Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I'm officially old.

I think I'm officially old. I joke about it all the time, but it's starting to hit home. Case in point: lacking anything worthwhile to watch on our dozen-dozen TV channels, we took a shot at a collection of pop music videos on Fuse TV. Other than the not-unreasonable hip-hop rhythm of the music, I had no ability to connect with any of it. Couldn't understand one bit of lyric, couldn't follow what, if anything, was going on in the video (beyond raw, disjointed sex and violence imagery), and didn't know anything about any of the "artists."

One thing to say: I'm certainly glad I'm not raising a teenager right now, having to explain to them what's wrong with what they're seeing in the music videos they're watching. I think it's more than I could take on.

Another indicator: I tried to post this rant on Facebook. It's too long as a "status," but I couldn't figure out where to click to post something longer. I see other people doing it. I'm Facebook-disabled as well, evidently.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Future is Arriving

We still don't have flying cars, a space elevator, or colonies on other planets, but the future is arriving (better late than never).

It seems we have consumer-available brainwave readers, an alternative to the much more invasive, yet much more capable surgically-implantable, non-penetrating electro-corticography arrays, either of which will very likely mean direct brain control of remote devices in the not-too-distant future. Combine that with the quadrotor drone project being worked on at U of Pennsylvania, and suddenly we can imagine a crazy near future where mind-directed, semi-autonomous drones are flitting around doing... well, a wide variety of things. Watch these videos to get an idea of what these little things can do:

Advances in machine vision and touch-sensitive artificial skin (here and here) are helping along machine autonomy, pushing us toward sci-fi androids that interact like humans. And it seems that we're going to start living longer, with lifespans stretching toward immortality, so we should be around to see a lot of changes. Not that we'll be able to handle them emotionally, but that's a different story.

I still want a flying car, and the ability to take an elevator ride to space, but I guess I'll have to wait for those. For now, it seems, there's plenty to pay attention to.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Is it time to re-think OpenDoc?

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about human-computer interaction. In my quest to learn the art of iPhone app development (which, mind you, is going poorly; I can't seem to get out of the blocks, as they say), I attended a CHIFOO presentation given by James Keller of Small Society, a local iPhone development agency of some note. Wearing a different hat, I've also been chipping away at a bit of science fiction for the last couple of years. I started it as a short story, but it seems to be heading for novel length all on its own. I'm not sure what length it will end at, but, like Spalding Gray's Monster in a Box, I'm just waiting to see how it comes out. The story involves people living and working on the moon, and I addressed the difficulties of interacting with a modern computer while wearing a space suit.

So, as I said, I've been thinking a lot about HCI lately. My thoughts took me back to a concept that Apple held forth back in 1992 called "OpenDoc." To quote Wikipedia:

The basic idea of OpenDoc was to create small, reusable components, responsible for a specific task, such as text editing, bitmap editing or browsing an FTP server. OpenDoc provided a framework in which these components could run together, and a document format for storing the data created by each component. These documents could then be opened on other machines, where the OpenDoc frameworks would substitute suitable components for each part, even if they were from different vendors.[2]

Browsing an FTP server. Um... yeah. Well, like I said, it was 1992. The latest release of the software, which never made it out of the 1.x series, came out in 1997. In short, it was a neat idea, but it didn't last, partly because of the "giant" (1 MB) footprint it took to load up the basic framework. There were other problems, such as problems opening documents that used elements for which you had no component, a poor implementation of a transportable file format, and (probably the biggest hurdle) competition from Microsoft. Indeed, OpenDoc was a direct response to Microsoft's OLE (Object Linking and Embedding). If you've heard of OLE but never OpenDoc, it's because Microsoft won the war. So far, anyway.

