I know what the Apple Tablet is for

Among all the speculation about the forthcoming Apple Tablet/iSlate/iPad has been a thread of uncertainty: no one is really sure what it’s for; what niche it fills.

Everyone has been missing the obvious: it’s an e-reader for birdwatchers.

I have two field guides on my iPhone: butterflies and birds. I haven’t had a chance to use the bird guide in earnest yet, but the butterfly guide has been useful several times. You never know when you might see a butterfly, and when you do, you need the information on hand immediately if you’re going to have a chance to identify it. I would happily fill my phone with other field guides — trees, flowers, fungi, dragonflies — just so I could always have that information to hand.

So that’s good. But but but: the screen is not big enough. A real, paper field guide would have several species, each with several illustrations, and distribution maps, and text, all on the same double-page spread. The phone has space for one or maybe two illustrations per screen; that means an awful lot of scrolling backwards and forwards to compare species.

Until screens get much much higher resolution, you’re never going to fit as much information onto a screen as you can on a printed page; but for these purposes, any increase in screen size is a bonus. And no, even with 16 levels of grey, an electronic paper display is not going to cut it.

And it’s not just field guides: there’s a new app for the iPhone that, for £25, has 1:50,000 scale Ordnance Survey maps of, for example, the South-East of England. Always having an OS map with you whenever you go for a country walk: how cool is that? Well, it’s a damn sight cooler with a 10″ screen than it is with a 3½″ one.

So, since the Tablet is going to be aimed at birdwatchers and ramblers, I confidently predict it will be a rugged, waterproof device designed for outdoor use.

No, just kidding.

OK, so the examples that spring to mind for me are rather specific, and Steve Jobs isn’t about to launch an incredible new product aimed specifically at birdwatchers and hikers. Sadly. But really, I think people might be overthinking this. After all, when is a bigger screen not a useful thing to have?

» iTunes links: butterflies, birds, OS maps.

I’m back

Or more precisely, my computer’s back from the repair people. Yay.

A couple of observations about that: Time Machine (Apple’s automatic backup software) is just brilliant. Having your computer die by inches is so much less stressful when you know you can rescue everything. And actually it works even better than I realised: my computer came back with Leopard installed on its new blank hard drive, because for licensing reasons they can only install the version of the OS that the machine shipped with. But you just pop it the Snow Leopard install disc, select ‘Restore from Time Machine backup’, and a couple of hours later everything is back to just the way it was before. I had to re-enter a few software license codes for some reason, but that’s no great hardship.

It also means that I’ve been using the iPhone as my main computer. And it is almost comical how much powerful it is than the first computer I owned; it has something like 50 times the RAM and 200 times the storage capacity. Although the iPhone’s screen does only have half as many pixels as my original 13″ monitor.

But power isn’t everything, and if I needed to write a long essay, I would still prefer to use that old IIcx, with its keyboard and its slightly larger screen. Which is the main reason I haven’t blogged much since the computer started dying: it is just so much more like work when you have to type on the phone’s virtual keyboard, and you can only see a few lines of text.

Even the things which the phone is better suited to, like checking email, using the internet, reading RSS feeds — browsing, basically; stuff that doesn’t require much typing — they are so much nicer on a proper computer. It’s partially the screen size, but also the sheer speed and responsiveness. It is a joy.

» The image is ‘Macintosh IIcx Owner’s Guide, Page 38’, © Jeff Jackson and used under a CC by-nd licence. Though having said that, surely it must be © Apple Inc.? Anyway. It seemed appropriate.

Links

New iTunes icon for Leopard: Aphex Twin

Some time ago I made a whole set of icons for iTunes based on old 45s because I think that the Apple one just looks a bit cheap and tacky. I’m now using Leopard, the latest version of Apple’s OS, and Leopard uses super-large icons so that they look good in coverflow mode. So I felt the need to make a new version for myself.

