Archive for the ‘UI’ Category:


The Rebirth of the PC

People are talking about the death of the desktop PC.  While Rob Enderle is talking about it’s rebirth.  I’m conflicted about both these stories.  I think they are missing the trends which will really shape how we come to think of the PC in the future.

Looking at the market now, there are desktops, there are laptops, there are tablets and there are phones.  We also have vague attempts to cross genre, with Windows 8 trying to reach between tablet and laptop, while IOS and Android reach between tablet and phone.  But this isn’t the future, this is a market still trying to figure itself out. I’m going to limit my predictions to a particular segment of the market – the segment which is currently dominated by the desktop PC.

The reasons we have desktops are:

  • They are more powerful than laptops
  • They are tied to a single desk, so that management can control where we work (and where our data stays)
  • They are more comfortable to use than laptops or tablets (at least for keyboard entry and pixel perfect design)

However, the game is changing.  The question of power is becoming moot.  Machines seem to be gaining power (or reducing power consumption) faster than applications are taking it up.  There is less and less need for more powerful machines.  And, where more powerful machines are needed in a company, it doesn’t make sense to hide them under individual’s desks.  It makes more sense to put them in the datacenter, allocating processing power to the people that need it.

In short, we don’t need computers under our desks, we need reasonably dumb clients.  Network computers.  Oracle could have told you that years ago.

That said, dumb clients never quite seem to happen.  And the reason for this is that is that smart is so cheap, there is in point in tying yourself down, limiting yourself to this year’s dumb.

Tying the computer to the desk is increasingly being seen as a limitation rather than a benefit.  It doesn’t just prevent working from home, it also prevents hotdesking, and simple team re-orgs. What is more interesting to companies are technologies which let them keep data in controlled locations – and again the same technologies which let people work from home are also keeping data in the cloud – but locking it there so that it is harder to misuse.  This argument for the desktop PC is gone.

Comfort is more important.  But by comfort we specifically mean comfort for typists, and mouse operators.  Tablets are going to cut into the market for mouse operators, and combinations of gesture and speech technologies will gradually reduce the advantage of the poweruser’s keyboard.  Text entry will probably remain best done by keyboard for the time being.  But the comfort aspects are changing.  My bet is we will see an increase in big, screens angled for touch rather than display, while tablets are used for on screen reading.  Keyboards will remain for people who do a lot of typing, but onscreen keyboards will be commonplace for the everyday user.

So – by my reckoning we will have (probably private) cloud data, applications running on virtual machines which live in the datacenter and being distributed to big screens (and still some keyboards) on the user’s desks.

This isn’t a particularly impressive point of view.  Its the core of a number of companies who are playing in that field’s business plans.

But what is missing from the view is the PC.  As I said : there might be big monitors acting as displays for clients, but clients doesn’t mean dumb.

Smart is cheap.  We could probably power the monitors running smart clients – and some local personal, and personalized, computing – from our phones.  We could certainly do it from our laptops.  But we won’t.  Because we won’t want to become tied down to them.

We will want our tablets and laptops to be able to carry on doing what we were doing from our desktops – but thats an entirely different issue.  Indeed, since I’ve suggested we might want to run some personal programs locally, it suggests we need something on our desktop to mediate this.

It has felt, recently, that the IT industry is moving away from letting us own our own devices.  That the Apple’s and Microsofts want to control what our computers run.  Some have shouted ‘conspiracy’, but from what I know of the people making these decisions, the reason is hands down ‘usability’ tied with ‘security’.  However, there is a new breed of entrant in the market which cares little about this usability thing – the Raspberry Pi’s and android dongles.  Smart, but cheap.  You – not any company – control what you do with these devices.  They are yours.  And in a company environment, they can quite happily sit in a DMZ, while they run software that gets full access to the corporate intranet.

The desktop computer could easily be something along these lines.  No need to make the devices limited.  No need to limit what they are able to do.  All you need to limit is their access to privileged data and privileged servers.  These devices become the hub that you connect whatever hardware and whatever display are appropriate for the job.  I can keep my keyboard. Designers can have their Wacom digitisers.

But you also make sure that these devices can be accessed from outside the corporate network – but only the things running locally on them.  This might require a bit of local virtualization to do well, but Xen on ARM is making significant progress – so we’re near.

