Tag Archives: Windows Mobile

The Shape of Things to Come

This is from my weekly newspaper column, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We’re all touch typists now.

Of course, the definition of touch type has had to change a little, since most of us don’t actually learn touch typing as we’re supposed to. Watch people tapping away at a keyboard and you’ll see all sorts of cobbled-together methods that would make the office secretary of yesteryear blanch.

But for now keyboards are going to be with us for a while as the main way to get our thoughts into a computer, so some sort of touch typing is necessary.

But the mobile phone is different. After ten years most of us have gotten used to entering text using the predictive, or T9, method, where the phone figures out you’re trying to say “hello” rather than “gekko” when you tap the 4,3,5,5,6 keys.

Texting has gotten faster—Portugal’s Pedro Matias, 27, set a new world record in January by typing a 264-character text in less than 2 minutes, shaving 23 seconds off the previous record—but that’s still slower than your average touch typist, who manages 120 words-say 480 characters—in the same amount of time.

Blackberry uses have their QWERTY keyboards, each key the size of a pixie’s fingernail, and while some people seem to be quite happy with these things, I’m not.

And the iPhone has given us, or given back to us, the idea of little virtual keyboards on our screen. I’ll be honest: I’m not a big fan of these either.

The arrival of the Android phone hasn’t really helped matters: The keyboard is usually virtual (some of the earlier phones had physical keyboards, but most have dropped them in favor of onscreen ones) and I really didn’t enjoy typing on them.

To the point that my wife complained that she could tell when I was using the Android phone over my trusty old Nokia because she didn’t feel I was “so reachable.” By which she means my monosyllabic answers weren’t as reassuring as my long rambling Nokia, predictive text ones.

But that has changed with the arrival of software called ShapeWriter. ShapeWriter is software that provides the same virtual keyboard, but lets you swipe your words on it by dragging your fingers over the keys to, well, form a shape.

Typing “hello,” for example, is done by starting your finger on “h”, dragging it northwest to “e”, then to the far east of “l”, lingering there a second, then north a notch to “o.” No lifting of the finger off the keyboard. Your finger instead leaves a red slug-like trail on the keyboard, and, in theory, when you lift your finger off the keys that trail will be converted to the word “Hello.”

And, surprise, surprise, it actually works. Well, unless you’re demonstrating it to a skeptical spouse, in which case instead of “hello” it types “gremio” or “hemp.”

Now this isn’t the first time I’ve used ShapeWriter. It has been around a while—it was first developed by IBM Labs in the early 2000s. It’s gone through quite a few changes in the meantime, not least in the theory behind it.

But the main bit of thinking is the same as that with predictive text (and speech recognition): what is called the redundancy of language. Taking, for example, the whole body of emails written by Enron employees, the most frequent email sender wrote nearly 9,000 emails in two years, totalling about 400,000 words.

That’s a lot of words. But in fact the number of actual words was about 2.5% of that: That email sender only used 10,858 unique words.

Now of course, Enron employees might not be representative of the wider population, but researchers have to work with data, and the Enron case threw up lots of data. The Enron Email Dataset is a 400 megabyte file of about 500,000 emails from about 150 users, mostly senior management of Enron. Making it a goldmine for researchers of language, machine learning and the like.

Learning from the words used—though presumably not their morals—researchers are able to figure out what words we use and what we don’t. Thus, ShapeWriter, and T9, and speech recognition, are able to tune out all the white noise by only having to worry about a small subset of words a user is typing, or saying. Most words we either don’t use because our vocabularies aren’t that great, or because we haven’t invented those words yet.

ShapeWriter has 50,000 words in its lexicon, but it gives preference to those 10,000 or so words it considers most common (presumably

In ShapeWriter’s case, they produce a template of the shape of each word they decide to store in the software, so the shape you’re drawing—left-far right, up, down, along—is recognised.

In its latest incarnation it actually works surprisingly well, and I’d recommend anyone with an Android phone to check it out. (It’s free.) There’s a version for the iPhone too, as well as Windows Mobile and the Windows Tablet PC. Only downside: For now, at least, only five–European–languages are supported.

I am not convinced this kind of thing is going to replace the real keyboard, but it’s the first decent application I’ve come across that has gotten me back into actually enjoying tapping out messages on my device.

My wife, for one, is happy.

Bye Bye, Laptop?

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The day seems to be getting closer when we can do something that would seem to be pretty obvious: access our pocket-sized smartphone via a bigger screen, keyboard and a mouse. Celio Corp says it’s close.

