Thursday, January 31, 2008

Pick it up and shake it

Remember the smart clothes pegs, intelligent spoons, thinking carpets, ubiquitous umbrella and the smart chopping board? Not to mention the WiFi t-shirt? All examples, varying in quality, of ubiquitous computing interfaces.

A classic ubiquitous computing interface is novel, but immediately understandable. You shouldn't have to read the manual to understand how it works, it should just makes sense because of the ergonomics of the device. I'd point towards something like BumpTop as opposed to a traditional desktop approach for Tablet PCs. You need an interface which is an extension of how the real world works.

Accelerometers were always going to play a role in ubiquitous computing interfaces to mobile phones, and we began to see the first examples of this over two years ago. However phones with accelerometers, like Nokia's N95 and Apple's iPhone, are now starting to appear in the mass market and people are finding interesting ways of using them...

There have been several examples of interfaces using the in-built accelerometers over the last two or three months, but the one that finally got this post out of my edit queue, allows you to shake your handset once to view a new text message, and then again to lock your handset.


However despite triggering me to finally finish this post, it's probably one of the least intuitive of the ones I've come across. With a far more intuitive interface comes an application, from the same people, that lets you flip over your phone to silence the ringer, or an alarm, and then flip it back to return turn them back on again. This makes perfect sense to me...


Of course what put this post in my edit queue in the first place, back in November last year, was the application that allowed you to create a secure connection (via Slashdot and New Scientist) between two Bluetooth devices by shaking them together to pair them. Again, this makes perfect sense, and it extends existing common sense ideas of how the world works into the computing realm.


Returning to text messages I stumbled across another project, called Shoogle (via New Scientist). Here the accelerometer, and audio feedback, is used to tell you about the state of the device. Like the Flashbag, a USB flash drive that actually changes size in line with how much data it contains, we're extending a concept that is already familiar. The fact that if you shake a container it makes more noise if it contains more items, and mapping that directly onto the phone's interface. I like this one as well, who hasn't forgotten about a text message that arrived when they were driving, or otherwise occupied. If your phone 'jingled' in your pocket like your keys you'd have an intuitive reminder that you had a message waiting.


With touch screen technology finally coming of age the next step in the user interface war pretty much has to be using those in-built accelerometers. So with shades of the Etch-A-Sketch past, you should just pick it up and shake it...

Update: Yet another accelerometer application. ShakeLock is a Python application that will lock (and unlock) you phone when you pick it up and shake it...


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

First thoughts about the Macbook Air

Interestingly something that I didn't notice during the keynote is that it doesn't come with an ethernet jack. This really is a Macbook Air, if you want to plug it into the wall, you need to buy an USB ethernet adaptor. A laptop without an ethernet jack is almost as revolution as a computer without a serial connector, and another Apple first. Of course in typical Apple fashion there is another connector downside, you've guessed it, micro-DVI. Another incompatible DVI "standard" dongle to add to the growing collection. At least they're including to micro-DVI to DVI and micro-DVI to VGA dongles with the laptop, unlike the standard MacBooks...

Another thing that didn't get mentioned is that, despite the Aluminium on the outside, this really is a Macbook, not a Macbook Pro. The Macbook Air shares the same integrated graphics as the other Macbooks. Which is a shame...

Right now I'm torn, it's so thin, but it's actually half a pound heavier than my wife's Dell Latitude X1. It also has a 13-inch screen, and I was really hoping for a 12-inch widescreen form factor. Hopefully some demo models will turn up in the Apple Store in Exeter tomorrow, or at least later in the week, and I'll get some hands on them. At which point, so long as I'm not thrown out of the store for taking photos and video, I'll post a first look review.

Update: Engadget is reporting that the new Macbook Air doesn't have a user replaceable battery. Admittedly it just got harder to travel with spare batteries, but this means you can't even replace the battery yourself when it dies. My old 12-inch Powerbook went through three or four batteries during its life and I'd expect my current laptop to do something similar. My only reaction to this is... "Oh!"