This is my bet about the desktop.  Small, smart, configurable devices tied in with private cloud services, and whatever UI hardare you need.

But my next bet is we won’t even notice this is happening.  These devices wills tart turning up in the corporation without the CTO or CIO giving permission.  At first it’ll be techies – and the occasional person using an old phone or tablet as a permanent device.  But gradually it will become more common – and devices will be sold with this sort of corporate use in mind.  You’ll get remote client software preinstalled with simple user interfaces for the common user.  They’ll come into their own as corporations start mandating the use of remote desktops and sucking everything into the cloud – taking advantage of the same networks that the engineering services teams have been forced to make available for phones and pads.

The desktop PC will stay.  It will stay because we want more, better, personal control of our work lives.

When the network computer does, finally, make the in roads we have been promised, it will have been smuggled in, not ordered.

(Oh, and we won’t call them desktops, we won’t call them PCs.  We will think of them as something different.  We’ll call them dongles, or DTBs (Desk Top Boxes), or personal clients, or something else.  This is going to happen without anyone noticing.  It might happen differently from the way I’ve suggested, but ultimately, our desktops will be low powered, small devices, which give users more control over their computing experience.  They’ll probably run linux or android – or maybe some MacOS/IOS varient if Apple decide to get in on the game.  And while companies will eventually provide them, the first ones through the door will belong to the employees.)

Wearing it on my sleave

ScratchInput SteveMann self portrait

Wearable computing.  Thats what we called it, back in the late nineties when I was at university.  It seemed like a great idea, never being away from my computer, instant ability to connect to the internet.  We wondered about the best way to do it – I was fantasising about a belt which could hold a twenty-four hour battery pack, some sort of input device – perhaps using combinations to buttons to let my type – or maybe a joypad spread 50:50 between my trouser pockets (though the thought of what using that might looked like was an issue) and, of course, some sort of output device strapped to my arm.

Later in life I got a Nokia Communicator.  These days I have an ageing Android phone, and I’m well behind the times with wearable computing.  The phone is now doing the job of the wearable computer – it does everything we wanted and more, in a more sensible and more acceptable looking way.  The reason I’m behind the times, is that wearable computing has become fashionable.  Its about being up to date, more than it is about the technology.  I’d bet the people drooling over the latest iPhone weren’t impressed by the technology like we all were a few years ago – they just wanted something new and cool.  And thats cool like a pair of jeans, not cool like the demo of Xen on ARM I saw the other day.

But I don’t want to talk about the new iPhone, because its a step improvement, not a game changer.

I want to talk about the iPod Nano.  Because the iPod Nano has been changed from a square to a rectangle.  And this interests me no end – because you can no longer put it into a watch strap and use it as a watch.  And this seems to me to be a weird decision from Apple.

Now, I’m not going to say the iPod nano was the publicly acceptable face of a phase of wearable computing we haven’t yet reached – mainly because I never saw anyone wearing them as a watch.  But those what straps sell.  And some people love their Nano watches.  And Apple must have been aware of this – because they sell the watch straps in their stores.

And I can’t believe Apple were unaware of the Pebble watch which was causing a lot of buzz earlier this year.  I can’t believe Apple don’t want a part of that market, somewhere down the line.

And so, the only reason I can think of for stopping people from using the iPod as a watch is that Apple have plans (possibly vague plans, but plans nonetheless) to enter that market.  Amongst the possible ideas I can think of are an iPhone on your arm (unlikely – watches make for ungainly telephones), an ipod touch on your arm (plausible) or an apple TV on your arm (interesting concept, bordering on the plausible).  Battery size would be the big issue for all of these, but we aren’t so far away from it being possible.

I began pondering on the names:

iArm would cause trademark conflicts with Arm

iWatch sounds horrible – unless you’re talking about Apple TV on your arm

iBand has potential.  And brings to mind the various flexible displays which are coming close to commercial production, along with a clever magnetic ‘smart strap’ inspired by the iPad smart case.

If I’m right, and the iPhone is effectively uninteresting now, and the people pushing back the boundaries don’t feel like the iPhone is the place to work, then Apple have got to be looking at something new.  And Apple tends to do best when they become the first people to see the advantages of using new technologies to make a step change in existing markets (think of the micro hard drive for the original iPod, the larger sized solid state memory for the iPod nano, the capacitive touchscreen & multitouch for the iPhone or the retina display).  Right now the wearable watch is taking off (slowly, but step by step its happening) and a half decent low power flexible waterproof screen would be a game changer – especially if done with the design genius of Apple.

