Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Category: technology (page 2 of 12)

The universal design critic

In just the past half day, a lot has been said about Steve Jobs. I’m not sure I have anything unique to add, but I’ve been using Macs continuously since the first one I owned, which was one of the original 128K models, so I can’t let his passing go without comment.

Many of the people praising Steve Jobs have focused on the way that he and Apple have provided them with the tools to do their job, the way they have demystified technology and made it elegant and fun. And I agree with all that. But Steve Jobs and Apple have had a more subtle and deeper effect on us than that.

One of Jobs’ greatest talents was as a critic, particularly of design. He didn’t design Apple’s hardware or software, but he had strong, detailed opinions on all of it, which he would forcefully deliver when anything failed to live up to his very high expectations. So it’s no surprise that Apple has delivered consistently well-designed products, but they’ve also delivered design-oriented products. The very first Mac had multiple fonts and typographic controls, could mix pictures with text. Even the screen resolution of 72 dpi was chosen to parallel the point-size system.

We take these sorts of thing for granted today. They would have happened eventually, but they happened when they did because of Steve Jobs and Apple.

Today, we know what a font is, and many of us have opinions on which ones are better than others. We look more critically at industrial design and engineering. There are even movies and shorts about fonts and industrial design. By putting exemplars of good design into the marketplace and making them accessible to regular people, and by giving his competition a higher mark to aim for, Steve Jobs has transmitted some small part of his critical acuity and insistence on quality to the rest of us.

When Jobs resigned as CEO about 6 weeks ago, John Gruber wrote

The company is a fractal design. Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth. Zoom out enough and you can see that the same things that define Apple’s products apply to Apple as a whole. The company itself is Apple-like…Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.

Zoom out farther.

Getting the message

New technology creates new social phenomena, etiquette problems being one of them. Caller ID is not a new technology, but at some point in the past few years, its ubiquity—especially with cellphones, which have better text displays than landline phones—has created one of these etiquette problems.

Traditionally (where by “traditionally,” I mean “ten years ago”), when Alice calls Bob and gets Bob’s voicemail, Alice leaves a message at least saying “it’s Alice, call me back.” But over the last few years, we’ve seen a different approach. Charlie calls Bob, gets Bob’s voicemail, and just hangs up. Charlie knows that Bob has caller ID and will be able to see that Charlie called—Charlie figures that’s all the information Bob needs to return the call.

Bob may have the same approach as Charlie, in which case this is fine. But Bob may figure that if Charlie had anything that needed a response, then Charlie would have left a message. Bob doesn’t return the call and eventually hears again from Charlie, who indignantly asks “why didn’t you call me back?” There’s a mismatch in expectations. Neither one is right or wrong, necessarily, but the mismatch can create friction.

I’m reminded of the distinction between ask culture and guess culture, although in this context, it might be more accurate to say it’s a difference between tell culture and guess culture.

Or perhaps it’s just a matter of etiquette that we as a society haven’t quite sorted out yet. I was talking about this at dinner with some friends who are all around my age—we all agreed that people should leave messages. There might be an age component to this.

iPhone, Google apps for your domain, and Google “my maps”

I’m documenting this publicly just in case anyone ever runs across the same problem I’ve been having.

I occasionally plot out routes on Google Maps and save them under My Maps. Curiously, there is no convenient way to get My Maps onto my iPhone. This leads to the slightly ridiculous situation where I would need to print out maps to bring with me.

Google Earth for the iPhone purportedly will access My Maps, but I couldn’t get that to work, because I sign into Google through Google Apps for Your Domain; there’s a web-based sign-in inside Google Earth, and when I attempted to sign in through the GAfYD (launched through the Google Search app, which otherwise works great), it would throw an error.

I have discovered if I log into Google Earth through the non-GAfYD interface, using my full e-mail address and the usual password, it works.

From what I understand, there’s only a limited ability to show personal maps in in the Maps app on the iPhone, and this can only be done via some hackery. Google Earth seems like the best option for accessing personal maps.

Thoughts on bandwidth

In The real reason why Steve Jobs hates Flash, Charlie Stross wrote an analysis of Apple’s recent moves, and where he thinks Apple is headed (oddly, he never quite says what “the real reason” is). He’s looking 5–10 years down the line. I’m thinking about the next 1–5 years, and how (or if) we might get to the future that Stross envisions.
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Update to “survey of iPhone bike-computer apps”

I’ve updated my earlier post to include discussion of a couple more apps: Outdoor Pro and OutFront.

A last-minute thought on Apple’s mythical tablet

It is widely rumored that Apple will be introducing some kind of tablet gadget about half a day after I write these words. It is also widely rumored that a key aspect of this introduction will be deals with major print-media publishers, who will be offering electronic versions of their books and periodicals on the mythical tablet.