CREDIT: Ars Technica

Update: Ars Technica is hands-on with the new Macbook Air. They're confirming that the battery is not user replaceable.

Update: Should have been obvious, but it didn't occur to me either, it's doesn't have a user replaceable battery so it doesn't have user replaceable DIMMS either. The RAM is soldered to the motherboard, which explains why it comes with 2GB out of the box.

Update: Expectations were so high it's perhaps unsurprising that there is backlash (via Cult of Mac) growing against Apple's new thin book. I can understand the sentiment, despite the fact I don't have a problem with there not being an optical drive as many seem to, I don't think this is the replacement for my 12-inch Powerbook I was looking for...

Update: Some high-resolution pictures from Apple Insider...

CREDIT: Apple Insider

Update: Oh, it looks like the Remote Disc software doesn't work in the way I naively assumed it would, you can't play movies or games via Remote Disc, just install software. Yet another... "Oh!".

Update: I mentioned backlash? Interestingly Engadget at running a poll to see how many of their readers pre-ordered a Macbook Air. Currently 6.5% have pre-ordered the new laptop, 24.1% are thinking about it, but a massive 69.4% are saying no way. Those, no doubt unbalanced and skewed figures, on a survey base of around 27.5 thousand respondents.

Update: After thinking about it this evening, if Apple wanted build a sub-notebook, a true replacement for the mourned 12-inch Powerbook, then the three problems they should have addressed were: the footprint, weight and battery life of the notebook. I think the problem here is that I wanted small, small can mean thin, but it mostly means small. A 13-inch notebook, not matter how thin, is not small.

Update: Hmm, yes... the Macbook is 12.78 inches wide by 8.92 inches deep, and the Air is 12.80 inches by 8.94 inches. This is not a small laptop, it's actually bigger than my Macbook. That's disappointing...

Update: What he said, and what they said... this is not a sub-notebook.

Macworld 2008 - "There is something in the Air"

The rumour mill has been running full speed in the run up to the Macworld keynote this year, and it's almost unanimous amongst the assembled great and the good that we're looking at some sort of sub-notebook, with slightly more far fetched rumours, based on patent filing, hinting of an ultra-portable combined with a docking station. So with the pre-Macworld banners saying that there was "Something in the Air" we had the Macbook Air. I guess we'll see...


Update (17:05 GMT): The press is inside the theatre at the Moscone Center and we're waiting for things to start...

CREDIT: B. Lam/Gizmodo

Update (17:12 GMT): Twitter has apparently crashed under the weigh of the keynote traffic.

Update (17:15 GMT): Steve Jobs is on stage and has "four things to talk about today", and is kicking off with Leopard.

CREDIT: B. Lam/Gizmodo

Update (17:21 GMT): First big announcement is called Time Capsule, which is a companion for Time Machine in Leopard. Time Capsule allows you to wirelessly backup all the your Macs. Apple have just gone NAS. I actually talked about the possibility back in 2006 after the release of the Apple TV. Two models on sale, one with 500GB and one with a 1TB drive inside it, at $299 and $499 respectively, shipping in February.

CREDIT: B. Lam/Gizmodo

Update (17:26 GMT): Now onto the iPhone, and a mention of the SDK due out in late February. For today a software rollout for the iPhone (and the iPod touch?) which is presumably the long rumoured 1.1.3 firmware update featuring maps with location, customised home screens and multi-person SMS. This isn't anything new, we've know about this for a while...

CREDIT: B. Lam/Gizmodo

Update (17:35 GMT): Apparently the new firmware is coming to the iPod touch and bringing the missing applications: Mail, Stocks, Notes, Maps and Weather from the iPhone. Apparently it's going to cost $20 to upgrade? That's just silly...

