Tag Archives: PDA

Computers: Right Back Where We Started

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A lot of my time is spent writing for and talking to people for whom the computer remains a scary beast that is best kept at arm’s length, or, better, in a closet. I feel for these people because I’m not naturally a techie myself.

I failed science and math in school and almost certainly would again if I retook those exams. (I blame the science teacher, an evil vicar who tormented me, but that’s another story.) But perhaps these technophobes have a point? Perhaps computers and the Internet haven’t really done us any favors?

Firstly, the stats. Has the computer/Internet boom made us more productive? Apparently not. Well, it did the first time around: the 1990s technology surge (the steep red bit in the chart above) made us all productive, and that continued until about 2003 (the extra years beyond the bubble burst helped by the momentum of the surge, and some serious cost-cutting. But since 2004 the U.S. has been in decline in terms of the rate of productivity growth (or trend productivity, to give it its proper name), to the point where we’re pretty much back where we started in 1995. I know it doesn’t exactly follow, but given a lot of us didn’t have BlackBerries, ultraportable laptops and ubiquitous Internet connections in those days, does that mean we’re doing about the same amount of work then as we are, with all those gizmos, now?

Scary thought. And in some ways the answer is yes. According to research firm Basex, nearly a third of our day is eaten up with interruptions from e-mail, cell phones, instant messaging, text messaging, and blogs like this one. In financial terms that’s a lot of

McKinsey sees it differently: We’ve outsourced or automated all the simple stuff, so we’re left with people whose jobs can’t be done by computers.

I see it a little differently again. I believe that we have mistaken ubiquitous computing — in other words, the ability to do stuff anywhere, anytime — as making us more productive because we’re filling “dead time”. It’s this misunderstanding of time that I think is causing us problems. Take some of these quotes from a story on how BlackBerries make us more productive, from July last year:

I can now use downtime–waiting to collect daughters, train journeys–to continue to read and action e-mails, which means I don’t have a huge queue waiting for me when I’m next in the office

After a recent long weekend, I would normally have returned to around 150 e-mails …Instead, I spent an hour on my PDA the night before I was due back into work, and the next morning, I walked in to only six mails that required attention. Not only did this make me more efficient, but it totally reduced my stress levels

The technology both increases output by enabling what would otherwise be unproductive downtime to be used positively, and is liberating in that it allows flexibility and responsiveness.

The BlackBerry has definitely extended the capability of utilizing ‘dead’ time effectively–trains, taxis, 10-minute waits or answering questions like this

We are all benefiting from quicker response times to things that need actioning ‘now … Communication between department managers is much quicker.

Each statement is usually followed by a ‘I realise I need a balance/the wife hates it’ comment, as if the user is aware of the pitfalls. But the pitfall is not the ‘always on’ culture this creates, or even the lack of awareness that the ability to react quickly to something will simply prompt another reaction and require another response. The pitfall is that the “dead time” of waiting for your daughter to finish school, or the “unproductive down time” is actually an important component of our lives, and therefore of our productivity.

Sitting in your car waiting for your kid, the lazy hour on a Sunday evening after the washing-up’s cleared away and the kids are in bed, used to be time when you’d think about what needed to be done, or to reflect (on your daughter, hopefully, so you’re mentally ready for her rather than still mentally scanning emails when she’s gushing about gym class.) Dead time was there for a reason: a chance to think outside the box, reflect, think about that email you’re going to send the boss rather than jab a misspelled couple of lines on your BlackBerry so you can cross that item off your Getting Things Done list.

Productivity may be slowing because we’ve just filled every second of that dead time already and there’s nothing left to fill. If that’s even partly true, then the productivity was fake, since it was based on a false assumption: that the dead time was empty, an unused resource. Anyone who has sat in a moving vehicle and looked out of the window reflecting on stuff knows that this is actually the most important part of the day, and by removing it most of our BlackBerry-wielding friends/colleagues/bosses/spouses have turned into zombies, unable to locate themselves in the here and now.