Based on some of Apple’s recent work (eg, the iTunes LP format), it is reasonable to assume that these electronic text publications will be marked up in HTML5, CSS, and Javascript. Companies like the New York Times and McGraw Hill are going to need a production tool for flowing their content out in this new format, as well as all the other formats that they’re currently distributing. In short, they’re going to need something like InDesign, but designed for HTML and with the ability to include video, dynamic content, etc.

Ben Hammersley has been writing about electronic media and the future of journalism, but more from a different angle—from the original act of creating stories. But I don’t doubt he’s been thinking about the production side too.

What tool will that be and where will it come from? I doubt it will be Adobe’s GoLive, although that might work. I suspect (assuming all these other suppositions are correct) that Apple will be announcing their own software, taking another dig at Adobe. If all this is correct, it’s going to become an important software market.

And while Apple gets dinged (often justifiably) for a walled-garden approach to their products and services, in this case a win for Apple would be a win for the public interest. A publication format based on existing standards lowers the barrier to entry for other players; if Amazon decides they want to support this new format in the Kindle, they’ll just need to ensure they’ve got a standards-compliant HTML engine on it, and publishers will just retarget the Kindle with the same output. The formats may involve some kind of quirky or proprietary wrappers, but these would get laid on at the last step in the production process. It would be trivial to re-wrap the same payload for multiple devices. For any of these devices to succeed, of course, is another matter entirely.

Survey of iPhone bike-computer apps

I’ve written before about the iPhone’s potential and drawbacks as a bike computer. And there are a lot of bike-computer apps available for it right now. Let’s take a look at them.

I’ve gone on a bit of a kick lately and tried out four different ones. There are one or two others that I haven’t gotten around to yet. I hope to eventually, and will report on them in this space when I do.

Executive summary: Rubitrack for iPhone and Cyclemeter are clearly oriented towards performance cyclists; right now I’d give the nod to Cyclemeter. GPSies seems almost like a toy, but might be of use to hikers. Motion-X is for GPS otaku.

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Pulldock

The “unofficial Apple weblog” had a post calling on readers to submit their wishlist for future iPhone OS features, which got me to thinking.

Multitasking is an obvious shortcoming on the iPhone right now. Multitasking is possible: some of Apple’s own apps run in the background, and there are jailbreak apps that allow apps to run in the background and for the user to switch between running apps. But Apple does not allow app-store apps to run in the background at all, presumably because of performance and battery-life problems.

I believe that multitasking on the iPhone can be broken down into two functional categories: apps that you want to run persistently in the background, and what I’m calling “interruptors”: brief tasks that only take a few seconds to complete, and where you don’t want to break out of your current app. I’m concerning myself with the latter case here.

A jailbreak Twitter app, qTweeter, has the kernel of an approach to presenting these interruptors: it pulls down from the top of the screen like a windowshade, and is accessible any time.

This approach could be generalized to present multiple apps in what I’m calling a pulldock. There could be one pulldock that pulls down from the top, another that pulls up from the bottom, to present up to eight interruptors.

I envision these interruptors being stripped-down interfaces to existing apps or services, such as twittering or text messaging, that would appear in some kind of HUD-like view superimposed over the running app. Interruptors should be lightweight enough that they wouldn’t overburden the phone. I can also imagine new ways of passing information between a regular app and an interruptor—such as launching a camera interruptor while in the mail app as a way to take a photo and insert it into a mail message, which would save a few steps.

Here’s a screencast:

Yeah, there’s a lot of “umms” and sniffing in there. It’s the first screencast I’ve ever done. The visuals were done in Keynote using the template from Mockapp.

Search tip

A couple of nights ago, Gwen used the phrase “Googling for something on America’s Test Kitchen” instead of “searching for…”, which just reinforces that Google has become a synonym for search.

Google search results are often polluted by irrelevant links to commercial websites like bizrate and dealtime, though. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to avoid that? There is: use Give me back my Google.

It would be even nicer if you could search via GmbmG right from the search field in your browser. And in fact you can, but you’ll need to set it up first

Safari

Safari does not let you customize your search field out of the box, but there are some hacks like Glims that add this capability. Once you’ve done that, you’ll need to add GmbmG to Glims as a custom search engine and teach it the specific search syntax that GmbmG uses. It is:
http://www.givemebackmygoogle.com/forward.php?search= search key

Firefox or Internet Explorer 7+

These browsers support something called the “open search description document,” which makes adding a new search engine dead-simple. I have no idea how this works in IE, but in Firefox, just install this plugin (which I created, not the creator of GmbmG—the plugin is currently listed as experimental, but it’s perfectly innocuous, I promise) and it will add that site to the list of search engines your browser uses.

The iPhone as bike computer

I have become slightly obsessed with the idea of using an iPhone as a bike computer. What follows will be of little interest to anyone except gadget-nerd cyclists.

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