Update (17:38 GMT): Next up, this is the third thing if you're keeping count, is iTunes Movie Rentals. We've known this was coming since December. So this isn't the big news, the big news is that all of the major studios are on board: Touchstone, Miramax, MGM, Lionsgate, Newline, FOX, WB, Disney, Paramount, Universal and even Sony. Of course no doubt it's going to be US only, we still can't get movie for sale here in the UK after all.

CREDIT: Engadget

Update (17:41 GMT): There will be a thousand films at launch at the end of February. Movies will be watchable immediately on streaming when you buy them, but you have thirty days to start watching and a day to finish after you make your purchase. Be able to watch the movies from your Mac, iPod or Apple TV. So what happened to owning your content?

Update (17:45GMT): Is this number four or does Steve lump this in with the movie rentals? Either way, next up we have the Apple TV take 2. While it still syncs with your computer, you no longer require one, and you can rent your movies directly and watch them on your HDTV. Can apparently also display your photos hosted on Flickr or .Mac. Not really an amazing bump for the under appreciated Apple TV really...

CREDIT: B. Lam/Gizmodo
CREDIT: Engadget

...although interestingly you can now preview movies from the interface, and see what other users who have rented the same movie have rented. Hmm, that one might have the privacy advocates up in arms unless there is an opt-out in the preferences so that you don't have to share you information.

Update (17:58 GMT): Still talking about the new content for the Apple TV. If Steve doesn't have something big up his sleeve this may count as the dullest Macworld keynote ever...

Update (18:01 GMT): Apparently the new features are a free software update for current owners. There is also a price drop for the Apple TV, from $299 to $229. The new software will be out in two weeks.

CREDIT: B. Lam/Gizmodo

Update (18:04 GMT): Jim Gianopulos, Chairman of FOX, the first people to sign up for the new Movie Rentals service is taking the stage. No doubt he'll say something corporate and dull.

Update (18:07 GMT): Hmm, he said something interesting. Apparently "DVD's will still be with us for a while" but from now on "Digital Copies" will be on the disks. The first example of this is the new Family Guy: Blue Harvest DVD, which will contain an iTunes compatible digital copy. Leaving the stage...

Update (18:09GMT): Okay, here we go... "As you know, Apple makes the best notebooks in the industry. Today, we are introducing a third kind of notebook. It's called the MacBook Air". It's the "The World's Thinnest Notebook".

CREDIT: MacRumors

Update (18:12GMT): Comparing the new Macbook Air to "the competition", the Sonzy TZ which 3 lbs, 0.8 to 1.2 inches and has an 11" or 12" display. The new MacBook is 0.16 to 0.76 inches. The thickest part of the MacBook Air is thinner than the thinnest part of the Sony. It fits inside a envelope. It has a magnetic latch and a 13.3" widescreen display. Hmm, that's an awfully big display. Kind of disappointing, I was hoping for a 12" screen...

Update (18:15GMT): The display is backlit, it has a built-in iSight and a Macbook like keyboard, and here we go, a multi-touch trackpad (the trackpad, not the screen?). You can move a window by double-tap, rotate a photo by pivoting your index finger around your thumb, and of course it has the iPhone's pinch-zoom. Although I'm not sure how intuative it's going to be if it's only the trackpad that's enabled.

Update (18:17GMT): It comes with an Intel Core 2 Duo, 1.6 GHz as standard but there is an option for a 1.8 GHz processor. It also comes with a 1.8 inch 80GB HDD as standard, now that's a surprise, but you can get a 64 GB SSD as an option. Even Steve says that the SSD is "pricy", in Apple speak that means a lot. It comes with a single USB 2.0 port, Micro-DVI and Audio Out.

CREDIT: B. Lam/Gizmodo

Update (18:19GMT): Paul Otellini, the CEO of Intel, is taking the stage. More corporate speak...

Update (18:23GMT): Steve is back on stage. The new Macbook Air also comes with 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.1/EDR. As predicted there is no optical drive, but a Superdrive accessory is available (separately) for $99. However it also ships with software that allows you to "borrow" a Mac or PCs optical drive. That's an interesting work around, is that how you install the operating system? Bizarre...