The solution then, to this productivity crisis is to use technology less, not more. I’m not suggesting we don’t use BlackBerries — although I don’t — but I’m suggesting we stop deluding ourselves that these gadgets are saving our marriage/hearts. They’re not. They’re like ping pong paddles with the ball on a piece of elastic — we think are batting the problems out of our lives but they’re just coming back at us. Time to put the bat down and look out the window.

Internet Radio in the Bedroom

 

I’ve lately been looking for a way to listen to Internet radio away from my computer. This looks like a good, albeit somewhat expensive, answer: the WiFi Radio from Acoustic Energy (about S$600, that’s $415ish).

The WiFi Radio connects to your router and stores more than 5,000 radio stations by country, updated each time the machine is switched on, which you can scroll though via the somewhat pokey LCD display on the top. There’s a buffering delay but once the station kicks in the sound is great. You can also use it to stream music from your computer.

It’s a classy solution to the problem. But I think there might be a simpler one, if you’ve only got a handful of stations you want to listen to, and just want a small device you can carry around the house with you. Perhaps I could even use an old PDA with WiFi built in? Where’s that Tungsten T3 I saw lying around?

wifi radio – further information : acoustic energy

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Foleo, Foleo, Where Art Thou?

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Caption competition:

“Is this a dagger I see before me?”

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio”

Now you see it, now you don’t

Photo from BusinessWire

It has the grim predictability of a company that doesn’t seem sure of what it’s doing, and what people want. Ever since Ed Colligan unveiled the Foleo — a Linux-based sub-sub-notebook — a few months back, folks have been saying it was a mistake. Now it’s dead.

I liked the idea, but felt it was the wrong solution: the iPhone and the Nokia N800 seem to prove people now want something that isn’t just a workhorse, but another onramp to the social web, whereas the Foleo seemed to be aimed simply at business customers. Such folk have long been used to lugging heavy stuff around, so it made no sense.

Anyway, Ed has done the right thing and knocked the project on the head, taking a $10 million hit (while sparing a moment for the poor third party developers who committed time and resources to software to run on the dang thing). What is most telling, though, are the comments left on his blog post announcing the gadget’s demise. They reveal the frustration and supportive passion of Palm users around the world, and to me illustrate what people really want from the once-great company:

  • a better interface that isn’t so buggy and unreliable.
  • better battery life (the Foleo boasted six hours. But remember the IIIx: days and days on a couple of AAAs. How far backwards have we gone?)
  • more durable. The IIIx also survived a lot of bashing about.
  • a phone that isn’t a sop to the phone companies — in other words, so it can do VoIP, work on WiFi networks as well as cellular ones.
  • find a way of getting a bigger screen onto a Treo. How about projection?  
  • GPS. Things have moved on, Ed, and nowadays we expect our devices to fit a lot more in.
  • Like good cameras. Not just for snapping, but for scanning.
  • And 3.5G.
  • And probably WiMAX.
  • And big storage.
  • And decent software that can handle PDFs, flash, browsing and interactive stuff.
  • And decent keyboards (get back in bed with the ThinkOutside guys, or whoever bought them.) I still love my Bluetooth keyboard and can’t understand why they’re considered such an afterthought.
  • Voice commands and voice recognition.
  • USB connectivity

The bottom line, is that we’ve been thinking the PDA is dead, whereas we should be thinking the other way around: The smartphone is just a PDA with connectivity. A good PDA does all these things we’ve been talking about, and while we take calls on it, that’s a small part of what it is about. We just want the things we did on our PDA to be connected, that’s all.

That’s not just about being able to take calls, it’s about SMS, email, browsing, and of being able to meld into our environment — GPS to know where we are, cameras and HSDPA and GPS to take photos that go straight to Flickr, tools like Jaiku to wrap us into our social network. It’s still a digital assistant, it’s just a connected digital assistant.