Celio Corp have two products: their Mobile Companion (pictured above), a laptop like thing that includes an 8″ display, a full function keyboard, and a touchpad mouse. At 1 x 6 x 9 inches and weighing 2 lbs, the Mobile Companion promises over 8 hours of battery life and boots instantly. After loading a driver on your smartphone you can then access it via a USB cable or Bluetooth. (You can also charge the smartphone via the same USB connection.)

Uses? Well, you can say goodbye to coach cramp, where you’re unable to use a normal laptop. You can input data more easily than you might if you just had your smartphone with you. And, of course, you don’t need to bring your laptop.

The second product might be even better. The Smartphone Interface System is, from what I can work out, a small Bluetooth device that connects your smartphone, not to the Mobile Companion, but to a desktop computer, public display or a conference room projector  — these devices connect via a cable to the Interface, like this:

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The important bit about both products is that the Redfly software renders the smartphone data so it fits on the new display (this will be quite tricky, and, because it will carried via Bluetooth, would need quite a bit of compression. The maximum size of the output display is VGA, i.e. 800 x 480, so don’t expect stunning visuals, but it’ll be better than having all your colleagues crowding around your smartphone.)

The bad news? Redfly isn’t launched yet, and will for the time being be available only for Windows Mobile Devices. Oh, and according to UberGizmo, it will cost $500. The other thing is that you shouldn’t confuse “full function keyboard” with “full size keyboard”: this vidcap from PodTech.net gives you an idea of the actual size of the thing:

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this is the keyboard size relative to Celio CEO Kirt Bailey’s digits:

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Until I try the thing out and feel sure that the keyboard doesn’t make the same compromises as the Eee PC, I’d rather use my Stowaway keyboard.

For those of you looking for software to view your mobile device on your desktop computer, you might want to check out My Mobiler. It’s free software that purports to do exactly that for Windows Mobile users.

Pocket Lockets

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videocapture from myTreo.net

Here’s something that caught my eye from CES: D.A.V.E. from Seagate. Despite its awful name (it stands for Digital Audio Video Experience) it’s a great idea. It’s basically a small 60 GB external hard drive but it’s small (65 x 90 x 16 mm) and light (106 grams) and connects to a smart phone via WiFi or Bluetooth. The devices contain a USB port for uploading data (and presumably can use a wired connection from smartphones too, should the need arise.)

As Tadd Rosenfeld of myTreo.net puts it:

We believe DAVE is a game changer. With the introduction of 1 gigahertz smartphone processors (check back for our interview with Qualcomm about their new high end processors for Windows Mobile devices), and with the introduction of DAVE, smartphones are going to have have virtually all of the processing and storage capabilities of laptop and desktop computers. Smartphones will become simply one more way of accessing everything you have on your computers at work and home.

True, but it seems to be taking a bit longer to come out of the traps than earlier expected. ZDNet wrote a year agao that the devices should be available in May 2007. There’s no sign of that, and in fact it sounds as if Seagate is not selling them directly, merely selling the technology. And if weight and size are not too much of an issue, Singapore’s EDS Lab Pte Ltd has had a similar sort of product in the market for some time — the wi-Drive, which connects via WiFi (not Bluetooth) measures 112 x 77 x 22 mm, and weighs 230 grams. (I’m trying to get hold of one of these.)

Another option is the BluOnyx from LSI Corporation. Describing itself as a Mobile Content Server, the BluOnyx connects via Bluetooth, SD card, USB and Wifi and allows several people to access content at the same time. The device comes in lots of different colors, is about the size of a credit card and slightly thicker than a Razr (that would be about 85 x 57 mm x 10 mm). Given that the device was announced more than a year ago, and that the BluOnyx was created by Agere Systems, which was bought by LSI last year, the fate of the BluOnyx isn’t clear. Doesn’t look like you can buy one yet.

Most of the buzz seems to be around accessing multimedia content — basically turning your device into a sort of iPod, but with the weight elsewhere. I guess that would be the main usage, though I love the idea of being able to take all my databases with me and then access them from whatever device I want. But I can see why these products don’t necessarily fly: who wants an extra piece of hardware to lose in the bottom of a bag? And while extra storage would be nice, anything with Bluetooth in it is bound to be a hassle. And, surely, the day can’t be far off when our smartphone has 60GB of storage built in?

Love the idea, can see why the reality isn’t in all of our pockets. Yet.

60 GB of Treo Storage – Editorials

The Failure of the Smartphone Interface

I still don’t understand why people think that a stylus is a good thing, or that mimicking a Windows environment — designed for navigation by mice and other pointy things — is regarded as a worthy goal for mobile devices.