But perhaps OpenDoc was an idea ahead of its time. The basic concept, as stated above, was to create documents with an ad hoc set of tools that the writer calls up as they need them. Need to write a letter? Bring up a text editing toolset. Graphics? Call up a painting palette. In a connected, post-web world, this seems very achievable. Vendors like Google could provide a basic environment for document creation, much like they do with Google Apps now. But if the document format were changed to be non-proprietary and standard, and the basic environment allowed for other vendors' tools to be loaded and used, then small development shops, open source project groups, and even competing large companies could provide add-ins via remote services that would be transparent to the user. From the user's perspective, they would add widgets to the environment, selecting the widgets from a catalog of those available from all over the web. Using the tools at their disposal, they would create complex documents of all types (text, graphics, spreadsheets, web pages, etc.) and save them into a storage system, share them, or publish them for broad consumption.

Storage in the modern era doesn't have to be in a monolithic, single-source file system, either. We're already seeing storage services based in the "cloud" model. Current offerings are targeted at large firms and their IT services, but there's no reason they couldn't be scaled down to accommodate individual users. The idea of cloud-based storage is that it de-couples the location of the data from the application acting on it. Users of web-based e-mail services are familiar, whether or not they know it, with having their data stored "somewhere," but not having any physical access to it. For most people, where their data is stored really doesn't matter just so they can have access to it when they want and they can feel secure that no one is looking into it without permission.

Notice that I keep mentioning "data" instead of "files." Since the dawn of computing, people have been getting used to the idea of discrete files containing individual datasets. We open and close files, save files, organize files (well, okay, not so much), attach files to e-mail messages... We're lost in a forest of files, and frankly the concept is outdated for most purposes. People create and consume content, and today, the vast majority of the consumption is done via the Internet. None of the web-based services such as e-mail, message boards or blogs use traditional file systems in any way that's perceivable to the content creator or consumer (the writer or the reader, if you prefer), and those systems are thriving. In an online, connected world, there is no reason to manage files any more, only content. If a discrete piece of content needs to be exported from the cloud for some reason, a file may be the storage method to use. But saving something to a file should be the exception rather than the rule. Users need to realize that there's a new set of rules; ones they've been working under for some time.

From a technical perspective, an open standard is needed to describe the complex content that people are going to create. This is the only way to be certain of interoperability across editing environments, toolsets and storage systems. XML is a viable format to choose as a base to build from, and its possible that current schemas like ODF would support the system with little or no modification.

For users, the shift in the way they do things wouldn't necessarily have to be that great. As I said above, many people (possibly most computer users) already use some form of online content creation tool. And Microsoft Office products have for years used OLE to embed objects from different applications into documents, for instance inserting an Excel spreadsheet into a Word document. Users who need to be able to work offline or work behind a firewall could have the option to cache toolsets or work in an editing environment that's installed as an application.

The general ideas and practices to support a modern implementation of what OpenDoc set out to do have been around for quite some time, and the infrastructure is now here to support a more integrated approach to content creation and distribution. Microsoft, who won the early technology battle with OLE, has focused more on building on their Office suite than changing the way people use computers. But when you have a product that is in a leadership position for the market it's in, deciding to make a sea change in the way the product operates is not a decision to be made lightly, or at all, so it's understandable that they've held course. But for others, the story is different.

Almost twenty years after Apple released OpenDoc to the world, it's time to re-evaluate the pros and cons of the technology and see how they can be re-addressed in this post-web, connected world of online editors and cloud-based storage. It may not be Apple that creates the next great shift in the way we work, but they're in a good position to bring it about. Open source development could certainly produce the technology, but the mindshare of the computer-using world would have to be changed to accept the new way. Google is probably the logical choice to carry the banner, with their existing Google Apps suite, and an uncountable number of users around the world. But if they build it, will anyone come? I certainly would. How about you?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Congratulations to the New Orleans Saints!

For the first time ever, the New Orleans Saints have won the Super Bowl. And they did it by playing out-of-the-ordinary ball. I mean, it's one thing to try and run on the fourth down from the 2 yard line rather than kick a field goal, but it's quite another to try for a two-point conversion after running in a touchdown. Who does that ever, let alone in a Super Bowl game?

