Another Kind of Portable Device: The SoulPad

ZDNet reports on an interesting tool being developed by IBM — the SoulPad:

The SoulPad could let users carry their computer’s data, applications and personal settings on their mobile phone or digital music player

Researchers at IBM are testing software that would let you tote your home or office desktop around on an iPod or similar portable device, so that you could run it on any PC.

The virtual computer user environment setup is called SoulPad, and consumers install it from an x86-based home or office PC. SoulPad uses a USB or FireWire connection to access the network cards for connecting to the Internet, the computer’s display, the keyboard, the main processor and the memory, but not the hard disk.

As the article points out, this is not dissimlar to the idea of USB keydrive-based programs, which we’ve gone into some detail here in the past.

Getting Excited and Depressed About Scalable Interfaces

This isn’t new, and it’s not even supported anymore, but it’s a great Outlook add-in that is both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring because it shows us what we could be doing, depressing because there’s nothing really like this out there that fulfils this kind of potential. It’s Datelens – A Revolutionary Scalable Calendar Interface:

Calendar applications for small handheld devices such as PDAs are growing in popularity. This led us to develop DateLens, a novel calendar interface that supports not only PDAs, but a range of devices, from desktop computers to Tablet PCs. It supports users in performing planning and analysis tasks by using a fisheye representation of dates coupled with compact overviews, user control over the visible timer period, and integrated search. This enables users to see overviews, easily navigate the calendar structure, and discover patterns and outliers. Moreover, DateLens takes advantage of each device, running quickly on PDAs and supporting ink on Tablet PCs.

To get a proper sense of it download the movie/screencast on the page. What impressed me is not the graphics, which are clunky, with too many lines and not enough charm, but its malleability to the user. Or what is called ‘scalable user interfaces’. For example

  • By zooming in on the entry, day or month you’re interested in you can see more of what you need, right down to the half-hour segment itself, but with lots more context;
  • Search for events doesn’t throw up a boring list of matches, but a colour-coded range of matches, plus more colour markings on the scroll bar to show you what else is matching offscreen;
  • Easily assign more space or less to weekends, or months, or weeks;
  • The video/screencast (actually it’s not really a screencast) shows how even something as complex as these features can be explained really easily in three minutes.

Oh, and it’s free. I would love to see this kind of thing introduced into ordinary software. I’m not an Outlook user, which it plugs into directly, or a PocketPC, which it also works well with. But hopefully Microsoft are thinking along these lines. (All this reminded me of the late Jef Raskin’s zoomable user interfaces. What a shame no one ever got that kind of thing onto the desktop computer in his lifetime.)

This week’s column – The Mouse

This week’s Loose Wire column:

THIS COLUMN was going to be about how to get more out of your computer mouse. You know, clicking, dragging, double-clicking, dropping, all that kind of stuff. I was all fired up about it until I consulted the guy who had a lot to do with getting the mouse onto every desktop. That’s when I learned about how the mouse makes us endure more than we should. Here’s why.

Jef Raskin is a technology guru who was in the thick of it when the personal-computer revolution started. His home page features a picture of him, bearded and bespectacled, wearing what I assume is an eye computer. It lists his accomplishments concisely and modestly: creator of Apple’s Macintosh, the Canon Cat, click-and-drag selection . . . coined the term and the concept of “information appliances” . . . also well-known as an expert on the aerodynamics of miniature aircraft. More importantly, Raskin reckons the mouse is a waste of your time. “A message for your readers is that the overuse of the mouse is costing them about 25% of their time,” he wrote in response to my e-mailed questions.

Full text at the Far Eastern Economic Review (subscription required, trial available) or at WSJ.com (subscription required). Old columns at feer.com here.

News: IBM Pursues The Fold Out Computer

 I’ve always thought this would be the way forward: fold out computers. Now IBM are onto it, according to ZDNet.
 
One of their more promising designs, ZDNet says, uses a dual screen, connected by a single hinge, which provides a total display area closer to that used on desktop PCs when the device is unfolded.
 
 
IBM has already licensed the Meta Pad, which packs most of the components of a normal PC apart from the screen and keyboard into a package about the size of a PDA, which can be plugged into either a portable screen or a desktop adapter. Antelope Technologies will begin selling a device based on the technology this week.
 