Aphex Twin iTunes icon

This time, instead of old soul and reggae labels, I thought I’d make an homage to one of my favourite albums of all time: Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92. I don’t listen to this kind of bleepy music as much as I used to, but this album is about as good as it gets. It was released as a double LP, and I’ve used side C for the icon because that’s the side with a track called Ageispolis on it. You can get it as an .icns file here.

computer problems

I’m having serious computer problems—like not being able to turn it on—so posting is liable to be sporadic. Just fyi.

EDIT: I’ve seized the opportunity while my computer is running of posting a new picture at Clouded Drab.

Weird computer problems

I am for the moment busy trying to get my stupid computer to not be a complete pain in the arse.

It does this weird thing where I ask it to sleep and instead it messes up one of the other system functions (Exposé and Dashboard and so on, for the Mac users). When it doesn’t just fuck everything up completely.

I’ve even done a basic reinstall of the system software. Didn’t help.

Another alternative to QWERTY

Following on from Dvorak, this entry was composed using a piece of software called Dasher which I learned about via Metafilter. Or at least, It wasn’t, because the Mac version is very beta and crashed, taking all my words with it. But I did write a couple of paragraphs and get some sense of what it was like.

Basically, there’s a stream of letters moving across the screen, and you ‘steer’ through them, just using mouse movements, to pick out the ones you want. The software guesses which are most likely and makes those bigger, which certainly makes it quicker when you want to type predictable things but for unusual words like ‘Dvorak’ you have to slow right down.

dasher.png

It takes a bit of getting used to, but surprisingly soon you can ‘type’ at a respectable speed.

It has very clear advantages for people with limited mobility. It doesn’t have to be used with a mouse, of course; it could be a joystick or it could track eye movements. Personally I’ll be sticking to a keyboard because, apart from anything else, all those zooming letters made me a bit nauseous and headachy.

It’s interesting, though, especially because new user interfaces seem to be in the air at the moment. The Wii, Microsoft’s new Surface, the iPhone: all are examples of machines that break away from the keyboard/mouse/joystick model and look for new ways of interacting with your computer. I’m slightly sceptical that it’s going to be easy to improve on something like a keyboard as a way of inputting type, but these days a computer is a lot more than a pimped-out typewriter. The more we use our computers to communicate, and deal with photographs, pictures, music and so on, the less central to the experience the keyboard needs to be.

Who knows. The next few years could be very interesting.

Lnafcbi ,cyd Eprkat

That’s ‘Playing with Dvorak’, typed unthinkingly as though I was using a QWERTY keyboard, but with the computer set to Dvorak. Which I’m trying out now; it’s very slow work. I find the fact the punctuation’s in the wrong places especially un-nerving.

What appeals to me about it is the idea that it’s easier on the hands. No RSI. Not that it seems easier just now. I guess it’s all practice; I’m already getting quicker.

This is all Matt WordPress’s fault, btw.

OK, I’ve gone back to QWERTY for now. One thing that becomes clear is how automatic my QWERTY typing is. I think of myself as a mediocre typist; I certainly don’t touch-type. I’m more of a two-and-a-bit finger typist and tend to watch my fingers. But my fingers clearly do know where the keys are. The question is, how much faith do I have in the long-term benefits of typing with the Dvorak key layout?

At least with a computer it’s easy enough to switch. And the system has a convenient keyboard viewer so I can see what I’m doing.

When computers attack…

…and when I say ‘attack’ I mean ‘don’t attack’. At Waterloo East today I heard the following announcement:

“We are sorry to announce that the 11.05 train to Orpington is delayed for approximately suspected damage to railway bridge minutes.”

Helpful.

Talking bollocks about technology

Simon Jenkins has an article in the Guardian that is so wrong-headed that it’s a little hard to grapple with. The first couple of paras give a good idea of the flavour:

I rise each morning, shave with soap and razor, don clothes of cotton and wool, read a paper, drink a coffee heated by gas or electricity and go to work with the aid of petrol and an internal combustion engine. At a centrally heated office I type on a Qwerty keyboard; I might later visit a pub or theatre. Most people I know do likewise.

