly from Apple’s iTunes website since it wasn’t showing up in Apple Software Update). Adding the “Applications” item in the left-hand sidebar (available through the “General” tab in iTunes Preferences), I can see a list of applications already downloaded in iTunes (i.e., nothing at first launch). At the bottom of that page, there’s a link to get more applications which leads to the App Store.  There, I can browse applications, get free apps, or buy some of the paid ones (using the payment information stored in my iTunes account). Prices are the same in USD and CAD (since they are pretty much on par, it all makes sense). Searching and browsing for apps follows all the same conventions as with music, movies, podcasts, or iPod games. Application pages appear in searches for application names (say, “Trism“).

I went through a number of apps and eventually downloaded 28 free ones. I also noted a number of apps I would like to try, including Trism, Units, Things, Outliner, OmniFocus, Steps (one of the rare apps available in French), iCalorie, and one of the multiple Sudoku apps. However, I can’t put apps on a wishlist and demos aren’t available directly through iTunes (I’m assuming they’re available from the iPhone or iPod touch).

I’m actually looking forward to trying out all of these apps. I don’t tend to be an early adopter but this is one case for quick adoption, especially with free apps. I guess a small part of this is that, since Apple has sorted through these apps, I’m assuming none of them contains any malware. Not that I ever fully trust an organization or individual, but my level of trust is higher with the App Store than with, say, the usual software download site (VersionTracker.com, Tucows.com, Download.com, Handango.com). And I trust these download sites much more than the developer sites I find through Web searches.

One thing I notice very quickly is how small many of those apps were. After downloading 28 apps, my “Mobile Applications” folder is 31MB. Of course, many PDA apps were typically under 100KB, but given the size of OSX iPhone devices, I’m glad to notice that I can probably fit that I can probably fit a lot of applications in less than 1GB, leaving more room for podcasts, music, and pictures. On the other hand, filesizes are apparently not listed in the “Applications” section on iTunes (they’re specified on the individual apps’ pages).

Overall, there’s a number of obvious apps, many of which are PDA classic: to do lists, phrasebooks, clocks and timers, calculators (including tips calculators), converters, trackers, weather forecasts, and solitaire or other casual games (like sudoku). No surprise with any of these and I’ll probably use many of them. Typically, these can be difficult to select because developers have had very similar ideas but the apps have slightly different features. Typically, with those apps, free wins over extensive feature lists, even for very cheap software.

Speaking of price, I notice that AppEngines is selling 43 different Public Domain books as separate apps for 1$ each. Now, there’s nothing wrong with making money off Public Domain material (after all, there wouldn’t be a Disney Company without Public Domain works). But it seems strange to me that someone would nickel-and-dime readers by charging for access to individual Public Domain titles. Sure, a standalone app is convenient. But a good electronic book reader should probably be more general than book-specific. Not really because of size constraints and such. But because books are easily conceived as part of a library (or bookshelf), instead of being scattered on a handheld device. The BookZ Text Reader seems more relevant, in this case, and it’s compatible with the Project Gutenberg files. Charging 2$ for that text reader seems perfectly legitimate. For its part, Fictionwise has released a free eReader app for use with its proprietary format. Though it won’t transform OSX iPhone devices into a Kindle killer, this eReader app does seem to at least transfer books through WiFi. Since these books are copyrighted ones, the app can be a nice example of a convenient content marketplace.

I’m a bit surprised that the educational software section of the App Store isn’t more elaborate. It does contain 45 separate apps but several of those are language-specific versions of language tools or apps listed in other categories which happen to have some connection to learning. If it were me, I’d classify language tools in a separate category or subcategory and I might more obvious how different educational apps are classified. On the other hand, I’m quite surprised that Molecules isn’t listed in this educational section.

The reason I care so much is that I see touch devices generally as an important part of the future of education. With iPod touches being bundled with Mac sales in the current “Back-to-School” special and with the obvious interest of different people in putting touch devices in the hands of learners and teachers, I would have expected a slew of educational apps. Not to mention that educational apps have long populated lists of software offerings since the fondly remembered Hypercard days to PDAs and smartphones.

Among the interesting educational apps is Faber Acoustical‘s SignalScope. At 25$, it’s somewhat expensive for an OSX iPhone app, but it’s much less expensive than some equivalent apps on other platforms used to be. It’s also one of the more creative apps I’ve seen in the Store. Unfortunately, for apparently obvious reasons (the iPod touch has no embedded audio in), it’s only available on the iPhone.