As one commenter put it, it’s still a Getting Things Done Device.It’s just we do lots of different things these days, so a to do list shouldn’t be where you stop.

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Cabin Fever

Flight International reports (sorry, can’t find a link, but here are some similar stories from Thisislondon and New Electronics) that “BAE Systems and its research partners have completed initial tests with an in-cabin computer vision system intended to identify suspect behaviour by potential terrorists.” Seems the system involves cameras in the cabin with software that analyses the image “for movement or other actions that indicate an unruly or potentially dangerous individual, whether seated or standing.” Some of this, says BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre human factors specialist Katherine Neary, involves face recognition. Given most people behave badly on airlines, I think they’re going to have to tweak their algorithms if they don’t want to subdue everyone on the flight.

I think I’d prefer an airline like Thailand’s Nok Air, which takes a friendlier attitude to passengers. According to Flight, the low-cost carrier “is expanding its fleet Boeing 737-400s and its fleet of scantily-dressed “PDA girls”” who help check-in passengers that only have carry-on bags. Chief executive Patee Sarasin tries not to sound surprised when he says “It’s been fantastically well received”. Of course he then spoils it by adding: “It is very efficient and costs you less than $4.00 a day to have these girls walking around in Thailand.”

Nok
Khun Patee’s walking check-in counters

 

Hang On, I’m Just Calling My Getaway Car

A bank in Chicago has banned use of cellphones in five of its branches, hoping to prevent the bad guys from communicating with each other during a robbery, according to UPI:

“We ban cell phone use in the lobby because you don’t know what people are doing,” Ralph Oster, a senior vice president [of the First National Bank], told the Chicago Tribune. Cell phone cameras are also a worry.

Oster said there have been holdups in which bandits were on the phone with lookouts outside while committing bank robberies.

As the piece points out, this isn’t the first such ban: West Suburban Bank, based in Lombard, Ill., barred customers wearing hats in January but has not moved to silence cell phones.

Does this make sense? Well, in some ways it does. If there’s a guy hanging around the bank on the phone, it could be that he’s coordinating his getaway car, and you would want to try to nip that kind of thing in the bud. It does happen. By stopping him (or her) from using a cellphone he may decide not to rob your bank, but the one next door instead, where cellphones aren’t banned.

However, where does it stop? Would someone texting/SMSing be told to stop? And how would a security guard, however many PhDs he has, be able to tell the difference between someone jabbing away on a cellphone and jabbing away on a PDA? How about people using handsfree devices? Are they just singing/talking to themselves?

On the other hand, isn’t there an easier way? I would have thought a cellphone blocker would be a better idea (check out this excellent Google Answer on the difference between jammers (illegal in the U.S., since it involves actually interfering with the signal) and blockers (which build a shield around the location to block signals from penetrating it).

Of course, there are downsides. How many times have you been in a bank and then realized you needed to contact a friend/colleague/family member to discuss how much money you should take out/deposit/borrow? As Bruce Schneier would say, devices can be used for both good and ill and if the good outweighs the ill, as it usually does, banning is stooopid:

We don’t ban cars because bank robbers can use them to get away faster. We don’t ban cell phones because drug dealers use them to arrange sales. We don’t ban money because kidnappers use it. And finally, we don’t ban cryptography because the bad guys it to keep their communications secret. In all of these cases, the benefit to society of having the technology is much greater than the benefit to society of controlling, crippling, or banning the technology.

The Digital Writing Podcast

Recently I wrote (WSJ.com; subscription only I’m afraid) and spoke (BBC World Service; podcast here) about digital writing — the still peripheral business of using a pen to write on paper, and then have that work digitally transferred to a computer, PDA or cellphone. (And then, optionally, have any writing converted to text your computer can use.)

