Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Category: technology (page 2 of 11)

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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Mobile Hub

Years ago, Apple promoted the Mac as a “digital hub” for media. Today we take for granted that computers can be used as hubs for media.

Two of the numerous points covered in Apple’s recent demo of version 3.0 of the iPhone OS was that Apple was finally giving developers access to the port, as well as unblocking bluetooth. These points have largely gone unremarked, but in the long run, I suspect they’ll be especially significant. I think Apple is positioning the iPhone to be a mobile hub.

Right now, the iPhone/iPod Touch has a sharper display, more processing power, and better input affordances than many of the gadgets that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. I predict that some manufacturers will take note of this and start producing headless products that will only work with an iPhone snapped onto the front to take care of these functions and/or provide new functions. This could be a nice moneyspinner for Apple, because of their “iPod tax” on products marked as compatible, and because it would make the iPhone that much more appealing, thus increasing demand for it. It could also be a profitable niche for manufacturers to exploit, since they could sell a product that is more functional than conventional equivalents but cheaper to build.

For example:

  • Car stereos: A car stereo with no faceplate, but simply a bracket and plug for an iPhone strikes me as the most obvious category. Many aftermarket car stereos already have detachable faceplates anyhow, and this would be a logical extension of that idea. Giving direct access to music on the phone would be the obvious benefit, but it would allow tidier integration of phone functions into the car, and add navigation as a lagniappe. A custom app might give simplified access to phone, nav, and music, and perhaps would have a radio controller that communicated with an actual radio in the car stereo over the port.
  • Bike computers: There are already a number of interesting apps that can use the GPS chip on the iPhone to track performance and routes over a bike ride, but these are hampered by some of the phone’s limitations. One is that there’s no way to continue logging GPS data when the app is not running, for example, when answering a call. I’m not sure if 3.0 will change that. (A friend who works at Apple suggests it will, but I’m skeptical. All that would really be needed would be a simple background daemon that logged GPS data at regular intervals, allowing the actual app to pick up where it left off.) Apart from that, a bike-mounted cradle for the phone would permit wheel and heart-rate monitor data to be fed into the phone through the jack and could provide extra battery power to the phone—so far, the only way to get heart-rate monitor data into the phone has been through a specialized product that uses wifi. This is a clever hack, but bluetooth or some kind of low-power radio communicating with the cradle would be more appropriate.
  • Cameras: I’m not the first person to observe that serious cameras could use an interface more like an iPhone’s. Snapping an iPhone directly onto a camera back would be ungainly, but tethering it over a wire could make a lot of sense, making it a tool for managing captured photos, backing them up, appending metadata (including GPS), and transmitting them.
  • Trackpads: Again, there is already an app for the iPhone that allow it to function as a trackpad (or as a tenkey input, etc), but again, these work over wifi. Apple has done a lot to make the trackpad on laptops not only a tolerable alternative to the mouse but in many ways a superior one. I can imagine a keyboard with a snap-in slot for the iPhone that turns it into a trackpad, giving those advantages to people using desktops.

What is not clear so far is whether a new port connection can trigger an app on the iPhone. This would be helpful—if not necessary—to create a seamless experience. Ideally one would simply snap one’s phone onto one’s car stereo in order to put it into car-stereo mode—the phone would recognize what it was connected to, and an application would have been registered to automatically launch when that connection is made.

Later: Looks like I’m not the only person to think about this. See iPhone 3.0 As the Accessory to …? and PC 1.0, iPhone 3.0 and the Woz: Everything Old is New Again

Museum screens

Gwen recently got a new Macbook, and I’m thinking mighty hard about getting a new iMac. One controversial feature of both is the glossy screen.

These days, most laptops and many desktop monitors have glossy screens—Apple held the line for a long time, but has gone over to the shiny side (with the exception of the 17″ Macbook Pro, where the anti-glare option costs $50 extra). Glossy screens look great—better than the anti-glare screens—but only when there’s no glare. That’s an environmental condition that is hard to control, especially when out and about with a laptop. In the presence of direct light, the glare from the screen can make the screen image almost invisible, and generates a lot of eyestrain. Add-on anti-glare films do exist, but seem to get negative reviews, and strike me as an imperfect solution.

There is another way, and I’m surprised nobody has tried it yet: museum glass. This is a specialty product that I’ve only seen at framing shops. Its appearance is startling: the glass is just invisible. No glare, no visible matte coating, nothing—the only way you can tell it’s there is by poking at it and getting fingerprints on it. It’s worth going to a framing shop just to check it out. As far as I’m aware, it’s never been used for computer monitors, and I don’t doubt it would be a somewhat spendy upgrade, but it’s one that I suspect many buyers would gladly spring for—I know I would.

I know that the glass on the iMac is removable, with some difficulty. I wonder if it would be possible to get a piece of museum glass cut to fit it.

A humble case against everything buckets

Alex Payne recently wrote The Case Against Everything Buckets, which earned a rebuttal from Buzz Andersen.

Alex Payne’s post is ranty and prescriptivist, but there’s a nub of a good point buried in there: “Computers work best with structured data…With an Everything Bucket, you … miss out on opportunities to do interesting things with data”

What Alex Payne means by an “everything bucket” is a notebook-style application that you dump all your random notes, clippings, web links, pictures, etc into. There are a lot of independent software developers making interesting apps that fall in this general category. I don’t use one myself, mostly because I don’t need to manage big piles of notes.

I’ve always gravitated towards structured data—I put my contacts’ info in my address book, my links on delicious, and so on. And this can pay dividends—on a Mac, if you use the Address Book, other apps know where to look for your contact info and can do “interesting things” with it—like sync it to your phone, or check whether incoming e-mail is from someone you know. That’s what Alex Payne means by “interesting things.”

Here’s what’s funny, though: the distinction between the everything bucket and structured data may be a false dichotomy. That is to say, there’s still a difference in how you would get to the endpoint, but you’re still getting to the same endpoint of being able to do interesting things with your data. Those two paths are what Mark Pilgrim referred to as million-dollar markup vs milllion-dollar search.

Macs today (and also about ten years ago, right before the switch to OS X) come with “data detectors,” which will notice when a chunk of unstructured text contains something that looks like, say, a date, and will offer to create an iCal entry based on it.

Long before that, Simson Garfinkel wrote an app called SBook that looks like an everything bucket, but also attempts to do interesting things with your data. This is pretty much limited to contacts and related notes, but the idea is there.

Google searches can recognize mathematical formulas to give the results, personal names to give their contact details, musical groups to give their discographies, and so on.

If the software is smart enough—perhaps with a little coaxing from a person—to recognize the structure into which a chunk of data might fit, it shouldn’t really matter whether everything gets tossed into an everything bucket or meticulously sorted into multifaceted, hierarchical, schematized structures. The tools aren’t quite there yet, but there’s no technical reason it wouldn’t work.

Right now, though, it doesn’t work, and the benefits of those interesting things outweigh whatever cognitive load is associated with context-switching between different containers for different kinds of data.

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