Speaking of iPhone-only software… There’s already a way to get audio on the iPod touch using a third-party adapter. I understand that Apple isn’t supporting it officially but I wonder if the iPhone-only tag will prevent people from using it. Small point for most people, I guess. But it’d be really nice if I could use my ‘touch as a voice recorder. Would make for a great fieldwork tool.

One thing I wish were available on the App Store is an alternative mode for text entry. Though I’m already getting decent performance from the default virtual keyboard on my ‘touch, I still wish I had Dasher, MessagEase or even Graffiti.

Among the apps I’ve browsed, I see a number of things which could be described as “standalone versions of Web apps.” There’s already a good number of Web apps compatible or even customized for OSX iPhone devices. The standalone versions can be useful, in part because they can be used offline (great for WiFi-less situations, on the iPod touch). But these “standaloned Web apps” also don’t seem to really take full advantage of Apple’s Cocoa Touch. In the perception of value, I’d say that “standaloned Web apps” rate fairly low, especially since most Web apps are free to use (unless tied with an account on a Web service).

I was also surprised to see that a number of apps which are basically simple jokes are put for sale on the App Store. I was amused to see an OSX iPhone version of Freeverse’s classic “Jared, The Butcher of Songs.” But I’m puzzled by the fact that Hottrix is selling its iBeer app for 3$. Sure, it’s just 3$. But I don’t see the app providing with as much pleasure as a single taster of a craft beer. Not to mention that the beer itself looks (by colour, foam, and carbonation) like a bland pilsner and not like a flavourful beer.

Overall, I’d say the Store is well-made. Again, the same principles are used as for the iTunes Store generally. All application pages have screenshots and some of these screenshots give an excellent idea of what the application does, while other screenshots are surprisingly difficult to understand. Browsing the Store, I noticed how important icons seemed to be in terms of catching my attention. Some application developers did a great job at the textual description of their applications, also catching my attention. But others use “marketingspeak” to brag about their product, which has the effect of making the app more difficult to grasp. Given the number of apps already listed and the simplicity of the classification, such details become quite important. Almost (but not nearly as much) as price, in terms of making an app appealing.

It seems pretty clear to me (and to others, including some free market advocates), that price is an important issue. This was obvious to many of us for a while. But the opening of the App Store makes this issue very obvious.

For instance, regardless of his previous work, CNET journalist Don Reisinger is probably on to something when he argues, in essence, that the free apps may outweigh the benefits of the paid apps, on Apple’s App Store. Even though Apple allegedly coaxed developers into charging for their apps, the fact of the matter is that the App Store clearly shows that no-cost software can be a competitive advantage in the marketplace. The same advantage is obvious in many contexts, including in music. But, as a closed environment, the App Store could serve as an efficient case study in “competing with free.” One thing to keep in mind, as I keep saying, is that there are multiple types of no-cost offerings. In the software world (including on the App Store), there’s a large number of examples of successful applications which incurred no purchase on the users’ part. Yes, sometimes you need a bit of imagination to build a business model on top of no-cost software. But I think the commercial ventures enabled by these “alternative” business models are more diverse than people seem to assume.

One thing I noticed in terms of application pricing on the App Store is that there either seems to be a number of sweet spots or pricing schemes come from a force of habit. Sure, Apple only has a finite list of “tiers” for amounts which can be charged for a given app (with preset currency conversions). But I think that some tiers have been used more than others. For instance, 10$ seems fairly common as a threshold between truly inexpensive apps and a category similar to “shareware.” Some apps are actually as expensive as the desktop versions, though it seems that the most expensive app so far is under 100$.

One thing to note is that several developers of those early App Store products have been involved in Mac development for a while (the Omni Group being an obvious example) but there are also several organizations which seem to be entering Cocoa development for the first time. This could be a bigger halo effect in terms of Mac sales than the original iPod or the iPhone. Profit made through OSX iPhone apps (either through software cost, through services, or even through other monetization schemes) could lead them to develop software for OSX Leopard. At least, they already made an investment in the development platform.

It’ll be interesting to observe what happens with software pricing in relation to the “apparent hand” of a constrained market.

But I’m less interested in this market than in the actual apps. When can I install the “iPhone 2.0” firmware on my iPod touch? Is it now?