CREDIT: B. Lam/Gizmodo
CREDIT: MacRumors

Update (18:25GMT): It has 5 hours of battery life, which is actually somewhat disappointing. I was hoping for eight. Enough to see me through a trans-atlantic flight. Interestingly (a hint of things to come) it comes with 2GB of memory as standard. Priced at $1799, presumably without the 64GB SDD, and shipping in 2 weeks.

Update (18:28GMT): I guess Apple have taken the criticism from the GreenPeace seriously Steve is talking about the "environmental highlights": fully aluminum case (good for recycling), first fully mercury and lead free display, circuit boards are BFR free, retail packaging are 56% less volume than MacBook.

Update (18:29GMT): He's wrapping up, will there be one more thing? Randy Newman is on stage and playing...

Update (18:36GMT): Although of course as now seems to be the habit, the UK store is still down, the US Apple Store is back up. Looks like we're done here!

Update (18:47GMT): The UK store is now back up. The base model MacBook Air is £1,199 while the high end model with the 64GB solid state drive is a jaw dropping £2,028.00. That's a considerable markup from the US store where the high end model is US$3,098. That's £1,581 at the current exchange rate, and even if you take the UK's 17.5% VAT into account, that's only £1,857 after tax. Which means that the UK model has a £170 markup over the US model. Ouch!

Update (20:37GMT): The Keynote is now online (via TUAW), that was fast...

With thanks to MacRumours, Gizmodo, Engadget, TUAW and UNEASYsilence.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Apple Patents fuel the Rumour Mill

News of the Apple patent for a docking station, combined with the recent rumours of a subnotebook have fueled the Apple rumour mill to unexpected levels (via CrunchGear), even for just before a Macworld.

CREDIT: Gizmodo
Gizmodo's mock-up of Apple's rumoured notebook dock

As mentioned else where with this patent Apple have re-invented the PowerBook Duo and its DuoDock base station, and that idea seems to have come in from a lot of flak. But I'm not really sure why...

As I've mentioned in the past, the laptop market is split into two core demographics, the road warriors and the power users, and the two never really understand each other that well. I'm firmly in the road warrior camp, I'd kill and maim for a decent replacement for my faithful 12-inch Powerbook, and the 13-inch Macbook I bought back in October really isn't it.

Until I pick up a new Intel based desktop I'm not really going to be able to get rid of my old Powerbook, in favour of the new Macbook, entirely. So, not counting the 24U rack of servers I have stashed away in the machine room upstairs, I'm currently working from three different computers. My new 13-inch Macbook, my old 12-inch Powerbook and a 20-inch iMac. The idea that I could have a flash based 12-inch subnotebook for the road, and come home and slide that into a 24-inch iMac-like dock with the associated hard disk and screen real estate, without having to pull out and connect multiple wires is a very attractive proposition. For people who are on the go constantly this is the perfect solution.

Pity it's only a mock-up based on a patent application really...

Update: Anyone that thinks that a laptop can't be someone's primary computer is well behind the curve. Almost half the people working here in the astronomy group in Exeter, heavy CPU and disk users all, have a laptop as not just their primary, but their only computer. Desktops are pretty much dead tech except for specialised uses...

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The crazy Apple rumour mill

The run up to Macworld in January is always crazy, but this year seems especially bad. I've been waiting for a replacement for the 12-inch Powerbook for a long time now, but the recent rumours of a sub-notebook seem to be almost believable in view of other developments like the amazing success of the Asus Eee PC, and of course, the iPhone.

Now we have pictures, or rather a picture, probably the first in a long line of fake images purporting to show the rumoured sub-notebook. But fake or not, it has yet again wet my appetite for a proper replacement to my faithful 12-inch Powerbook. So I'm already looking at my hardware budget in a new light, thinking about how to squeeze a new sub-notebook in there, despite the Blackbook I bought in October. Apple, you've got at least one customer waiting...

Update: We got our a sub-notebook, but not this one...