It’s only a thought, but Apple’s rise to dominance has always been about mobility and individuality.  We all know that the iMac and the Mac Pro are unloved, while the macbook (especially the air), the iPod and iPhone are where Apple’s heart is.  Apple TV never really fit in this slot – it felt like a horizontal extension of iTunes rather than something genuinely new.  It isn’t Apple’s core.  An iWatch – that just might be.

Could Apple be getting out of the watch market, so that when they enter it, they are doing something new, on their own?

The Ubiquitous Tablet

I’m not going to say anything about the new range of Kindles yet – that deserves consideration alongside whatever comes from Microsoft and Apple in the next month or so.  I do want to talk about the trend which is becoming clear with the pricing of the Kindle fire:  Tablets are becoming cheaper.  Tablets are going to continue to get cheaper.  We will stop considering tablets as expensive pieces of technology, and start considering them part of our lives – like we do with phones and wrist watches.

Here is my prediction:  Fairly soon, we will all own lots of tablets.  We will leave tablets littered around the house and workplace, and we will use whichever tablet is closest to us when we want to do something.

My key assumption here is that tablet UI development is not dead.  That one day, we will probably settle on a fairly common UI pattern for tablets – much as we have with the desktop metaphor for PCs – but it took us 15 years to firmly settle on the PC UI – and I’m going to guess there is another half decade before we come close to doing the same with tablets.

So what does this mean for how tablets should develop:

1.  We will not store our data on tablets.  We may cache our data on tablets, but the data will be stored in the cloud (or – possibly – on a server you own.  I think the cloud is more likely, but the geek in me likes the idea of being able to control my own data)

2.  Since I don’t think there will be just one brand of tablet, any more than there is just one brand of notebook (yes, you are allowed to use notebooks which are not Moleskines, just like you are allowed to use tablets which are not iPads), and since tablets will be interchangeably used, this brings into question native apps.  I don’t think native apps will die, but I think they will become less ubiquitous.  More and more, I foresee people using javascript and html based apps which they can access from any of their tablets.  Native apps will exist for a few purposes:

  • Games – assuming games are not streamed from your media centre box or somesuch, many games will remain native apps
  • Turning a particular tablet into a particular thing.  If I buy a 32″ tablet and decide ‘this will be my TV set’, then I might buy a specific native TV guide app for it.  In this case, the app will be an app you don’t want to move between devices – so it will be installed on a per device basis (perhaps with an access control list of approved users)

It is just possible that Android apps will become the default – but that seems unlikely.  Since you will want your personal collection of apps to move with you between devices (not having to install every app on every device), I think there will probably be initially space for an app which acts as an installer for these new apps in some way.  I don’t quite know how this will work – I’m guessing we’ll see it on Android first, followed by Windows, then Apple last.

3. Multi account tablets are not the way forward.  With tablets just lying around to be used this seems non-obvious, but my thought is that tablets should not be multi or single account, they should haves no account.  What I want is to go to a friend’s house I have never visited before, pick up his tablet and start using it – with all my apps there waiting for me.  If all the data (including your set of apps) is stored in the cloud, this isn’t a pipe dream, all it would take is some form of federated log in – I expect the best way to do this will be by bumping your NFC enabled phone up against the tablet.

You might worry that not having accounts with passwords might mean tablets get stolen.  I don’t share this worry.  Tablets are cheap, for most of the tablets we wil leave lying around and lend to friends, you won’t be bothered stealing them any more than you would steal the crockery from their dinner table.  Expensive tablets can till have some sort of pin locking mechanism before they let you in.

 

In thinking about this new, tablet, world, I’m wondering how far off we are.  Right now, I can’t see any reason why companies wouldn’t stick six iPad mini’s or Nexus 7s in each of their meeting rooms, to allow people to get to that email they need on the spur of the moment without having to bring in their laptop (and all the associated distractions).  Since these are special tablets with a special purpose (sitting in a meeting room), we might also want to install some sort of video conferencing app on them – each person having their own camera and being able to look whoever is speaking in the eye (or quickly go to another speaker and send a sidebar message), might well make multi-site videoconferences work.