Note-Taking on OSX iPhone

Attended Dan Dennett’s “From Animal to Person : How Culture Makes Up our Minds” talk, yesterday. An event hosted by UQAM’s Cognitive Science Institute. Should blog about this pretty soon. It was entertaining and some parts were fairly stimulating. But what surprised me the most had nothing to do with the talk: I was able to take notes efficiently using the onscreen keyboard on my iPod touch (my ‘touch).

As I blogged yesterday, in French, it took me a while to realize that switching keyboard language on the ‘touch also changed the dictionary used for text prediction. Very sensical but I hadn’t realized it. Writing in English with French dictionary predictions was rather painful. I basically had to click bypass the dictionary predictions on most words. Even “to” was transformed into “go” by the predictive keyboard, and I didn’t necessarily notice all the substitutions done. Really, it was a frustrating experience.

It may seem weird that it would take me a while to realize that I could get an English predictive dictionary in a French interface. One reason for the delay is that I expect some degree of awkwardness in some software features, even with some Apple products. Another reason is that I wasn’t using my ‘touch for much text entry, as I’m pretty much waiting for OSX iPhone 2.0 which should bring me alternative text entry methods such as Graffiti, MessagEase and, one can dream, Dasher. If these sound like excuses for my inattention and absent-mindedness, so be it. 😀

At any rate, I did eventually find out that I could switch back and forth between French and English dictionaries for predictive text entry on my ‘touch’s onscreen keyboard. And I’ve been entering a bit of text through this method, especially answers to a few emails.

But, last night, I thought I’d give my ‘touch a try as a note-taking device. I’ve been using PDAs for a number of years and note-taking has been a major component of my PDA usage pattern. In fact, my taking notes on a PDA has been so conspicuous that some people seem to associate me quite directly with this. It may even have helped garner a gadget-freak reputation, even though my attitude toward gadgets tends to be quite distinct from the gadget-freak pattern.

For perhaps obvious reasons, I’ve typically been able to train myself to efficiently use handheld text entry methods. On my NewtonOS MessagePad 130, I initially “got pretty good” at using the default handwriting recognition. This surprised a lot of people because human beings usually have a very hard deciphering my handwriting. Still on the Newton, switching to Graffiti, I became rather proficient at entering text using this shorthand method. On PalmOS devices (HandSpring Visor and a series of Sony Clié devices), I was usually doubling on Graffiti and MessagEase. In all of these cases, I was typically able to take rather extensive notes during different types of oral presentations or simply when I thought about something. Though I mostly used paper to take notes during classes I’ve attended during most of my academic coursework, PDA text entry was usually efficient enough that I could write down some key things in realtime. In fact, I’ve used PDAs rather extensively to take notes during ethnographic field research.

So, note taking was one of the intended uses for my iPod touch. But, again, I thought I would have to wait for text entry alternatives to the default keyboard before I could do it efficiently. So that’s why I was so surprised, yesterday, when I found out that I was able to efficiently take notes during Dennett’s talk using only the default OSX iPhone onscreen keyboard.

The key, here, is pretty much what someone at Apple was describing during some keynote session (might have been the “iPhone Roadmap” event): you need to trust the predictions. Yes, it sounds pretty “touchy-feely” (we’re talking about “touch devices,” after all 😉 ). But, well, it does work better than you would expect.

The difference is even more striking for me because I really was “fighting” the predictions. I couldn’t trust them because most of them were in the wrong language. But, last night, I noticed how surprisingly accurate the predictions could be, even with a large number of characters being mistyped. Part of it has to do with the proximity part of the algorithm. If I type “xartion,” the algorithm guesses that I’m trying to type “cartoon” because ‘x’ is close to ‘c’ and ‘i’ is close to ‘o’ (not an example from last night but one I just tried). The more confident you are that the onscreen keyboard will accurately predict what you’re trying to type, the more comfortably you can enter text.  The more comfortable you are at entering text, the more efficient you become at typing, which begins a feedback loop.

Because I didn’t care that specifically about the content of Dennett’s talk, it was an excellent occasion to practise entering text on my ‘touch. The stakes of “capturing” text were fairly low. It almost became a game. When you add characters to a string which is bringing up the appropriate suggestion and delete those extra characters, the suggestion is lost. In other words, using the example above, if I type “xartion,” I get “cartoon” as a suggestion and simply need to type a space or any non-alphabetic character to accept that suggestion. But if I go on typing “xartionu” and go back to delete the ‘u,’ the “cartoon” suggestion disappears. So I was playing a kind of game with the ‘touch as I was typing relatively long strings and trying to avoid extra characters. I lost a few accurate suggestions and had to retype these, but the more I trusted the predictive algorithm, the less frequently did I have to retype.