Not one of these activities has altered qualitatively over the past century, while in the previous hundred years they altered beyond recognition. We do not live in the age of technological revolution. We live in the age of technological stasis, but do not realise it. We watch the future and have stopped watching the present.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to pick apart all the ways in which his examples are tendentious, highly selective or downright false and skip quickly on to pick a bit out.

No, the computer is not a stunning technological advance, just an extension of electronic communication as known for over a century. No, the internet has not transformed most people’s lives, just helped them do faster what they did before.

I can’t help feeling that he’s stretching the word ‘just’ beyond its reasonable limits.

As well as using it as a more sophisticated replacement for the mechanical typewriter, I regularly use my computer for design, photo-editing and as a print-shop. It’s a jukebox and photo display unit, and I can watch DVDs on it. I have a tuner plugged into it, so it acts as a TV, radio and video recorder as well. If I was so inclined, I could also use it to write and record music, edit sound and video, create animation, do 3D modelling, and process complicated mathematical functions. I can play games on it: an entirely new pastime and a new creative medium. I suppose you might argue that many of these things are possible without computers — I could have a print shop, darkroom, recording equipment and film editing suite in my house, after all — but I think that having all of them in one box qualifies the computer as a ‘stunning technological advance’.

And if I attach the computer to the internet, there’s a whole load of extra things it can do that I haven’t even mentioned yet. It becomes an alternative to mail, a news service, a library, an encyclopedia and a picture library. I can download music and video. If I had a camera attached to it it would be a videophone. There’s this site, which is read every day from places around the world. The numbers involved are fairly modest — I’m no Boing Boing — but even so, it would hardly be practical to distribute the same content though the post.

As for “the internet has not transformed most people’s lives, just helped them do faster what they did before”; even if that were true, it’s like saying that aeroplanes are no different to ocean liners. They both move you from one place to another, after all. Sometimes, ‘faster’ is the whole point.

I’ve seen versions of this argument in the media a few times and I just find it baffling. Jenkins has thought about this enough to have a bee in his bonnet about it; how did come to the conclusion that this is “the age of technological stasis”? I suspect a lot of it comes down to the Clarkson effect: there seem to be lots of people who are fascinated by machinery and engineering as long as it has gears and pistons but completely turn off when faced with a piece of electronics. There’s a weird cultural disconnect between the nostalgic image of the ‘boffin’ — otherwordly but admirable model of technical ingenuity — and the ‘geek’ — pasty, socially inept, caffeine-fuelled toiler in the code mines. And somewhere along the line, people seem to have lost any sense of how incredibly sophisticated these machines are. The very sophistication of them means that most people use them with very little idea of how they work: you can’t open up a computer and find out how it works by taking it apart and putting it back together.

And that’s only going to get worse. I don’t aspire to übergeek status myself; in fact I’m hardly even an untergeek despite a few geekly leanings. But at least having grown up with the first generation of home computers, I have some sense of what a very simple computer is like and how you get from there to here. If your first computer has Vista on it, and you play your first games on an XBox 360, they might as well just be magic boxes for all the insight you’re going to get about how they work.

upgrade trauma

I just upgraded my version of WordPress, and it seems to have screwed everything up.

Hopefully I’ll have it sorted out sooner rather than later, but bear with me.

EDIT: well, it’s getting a bit better, but after a sequence of painless upgrades, this one is doing my head in.

comment spam

The first comment waiting in my spam filter just now reads “May I borrow some articles from your site? Who should I contact?” And just for a moment I thought it might be a genuine comment which had been mistakenly identified as junk, even though it was apparently posted by someone called ‘daivaufeijau’.

Then I noticed that the next comment (from deawisy, saying “I just want to say THANKS to all people in this community”) linked back to the same webpage. And so did the comments from vujei and ajauxiseag. In total there were 241 comments all linking back to the same address, ranging from “Can you make pages for foreign people? For example Spanish” to “The greatest homage we can pay to truth is to use it.” These fake comments would really be more plausible if there were only one or two of them.