The Saints played outstanding ball today. They didn't let their mistakes phase them, and just stayed focused on moving the ball down the field. After a slow start, they took possession of the game early in the second half and stayed with it for the balance of play. The biggest excitement was Tracey Porter's interception and 74 yard runback for a touchdown, setting the final score at 31-17 Saints. Their defense held the Colts at bay by blocking passes, pinning receivers to the field, and sacking Manning, the Colts' much-feared quarterback.

I'm no sports fanatic. I could hardly care less about which teams are where in the ranks, let alone the statistics that go on ad infinitum regarding the players' performance. But one thing I like is watching a good football game. And tonight's Super Bowl was just that. Thank you, New Orleans Saints, for bringing a well played game to television.

Oh, and we should give a nod to the Colts. Thanks for showing up and giving the Saints something to mop the field with.

Oh, snap!

Friday, January 29, 2010

iPad Redux

As long as I've waited for something like the iPad and its competitors to come along, I can't help but marvel at (and comment about) all its detractors, most of which haven't even gotten one in their hands yet, let alone used one significantly.

I'm not exactly a fanatical Apple fanboy, though I do own several Macs, a couple of iPhones, and a host of Apple accessories (well, between my wife and I we do, anyway). I'm coming up on two decades in the technology field, and at the time I made the switch to an all-Mac home life, was well enough educated in the ways of computers and operating systems to make an informed choice. I strongly believe that the best system is a heterogeneous, single platform implementation if all the necessary components are available. As such, once I went Mac, I never went back (my progression, in case you're wondering, was Windows --> Linux --> Mac OS X).

I say all this to lay off the detractors who will read this and say, "Oh, he loves anything Apple does." Not true. Case in point, I think they really screwed the consumer by leaving the microphone off of the iPod Touch. I understand why they did it, but it was cheap on their part. The small percentage of people that would actually hack the thing to use as a telephone aren't in the crowd that AT&T wants as customers anyway, so why disable an otherwise decent product that way?

But I digress. The iPad (I would have preferred "iSlate," but prefer "iPad" to "iTablet") as shown has its ups and downs, but even if Apple didn't knock it out of the park on the first swing, they've definitely hit a triple. Sure, it doesn't have multitasking, but neither does the iPhone, and I can be on a phone call and check Google maps at the same time. Or I can browse the web while listening to music from my library. No, I can't listen to Pandora or use any two third-party apps at the same time, but that's a software fix. We're sixty days out from release of the product. My bet is no later than this summer, we'll see an iPhone OS update that includes multitasking for third party apps. The testing for these apps will be rigorous by necessity, as any runaway background processes could really compromise core functionality of the device (if you can't receive phone calls because your WoW client has taken over all available memory, that's a problem).

The iPad is also, in this flagship version, missing a USB port. Remember back when Apple was the first manufacturer to stop putting floppy drives in machines? Oh my god, how are we going to get files from one place to another? Do you care now? I didn't think so. Comparing a USB port, which enables a variety of peripherals, to a single-format storage device isn't quite fair. My point is that Apple, as a designer, has an understanding of what the intended use of their product is. They've tested, talked to focus groups, and refined their design until it fits exactly where they want it to. If people watching the release announcement can't understand how on Earth they're going to print out Word documents from their iPad, then a) they're probably missing some key pieces of information, and b) they probably don't get the big picture. As a veteran technology implementor, I see this and other similar devices as a great leap forward to the Holy Grail of a paperless office. Oh, we'll never actually get there, but we can get closer. Do you know how many reams of paper are printed, handed out in meetings, only to be completely ignored and discarded as soon as the meeting is over? Mid-sized corporations could easily save $500 in reproduction and disposal costs over a year just by handing these things out to their management staff. So, if the iPad can't connect to a printer, maybe it will force people to re-think the way they handle documents.