During a 90 minute talk, I entered about 500 words. While it may not sound like much, I would say that it captured the gist of what I was trying to write down. I don’t think I would have written down much more if I had been writing on paper. Some of these words were the same as the ones Dennett uttered but the bulk of those notes were my own thoughts on what Dennett was saying. So there were different cognitive processes going on at the same time, which greatly slows down each specific process. I would still say that I was able to follow the talk rather closely and that my notes are pretty much appropriate for the task.

Now, I still have some issues with entering text using the ‘touch’s onscreen keyboard.

  • While it makes sense to make it the default that all suggestions are accepted, there could be an easier way to refuse suggestions that tapping the box where that suggestion appears.
  • It might also be quite neat (though probably inefficient) if the original characters typed by the user were somehow kept in memory. That way, one could correct inaccurate predictions using the original string.
  • The keyboard is both very small for fingers and quite big for the screen.
  • Switching between alphabetic characters and numbers is somewhat inefficient.
  • While predictions have some of the same effect, the lack of a “spell as you type” feature decreases the assurance in avoiding typos.
  • Dictionary-based predictions are still inefficient in bilingual writing.
  • The lack of copy-paste changes a lot of things about text entry.
  • There’s basically no “command” or “macro” available during text entry.
  • As a fan of outliners, I’m missing the possibility to structure my notes directly as I enter them.
  • A voice recorder could do wonders in conjunction with text entry.
  • I really just wish Dasher were available on OSX iPhone.

All told, taking notes on the iPod touch is more efficient than I thought it’d be but less pleasant than I wish it can become.

Bilinguisme sur OSX iPhone

Peut-être un peu bête de ma part, mais j’avais pas compris qu’en changeant de clavier sur mon iPod touch, je changeais aussi de dictionaire pour les prédictions.

Comme le clavier canadien-français fonctionne aussi bien en anglais qu’en français, je n’avais configuré que ce clavier. Mais j’écris plus souvent en anglais qu’en français et toutes sortes de suggestions en français rendaient très difficile l’écriture en anglais.

Récemment, j’ai voulu taper le signe de dollar («$») sur mon iPod touch mais, à chaque fois que j’appuyais sur ce signe sur le clavier virtuel, c’était le signe d’euro qui apparaissait («€»). Très bizarre, surtout que c’est bel et bien un clavier canadien-français (QWERTY avec «é» dans le bas, à droite), et non un clavier français (AZERTY, chiffres avec touche majuscule…). J’ai alors ajouté un clavier U.S. à la configuration et non seulement m’est-il alors possible de taper le signe de dollar, mais les suggestions sont maintenant en anglais des États-Unis. Toujours pas idéal, mais très différent des suggestions françaises quand on écrit en anglais. D’ailleurs, j’imagine qu’il y a aussi un dictionaire personalisé qui ne dépend pas d’une langue spécifique puisque certains termes que je tape souvent apparaissent dans une langue comme dans l’autre.

J’espère vraiment que la mise à jour à OSX iPhone 2.0 va amener diverses amélioration côté «entrée de texte» (“text input”). Déjà, le support multilinguistique semble être intégré, surtout pour les langues d’Asie de l’est. Mais j’espère aussi qu’il va y avoir de nouvelles options pour insérer du texte. Personnellement, parce que je suis à l’aise avec ces systèmes, j’aimerais bien Graffiti, MessagEase et, ô merveille, Dasher. J’ai bon espoir pour les deux premiers, puisqu’ils existent déjà sur iPhone. Pour Dasher, comme c’est un projet en source ouverte, il «suffirait» peut-être d’avoir un développeur OSX iPhone intéressé par Dasher pour «porter» Dasher de Mac OS X à OSX iPhone. Si ça peut marcher, entrer du texte sur un iPod touch peut devenir agréable, efficace et utile. D’après moi, Dasher serait très approprié pour les appareils de type iPhone (ce que j’aime appeler des “touch devices”, incluant des appareils créés par d’autres entreprises qu’Apple).