Thank fuck for Akismet, which somewhere in the middle of all that lot caught its 5000th spam comment since I installed it about last November.

New new iTunes icons

I thought it would be fun to make a whole set, with different record labels. I’ve added Trojan, Upsetter, Chess, Apple and Sun:

You can get a zip of them as .icns files here.

Yet again with the iTunes icons

I decided that while the coloured vinyl was ok on its own, the addition of a coloured note was just too garish.

The anti-aliasing round the note needs tweaking, but I think it looks pretty good. Better than the original:

EDIT: OK, I’ve tweaked it. Here’s the final version:

For Mac users, there’s a zip of those designs I got as far as making into .icns files here. To change the iTunes icon: rename whichever icon you prefer as ‘iTunes.icns’. Then you need to quit iTunes, right-click it in the Finder and choose ‘show package contents’. In the ‘Resources’ folder, replace the original iTunes.icns file with your new one (but save a copy of the original somewhere just in case).

New iTunes icons

I decided I don’t like the iTunes icon very much, so I’ve made myself some new ones:

Still by LaVern Baker, Young Boy Blues by Eddie “Buster” Forehand, and We Go Together by The Moonglows, since you asked. Picked for what they look like rather than the choons – I’ve only heard one of them anyway. The Forehand is actually a fraction too big – it looks out of place in the dock. I’m using the Moonglows for the moment.

EDIT:

since I’ve been getting a bit of Google traffic for this post, I thought I’d point out the two more recent posts on the subject (one, two).

Jonathan Ive and the post-gadget aesthetic

Some more thoughts on design in the tech industries. This time, the slow death of what I think of as the ‘gadget aesthetic’. The gadget aesthetic was a product of the novelty and glamour of electronics; it fetishizes the look of hi-tech gizmos. Lots of buttons, lots of LEDs, curvy moulded plastic, metallic-looking silver plastic:

This is the same approach as the set-designers for Star Trek: if you’re going to have some actor peering at a panel and saying “Captain! The dilithium crystal containment field is coming out of phase!”, then you really need the panel to look important. So you cover it in glowing panels and screens and buttons.

But now I think people have got past that; they want their consumer electronics to look stylish, but not necessarily in the Star Trek manner. One of the reasons Jonathan Ive has won all those awards for Apple is that he completely understands that. I’m writing this on an iMac which has less buttons visible than just about any other electrial product in the room – the clock/radio, the camera, even the fan. It is less visibly complex than the Anglepoise next to it.

Apple only have about 5% of the personal computer market, so perhaps you can’t look at their computers and assume that the design taps into a profound cultural shift. But they do have an overwhelming market share in mp3 players, and the iPod has that same post-gadget aesthetic. It’s not that it’s somehow trying to look anti-technology, but it isn’t trying to look ‘hi-tech’. It’s not trying to look like it fell through a wormhole from 2037. It has no LEDs or glowing buttons; the controls it does have are reduced to a circle of a slightly different colour on the front of the machine.

None of this is exactly rocket-science, and there have been thousands of words written about Apple’s cool minimalism. But on the specific point of a post-gadget aesthetic, Apple’s competitors either don’t get it, don’t know how to do it, or aren’t trying.

Here’s an iPod competitor, the 20GB Creative mp3 player:

I’m sure it does a good job of playing music. Ad someone has put some thought into making it look attractive. But look at the styling. The glowing buttons, the glowing outline, the moulded plastic, and the futuristic typeface on ‘Creative’ —  it looks like a communicator from Star Trek.

And here’s the ‘iriver H320 Lite 20GB MP3 Player’, which is, i anything, even more mired in the same culture of making products look futuristic:

You’ve got shiny glowing buttons, another futuristic typeface, the use of techy jargon (‘multi-codec jukebox’). It’s quite a cool thing and I’m sure a lot of people will look at it and want it, but it’s cool in a gadgety way. Next to the iPod it looks like it’s trying too hard.