It’s a much maligned, undercovered field. Every year or so a company comes out with a new product and there’s a smattering of articles. Then everyone forgets about it — usually including the people who bought and briefly used the product. I don’t know why this is; I suspect it’s because partly it’s still a bit tricky, in some cases, to use these products, and partly because everyone thinks digital writing is all about TabletPCs — i.e., bringing your laptop with you. It’s not; in fact, nearly all these solutions use paper and pen, which makes them truly portable. My only gripe: the pens, particularly those from Logitech (the io2) and Nokia (the SU-1B), use very basic biro-style ink which isn’t all that nice to write with. I’ve read some people have gotten around this by finding better cartridges and fitting them with tape, but I’ve not tried it.

Wikipedia Via Wi-Fi

I enjoyed reading this piece, somewhat belatedly, from Oliver Starr’s Mobile Weblog, where he describes a future where Wikipedia is no longer confined to the webpage but could be all around us: Location

Using your phone, as if it was a PC mouse, you uncover snippets of information from the world around you. You click on an old house in the road and a wealth of digital information comes onto your phone screen. Some contain video and audio links.

The technology that would allow this to happen is discussed, but it seems that Oliver doesn’t mention another option: Wi-Fi Positioning. I’ve been researching this for this week’s column (out on Friday, subscription only, I’m afraid), and it sounds to me a much better option, at least in urban areas.

I imagine it would work like this: Your Wi-Fi device (which soon will be as ubiquitous in a phone as in a PDA or laptop) will figure out where you are using Wi-Fi positioning (or, I suppose, if you’re at Stonehenge, this could be done via GPS).

If you’re prepared, you would have uploaded the PDA/phone ready version of Wikipedia for that part of the world, and the Wi-Fi positioning would pluck passages relevant to where you are (“you’re standing on a cobbled street built in 1765; the cobbles are hewn from a nearby quarry run by elves. Click here for directions to the quarry. Click here to meet an elf”.) Or it could give up a map of nearby entries and routes to them (with Wi-Fi positioning this could be inside a building as much as outside).

If you’re a visitor who hasn’t uploaded anything prior to the visit, participants in the project — local councils, individuals, owners of attractions — could store the relevant information on their Wi-Fi network and allow your unit to download it for viewing. This would not only mean that users who hadn’t thought of downloading the information before would still benefit, but folks who didn’t even know the service existed could prep their devices to make use of it. Needless to say, this downloaded information could also contain advertising.

This is in some ways similar to podcast guides, or sightseeing tours, or podguides, which offer spoken commentary on places. Wi-Fi positioning could make these all powerful tools, with little or no extra outlay on the part of end-users.

The Fate Of The Home Productivity Suite

I was asked by a PR firm on behalf of Corel to give my thoughts about office productiviy suites used in the home. I don’t always do that sort of thing, but I thought why not turn it into a blog posting, thereby avoiding any danger of being perceived as aiding and abetting a company I write about (hard to imagine that my ramblings might be seen as helpful, but you never know). Here, for what they’re worth (and I don’t think they’re worth very much) are my thoughts, post-long day at the office, post-chicken tikka and a Heineken, or, cough, two:

1. What is your perception of “the state of the nation” regarding Office Productivity packages used in the home?

Office [packages are] a waste of money for most homes, but often it, or something like it, comes packaged on laptops and desktops [anyway]. Most people use Outlook and Word, and a little Excel. Perhaps some PowerPoint to view something someone has sent them. All in all, a waste of software.

2. What would make an ideal home consumer productivity suite?

One that combined email, calendar and word processing and possibly a bit of finance. Outlook and Word are too much for most home users — Outlook Express is still a firm favorite, and many people see it as better than Outlook. But nowadays the home productivity suite needs to face new challenges from at least two quarters: synchronisation with other devices (phones, PDAs, other software) and to cope with the huge amount of digital imagery users have collected. It doesn’t mean the productivity suite needs to include image library and editing features, it just needs to fit neatly with them. This means that anyone taking a picture, sending an email/SMS/MMS, storing a contact on any device (PDA, iPod, smartphone) should be able to move that data all ways — onto their computer, onto another device, or back onto the device they originally created it on. It baffles users that they can’t do this kind of thing easily, or without buying some complex third party software.