 

Column: AlphaSmarts

Loose Wire — Frustrated Writers, Take Note: This Palm-powered, plain-vanilla, word-producing machine has none of the bells and whistles of other computers and won’t break your back or the bank — meaning more time for haiku

By Jeremy Wagstaff from the 26 June 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

I used to write a lot better before I got a computer. Really. The lethal combination of pen and paper ensured that I could write anywhere, anytime. Then, in 1986, I bought an Amstrad word processor and it’s been downhill ever since.

Nowadays I can’t focus on one program for more than five minutes, what with all the distractions: software notifying me of incoming e-mail, software notifying me that my incoming e-mail-to-spam ratio is 96.23%, software notifying me my last e-mail to Auntie Mildred has been read 12 hours and 46 minutes after it was sent, a chat message from an insomniac Australian friend, an alarm alerting me I need to pay rent, my firewall alerting me of yet another assault on my Internet defences. No wonder I never write haiku any more.

Computers are designed to do lots of things, and with graphical interfaces like Microsoft Windows and the Mac, they’re designed to do them at the same time, jostling for room on your screen. That’s great if you’ve got tunnel vision, or are crashing up against deadline [like me right now]. Otherwise, all this extra processing power isn’t matched by any great multitasking ability in our brains. My message this week, therefore, is this: If you’re planning to write seriously, don’t use a computer. Use a Dana.

OK, for e-mails and memos to your vocabulary-challenged boss, you may not need monastic calm and a minimum of distractions. But computers, even notebooks, may not be your friend if you’re trying to compose something masterful and meaningful. Instead, you may want to check out AlphaSmart, a U.S.-based company, which realized early on that there was a market for something to write on without all the extra hullabaloo to distract you. The decade-old AlphaSmart series, now into its third generation with the 3000, has been popular with students, teachers and anyone else needing a decent keyboard and a usable screen that don’t break their back or the bank. They’re robust too: One reader describes on the company Web site [www.alphasmart.com] how her unit — stuck to the floor, and slightly melted — was the only electronic gadget still working after her house burned down.

The 3000 is about the size of a notebook, but looks more like a keyboard with a small LCD display on the top. Powered by three AA batteries, it delivers you to whatever you were writing before you turned it off [or had to flee the licking flames]. The four-line display is simple but shows just enough of what you’re doing without feeling cramped. The keyboard is full sized and there’s a USB socket for uploading files to your computer, and a socket to connect to a printer [or external keyboard, if you wish]. Grey keys line the top of the keyboard, allowing you to store and recall up to eight separate files. It’s the sort of thing a student would love, which is the market AlphaSmart has focused on, but it could just as easily work for you if you’re sick of sitting at a computer all day, or tired of firing up a laptop on a flight and watching the power die just as the Muse kicks in.

Late last year AlphaSmart took the concept one stage further with the Dana. The Dana does everything the 3000 does, only better. The screen is bigger at 10 lines to the 3000’s four, the keyboard’s nicer and the whole thing is a tad sleeker than its forbears. It also runs the Palm operating system, which brings with it plenty of advantages: For one thing, if you’re familiar with Palm, you’ll know your way around; for another, you can do everything a Palm device can do, such as swap Office documents with your computer, store contacts, calendars and whatnot. In fact, to some it could be just a bigger Palm device — most of the software is redesigned to fit a screen far wider than your hand-held — with a first-class keyboard attached. But that’s missing the point: The Dana is a word processor that uses the best Palm has to offer — compact, useful software, immediate access, configurable fonts, low power consumption — without trying to be too much else.

If you’re looking for something to write on during a trip to the country, the dentist or the restroom, and can’t be bothered to bring a laptop [or can’t afford one] then the Dana is an option. If you’re a writer and sick of the distractions of modern computing, the Dana is worth a look.

Gripes? A few. The monochrome screen is nice but looks a bit dated, especially the backlight. With a list price of $400 it’s substantially cheaper than a laptop or notebook, but not that much cheaper than a state of the art, full-colour hand-held device. [Shell out another $75 and you have a foldable keyboard which fits in your pocket.] And without a cover or clamshell, some reviewers have rightly suggested the screen might easily get scratched.

But these are minor niggles. I’m seriously thinking about getting one for my inspirational visits to the hills where a laptop is too much, and the miserly screen of my Palm Tungsten not quite enough. Might even try some haiku.