The issue about lack of storage expansion, via some form of flash memory slot, sticks in my craw as much as it does many others. But really, given the history of Apple's consumer devices (iPods, iPhones), did anyone really think they were going to be able to buy a base model iPad, drop a flash card in it, and bypass the purchase of a premium model? Not likely. But as I pointed out in my previous post, storage probably won't be as much of an issue as people suspect. If the iPad comes with the ability to stream music and video out of shared iTunes libraries, then an AppleTV takes on a whole new role in a house with an iPad in every kid's room, one in the den and one in the living room.

Overall, I think the most egregious omission from the design of the iPad as shown is a web camera. Again, it probably has to do with the lack of AT&T's network ability to handle the load of millions of simultaneous teleconferences. AT&T has recently announced that they are beefing up their network to better support iPhone traffic, which to me smacks of a "wait and see" attitude regarding the availability of a Verizon-based iPad. Sticking with us? We'll enhance our network. So Apple has two aces in the hole now: threatening a switch to Verizon and threatening to drown their network in video traffic by including a web cam in a future version of the iPad.

So, no matter all the bilge being pumped around regarding the horrible design Apple has shown called the iPad, I'm still anxious to see how it plays in the coming months. Techies decry its lack of expansion capability and its inability to do two things at once. The greatest segment of its target market, though, doesn't include someone who can wax philosophically about the pros and cons of the A4 processor versus the Atom. Instead, the most prevalent purchasers of the iPad will be people that like technology without being technologists; those who want to reduce the amount of crap they carry around with them, and could have probably replaced their laptop with a netbook, but were looking for technology that worked more like they did rather than just a bit of shrinkage. I predict that people will find quickly that they really never print from the thing, and if they need to, there are work arounds; that the storage issue isn't really a big deal; and that the form factor is perfectly right-sized for ninety percent of the things they do with the thing. It won't replace people's laptops, nor will it replace their phones. The iPad is designed to do what it's going to do well: fill in a gap in the technology continuum that has been open for far too long. And if someone really needs a tablet that does something the iPad doesn't, then there will be a wide field of competitors to choose from.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

iPad Arrives

After an exhausting amount of speculation, denial, anti-marketing, and fanfare, Apple released the much-anticipated iPad. They say it's sixty days out, which will give developers time to tune up their apps for the new format and release new ones. It will also bring sales of competing e-Readers like Amazon's Kindle to a screeching halt.

Somewhere deep in the archives of Slashdot, circa 2006, I described what I wanted in a handheld device. It needed to be about the size of a Steno pad in all three dimensions, be able to run some basic business apps (e-mail, calendar, doc viewer, note taker, etc.). Bonus points for music and video, but they weren't that important. I didn't want a physical keyboard, but wanted the option, via Bluetooth or something, to add one. Someone responded and said, "Oh, what you want is the PADD from Star Trek: The Next Generation." Well, yes, that's it. Just like that. Four years later, here it is. I seriously doubt Mr. Ive saw my post and said, "Hey, great idea." I'm sure it had been cooking in the Apple oven for years prior to that, and my post in the deep recesses of some tech-head website didn't change the tide of technology. Rather I mean to say that I've known what I wanted for years, and I'm glad to see that it's finally here.

The $499 base model price tag is nice to see, particularly as the world doesn't really have disposable income right now. Bargains are wanted, and Apple provided. When I got my iPhone, I was sure that I needed the 16 gig model, as I was going to be doing a lot with it. Well, I've got about 1000 tracks of music on it, some video content, a bunch of apps, 500 or so photos, etc., and I just broke over 8 GB of usage after almost two years. If need be, I could delete about half of that and not be missing anything (I almost never use it as a music player, for instance). Knowing that, I can bet the 16 gig iPad model would suit me just fine, at least until the next revision comes along.

About that next revision: Gotta have a camera. Forward facing at that, so it can be used to video conference. I'm shocked that they didn't include one in the flagship model, but I'll bet it had something to do with AT&T's lack of ability to support the amount of network traffic they have now, let alone a bunch of people video conferencing on their iPads.

So, I've got two months (more like three; I rarely buy anything right out of the gate) to come up with $500. That's unlikely to happen, but I can always hope. I'll let you know what I come up with.