Take what Walt Mossberg, who has emerged as something of an expert on the new Treos, has to say about them in his mailbag (the URL isn’t a permalink, so don’t know how long it’s good for):

I have reviewed both devices, and I find that the Windows Mobile software on the 700w is considerably inferior to the Palm operating system software on the 700p. Too many common actions in the Windows version take more steps than the same actions on the Palm OS version, and often require navigating menus. You are likely to use the stylus more often in the Windows version as well.

I think in the near future we’ll wonder what the hell we were doing with our mobile interfaces. Why is it harder to answer a smartphone than it is to answer a normal mobile phone? Stylii were designed for sitting in restaurants and at desks, not when you’re standing in heavy pedestrian traffic outside Leicester Square tube trying to find someone’s phone number. Windows was designed for laptops, desktops, more or less anything with a flat surface and a mouse nearby, not for navigating on crowded trains or in fast-moving cars (especially when you’re driving).

Palm still looks good because it’s relatively simple as an interface. But it’s still looking dated, even while we’re still waiting for something better to come along.

The Demise of the Handheld Interface

Am I the only person depressed by the idea that Treos are now going to be Windows Mobile-powered? (It remains to be seen whether there’ll be Palm versions too; it would make sense, at least for a while.)

First off, feel sorry for all the third party developers who came up with great Palm software over the years. Mourn the small file sizes. Mourn the simple interface.

For sure, Palm and the OS had their weaknesses. They never seemed to really improve on the software that was in the Palm IIIs except add some colour. They missed more opportunities than your average Premier League club. And my Treeo 650 still crashes on a regular basis. But Windows? Why has nobody ever questioned the wisdom of mimicking a Windows environment and GUI on a screen the size of a cigarette box? The whole idea of Windows is to have lots of programs open that you can see on your screen and move stuff between. When did anybody ever do that on a Pocket PC?

I hate everything about Pocket PC Windows. I really do. There’s no style, no grace to it. Too many unnecessary lines. Big clunky scroll bars. Silly start menus that are at the bottom or top of screens, making for awkward stylus (or finger nail gestures.) Why is the only serious innovation in this field done by outsiders such as the great University of Maryland-developed Datelens? And what’s so Windowsy about Pocket PC Windows anyway? Why, for example, has Microsoft (nor Palm, for this matter) not figured out how to throw up status messages that don’t take up the whole screen?

Sorry, I’m cranky today. But while I long ago lost hope in Palm turning its software into more than a colour version of its mid 1990s original, I have never been a convert to Windows on a handheld. Is there no vision out there about how we use our portable devices that isn’t just an ugly, stripped down and clunky version of what we have to put up with on our desktop? Why haven’t these wonderfully simple new ideas about interfaces from, say, 37signals spread to the handheld? Or is the future Apple shaped and we haven’t seen it yet?

News: Microsoft Launches Voice Recognition for the Pocket PC

 Microsoft has launched new voice recognition and control software to allow mobile phone and handheld computer users to control most functions of their phones without fiddling with tiny controls. Microsoft Voice Command, Reuters reports, will be sold as a $40 add-on for the Windows Mobile Pocket PC software for PDAs and mobile phones, allowing users to call up a contact on a device by simply asking for a person’s name. It will also launch applications, control phone functions and look up and read back calendar appointments.

Update: A Sneak Look Through The New Windows

 Further to my earlier post about the delays behind the next version of Windows, Paul Thurrott of Windows & .NET Magazine has gotten hold of some screenshots of what is codenamed Longhorn that perhaps show they’re further down the road than we thought. His conclusions?
  • this Windows version will finally fulfill Microsoft Chairman and CEO Bill Gates’s goal of making Windows the center of our digital lifestyle.
  • Longhorn will offer a sound volume “mix” so that users can independently control any software that generates sound; in one of the screen shots, the volume for Microsoft Outlook’s new mail sound and the main speaker volume are independently controlled.
  • Continuing the Activity Center work that began with Windows Me, Longhorn aggregates common elements into central locations, rather than requiring users to navigate around the system and control discrete elements independently. For example, instead of requiring users to independently synchronize equipment such as portable audio devices, Pocket PCs, and USB memory fobs and software elements such as Offline Files, a new Longhorn SyncManager control panel will give users a central location for managing synchronization tasks. From this
    location, users will be able to set up all device and software synchronization partnerships, manage devices, and perform other related activities.