Category Archives: Rants

(Another) Apple tablet prediction

I’m going to join the throng and make a prediction about the much-hyped forthcoming Apple tablet computer (variously the iPad, or iSlate, or iTab etc.). Not whether it will have an OLED screen, or an E-Ink screen, or a new form of gestural interface, or a virtual keyboard, or be an e-book and e-newspaper reader, or be for a family to share and for use in classrooms. Plenty of others are discussing these possibilities with eager anticipation. My prediction is a very simple one: it will be successful. We will buy it, use it and find that it answers needs we never knew we had.

But tablet computers are not a new idea, so why will this device succeed where the others failed? In short, because we’re ready for it. We’re now familiar with touch-screen interfaces and multi-touch gestures due to using devices like the iPhone and watching films like Minority Report (and engaging with many other objects and media, and the ideas expressed in them, before that). Technology isn’t primarily what determines the success of this, or any other, product. The technologies that Apple’s new device will employ, whilst innovative, aren’t enough to get any but the ardent gadget fans and early adopters to use it. People’s practices, perceptions and expectations provide the acid test for any new product. Is it something we can understand the purpose of, envisage ourselves using, and see a role for in our lives? We develop this understanding from the ways we live our everyday lives and the artefacts that we employ to do so, it reflects our culture (to put it in larger terms).

Apple will have a hit with their new device, but only because the iPhone and Tom Cruise got us ready for it.

Pesky PDFs: preserving Word bookmarks

I recently uploaded my PhD thesis as a single PDF file. I wanted to make this electronic copy as accessible and usable as possible. For such a large document (250 pages plus), this meant including bookmarks so that cross-references and table of contents are ‘clickable’ – they take you directly to the referred-to section. It also means that the document can be viewed as a hierarchy of section and subsection headings in PDF viewers such as Adobe Reader. Creating basic PDFs is easy, Mac OS X has a built-in “Save as PDF” option within print menus and there is freeware such as Cute PDF available for Windows, but this only creates simple PDFs that are effectively the output to a printer and include no bookmark information. Creating navigable PDFs is possible (there are some useful guides here and here), but turned out to be a bit more of a minefield than I expected. Continue reading

Electricity-dependency

There’s nothing like a power cut to make you realise how dependent we are on electricity. Like many others I’ve been affected by the heavy rains in the UK and have been without power at home for three days and intermittently since. There’s the obvious things such as lights, TV, internet access you miss. But then you notice all the other tasks that need that vital bit of juice – doing the ironing, putting the washer on, taking a shower and even the gas-fired central heating needs power for its control systems. What feeble creatures we are…

What are electronic products for?

This might seem like a daft question, it’s too broad and too simplistic. A camera is for taking photographs, a toaster is for making toast etc.[1] But I guess what I’m referring to is how electronic products fit into our lives. Do they become invisible tools that enable us to concentrate on the activities and social interactions that make our lives happier, fulfilling and productive? Or are they visible participants in the activities and social interactions themselves? Do I want a toaster that just makes my toast in the morning, or a toaster that chats with me about the weather whilst it’s heating bread? Invisible enablers, visible participants, or somewhere in between? Perhaps the question is really about what’s important in life – our relationships with each other or our relationship with the things we surround ourselves with.

[1] And even those definitions are somewhat limited. A camera can also be for making people feel self-conscious, for displaying your wealth, for filtering and re-enforcing your memories and so on…

Just enough tech’

It often seems you can only ever describe yourself as a lover or a loather of technology – either gadget-obsessed or a Luddite. People seem to either equate the latest, shiniest gadget with happiness or declare themselves completely befuddled by any new technology and refuse to have anything to do with it. But perhaps there’s a third philosophy to apply: just enough tech’.

The next gadget will always be faster, prettier, more feature-laden and (hopefully) easier to use than the one you’ve just bought. So let’s stop focussing on having the latest or best gadget and concentrate on the technology that actually improves our lives.

Digital photography means we can share our memories easier and faster, but we don’t need the most mega-pixel-ed and feature-packed camera to do so [1]. The internet can make shopping easier, but we don’t need the fastest computer with the latest operating system to get online (and sometimes there’s nothing like seeing a product in the flesh). Digital television (should) look and sound better and offer more unique content than analogue terrestrial TV, but that doesn’t mean we have to watch all 99 channels of it. Mobile phones can strengthen our social networks, but we don’t all need BlackBerrys to send the occasional text message. We could all have just enough tech’ to get the job done, to allow us to do what we really value, to enrich our lives and not become slaves to the next upgrade.

[1] At the time of writing I’m still using a film camera. Sure I’d love to go digital, but not because it’s a nicer gadget. Rather because it would make the process of getting from pressing the shutter release to having the images available on the sales agency’s website much quicker and easier, thus improving my life!

It’s all computers’ fault

We sit rapt in front of them, our entire attention focussed on one small rectangle of flickering light [1], our only movements the sliding of a mouse or the tapping of keys. The result: headaches, eye strain, back ache and even obesity – how many calories do you burn clicking a mouse? And isn’t it striking that most of us hadn’t heard of RSI until computers came along?

The problem is that computers make us operate in their world, which is a much reduced and abstracted form of the real world. We’re set up to get stuff done in the real world using our physical bodies as well as our brains: moving it and ourselves, perceiving it, being aware of ourselves and those around us. Computers handicap us by making us use our brains (mainly) to decipher their ‘version’ of our world. Not only does this mean we need to concentrate more to use them (doing the deciphering), we’re also not using all the intuitive capabilities of our physical bodies. We need computers to operate in our world, the real world.

This isn’t a new idea. The concept of ubiquitous computing was first developed in the late 1980s. Yet it’s understandable why we’ve ended up with this problem. The form and function of computers have been limited by technology. But now we have pervasive wireless networks, fast microprocessors and cheap data storage. So perhaps it’s time the manufacturers put more effort into ubiquitous computing?

[1] Okay, so you can go out and buy some pretty large monitors or even use your computer via vast plasma screens. But in comparison to the size of your entire environment, that which you can perceive around you and interact with, they’re rather small.