Any ‘productivity’ software has to look beyond the platform [I meant desktop, or home, or office, or whatever the niche they’re aiming at is] they’re designing their productivity for, and think in terms of users’ productivity now being at least half the time mobile. No longer are people going to sit at their computers creating letters, invitations or other documents. They’re going to receive an email, reply to it and then want to save part of that email to their phone, whether it’s an image, a phone number or a map. That’s what productivity means to most people nowadays.

3. What could Corel improve compared to what we’ve done in the past?

I think i’ve answered this in 2. To add to this, RSS and blogging are terribly important, and the sooner these functions are included in existing software the better. it should be possible, for example, to create, organise and update blogs directly from WP/Word — what a waste of word processing power not to be able to do this (or edit webpages) easily. Browsers will soon incorporate RSS as standard, but RSS is actually the backend, not the front end, and I would expect to see a lot of interesting software that handles RSS in more creative ways than your average newsreader. Corel could be a part of that if they thought outside the perimeter a bit.

4. What areas are lacking in current office suites given to the home market (ie. Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition, Works, Microsoft Office — Standard, WordPerfect Office, WordPerfect Office Home Edition etc) that could be improved to make them better for that space.

See above. I don’t think any of these packages make much sense anymore, except for a limited audience. It’s old thinking: modern thinking would take into account that people just don’t work in front of the computer the same way they do in the office, so while I’m sure there’s some room for this kind of package, I would expect it to shrink further, and eventually be swept aside [unless it] links the software to
— Internet services more easily (say, for example, being able to save items of information in whatever format from the Internet or other programs; it’s no coincidence that Search is now a key industry, not just for the Internet but for one’s own files. This is good, but it’s a function of the failure of existing software to allow users to save and create information in a way that is easily retrievable. It’s not a new feature, it’s a BandAid to a bigger problem.)
— to other devices
— to programs that aren’t part of the package
etc etc.

Then I ran out of juice. But you get the idea. Mad ramblings, but some fodder in there. Thoughts very welcome, though not on my choice of food or beer.

Canada Gets The Hipster PDA

Nice piece by Tralee Pearce in The Globe and Mail on ‘The hipster PDA’ :

On BlackBerry-addicted Parliament Hill, NDP press secretary Ian Capstick turns heads with his newest organizational gadget: a stack of 3 x 5 index cards held together by a black bull clip.

The hipster PDA, of course, is Merlin Mann’s idea, and the piece quotes liberally from Merlin — visit his website at 43Folders. An interesting article and worth a read.

Logitech’s Bluetooth pen

Logitech are about to bring out their io2 pen for Bluetooth:

This summer, Logitech will launch a Bluetooth-enabled version of the io2 Digital Pen, designed to address the current data entry shortcomings of mobile data capture devices. Logitech’s Bluetooth digital pen, when used in combination with a Bluetooth wireless handheld device, will help an organization’s mobile workforce more efficiently gather, transmit and share important data.

A press release gives a bit more detail: Using the Logitech io2 Digital Pen with Bluetooth technology, a mobile worker will be able to capture information by using a customized version of a standard paper form, such as for an insurance appraisal or a work order. The pen automatically creates a digital record that is transmitted to a complementary Bluetooth wireless technology enabled handheld communication device, such as a smart mobile phone, PDA or Blackberry. That data can be stored and processed on the handheld device or immediately sent into an organization’s central database for processing. For the mobile worker, it’s an automated process that starts with filling out a familiar form and ends with a confirmation on his or her wireless handheld communication device that the information has been sent and received.

Sounds interesting, although I’m not quite clear about how this differs from the Nokia SU-1B pen, which originates from the same Anoto source. And why aim only at business users with this?