One more example. Compare the silvery, swooshy Microsoft Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 to Apple’s plain white wireless Mighty Mouse. They have nearly the same functionality (both have four-way scrolling; the Mighty Mouse has four buttons to the MSLM6000’s five), but the Mighty Mouse doesn’t feel the need to advertise how sophisticated it is.

At the moment all this stuff is so closely associated with Apple that it’s just perceived as Apple branding. In fact, the Nintendo DS Lite, which has a very similar kind of simple, ungadgety style, is often described as looking like it was designed by Apple.

But my feeling is that these companies are just ahead of the curve. There will probably always be a market for techy geek chic, for games consoles, computers and mobile phones decorated with das blinkenlichten. But electronic hardware is not the sole preserve of geeks anymore, and I think tech companies are slowly starting to understand that. Apple has always been the less geeky alternative to Microsoft, and Nintendo have always been more family-oriented and less focussed on hardcore gamers than their competitors. And generally speaking, both of them have been outcompeted, and have had rather poor market share.

But the runaway dominance of the iPod, and the fact that the DS is outselling the more powerful but more traditionally gamer-orientated PSP, raise the possibility that the non-geek dollar is finally starting to have a serious impact. I think we’re in an interesting time when a lot of companies know that they need to make their products more desirable to a broader range of customers, but there’s a lot of groping around to work out how to do it. The mobile phone companies have had to deal with this quicker than anyone, and they haven’t done a bad job; from the time that mobile phone use exploded, it probably only took them about five years to come up with a proper girly phone, for example. And there is a huge range of designs available, even if they often tend to be somewhat similar in overall look. So if the much-rumoured iPhone does ever materialise, it’ll be interesting to see what Ive and Apple can do when competing in an already well-developed market where the importance of design is understood. I’m sure there’s scope for a much better UI, for a start, but what really interests me is whether he can come up with a look for the phone which stands out from the crowd. If he does I’m sure it’ll be the least futuristic looking mobile on the market.

eBooks on iPod?

There’s a rumour doing the rounds that the next iPod will be designed for reading as well as music and video. It remains to be seen whether that happens, and indeed whether the iPod is well-suited for reading (as compared, for example, to the more specialised Sony Reader).

Whether or not their time has come, I do think that electronic reading devices are potentially exciting. It’s not a new idea, of course, and none of the previous attempts have succeeded, not least because the competing technology – the book – is so very good at its job. A book is already small, light, very high-resolution, has a simple intuitive user interface and doesn’t need power. For you to spend a few hundred pounds on an electronic version, it’s going to have be pretty damn good. One advantage of building it into a music player is that it gives people a reason to buy it.

So if books are so good anyway, why do I think it’s a good idea? Firstly there’s the capacity. It’s not just one book, it’s a whole library. Even just for reading on a commute you might want to have a choice of three or four books. If you were going away for a few months, you could take hundreds of titles. You could keep reference books on there. Assuming that the system was able to read generic text files, HTML and PDF, you wouldn’t even need to buy all the books from Apple; just think of the enormous wealth of stuff which is out of copyright.Project Gutenberg has 18,000 books available for download.

But the other point is that it doesn’t have to be books. You could plug it in every night and have your computer automatically update it with all your favourite blogs and news services. You might even be willing to pay a modest subscription to get the newspaper(s) of your choice automatically downloaded onto your iPod to read on the train.

Spam email header of the day

Picasso blog hardly Louvre

with honourable mentions to:

Your future, methylene iodide
Order status, parrot-red
Better Success, wild-goose plum
Your money, mole drainage
Future, worm snake
Hi, Mid-siberian

And in the beginning was the video

According to TUAW:

This video was ripped from a videotape (which explains the lack of video quality) of the 1984 Apple Shareholders’ meeting, where the original Macintosh was unveiled.

It’s either a very good spoof, or… well, genuine.

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