We haven’t yet seem the impact of the tablet on the world.  It will be a different impact from the PC – more like the impact of the mobile phone, but without needing the mobility, since ubiquity and cheapness works just as well.  My predictions are probably conservative – but we’ll see them happening, and they’ll probably begin happening in the next few months. Give it five years, and the idea of not having a tablet to hand will be a strange as going anywhere without your mobile.

 

Rethinking Social Networks : How To Replace Facebook

Facebook engancha

It seems like Facebook has got sufficiently sticky that we will never be able to usurp it from its position.  Altavista felt that way once, but all it took was for a new startup to come along and do things better.  Lets say we want to usurp Facebook – how would we do it?

The first thing we have to do is make money.  Even if we want to get VCs involved, I think they would still want to see some sort of monetization plan.  I also think that, right now, app.net are right – you don’t want the money to come from adverts.  However, app.net seem to suggest the solution is charging the user a subscription.  I’m not sure about that.  If you want to create the ideal Facebook killer you want to get lots of people there – and a subscription is a gatekeeper.

I have a different idea to monetize the social network (a plan, which incidentally, encourages it to be a better platform too):  the network is funded by an app store.  This might seem odd, until you realise that almost all publishing on the network could be an app – and that only apps sold via the app store could interact with the various apis.  Apps could either be ad-supported (in which case, we would take a cut of the advertising), in-app purchase supported (in which case we would take a cut of the purchasing), or price supported (we get a cut, you get the picture).

To explain further – we would create a social network where you would get access to read anything posted to you – and perhaps to post twitter size posts to up to 100 followers.  This would suit most people.  If you want to add pictures to your post, you’ll need to buy the ‘add pictures’ app.  If you want to have more followers, or to be able to push your posts to particular people, we’ll provide apps.  Want to write longer articles?  We can provide the means.  Want to do something we can’t even think of?  We’ll make an api so that other people can do it – so long as they follow the rules of our framework (and our app store guidelines).  Want to use your phone to read – you can do it for free from our mobile site, or, if you need an app – there will be one (but it will be ad supported, to pay for the cost of development).  Want to post from your phone – that’ll be an in app purchase.

Most of these apps would be a one off purchase.  We might also charge for storage above a limit (I’ve long believed storage should usually be a one off purchase price – if you’re making people rent storage, you should probably be thinking about making people pay for something like data transmission instead).  We might charge a recurring fee for some ‘enterprise level’ features – but only to skim lots of income from big companies.  People will keep coming back.  People will want multiple accounts.  Each account will need apps.  We will keep making money – but we will be making it from our biggest fans – from the people who want to pay us.

So we have a monetization plan.  How do we get people to the new service?

The answer is:  we make it easy.

Facebook seems to provide a few services

  • Find and keep up with old friends (or at least don’t lose track of them totally)
  • Keep up with current friends, and arrange activities
  • Stay in touch with celebrities
  • Do some amount of microblogging
  • Play multiplayer games
  • Store & publish photos

My guess is we don’t want to replicate all of these – at least not to attract people.  I suggest right off that we don’t worry about the finding and keeping up with old friends aspect.  That’ll come to the new platform when enough people are there.  Celebrities will do the same.  We want to be a good platform for them to blog on, but not spend our time trying to encourage them.

The app store monetization strategy suggests games are a good thing to support.  It isn’t my interest, but it will attract people.

The other area to support strongly is microblogging and publishing of photos.  Now this is harder – why blog on a platform which no-one uses?  My answer is we make it better, and we make it easier to share.  Anyone can read things you publish to the world (and there is no reason why you can’t syndicate such content to other social network feeds, along with a linkback).  What if you just want to publish to a small group?  You could always use email to share your content.  Not just to link to our site, but to share what you are writing.  We have no need for people to come to our site – unless they want to use it to publish – so why not work on making the mailbox the hub of the social experience?  Of course, people are not going to want your tweets in tiny one line emails, so how about trying to create some sort of ‘what I’m up to’ life journal digest you can send out.  Tweets for followers, longer blogs & photo albums to email readers.

Of course, any email address we send your digest to, we remember.  If you come to our site later, and log on with that email address, it will be pre-populated with all the people who have sent you their digests.  Because each email would have to offer you the opportunity of turning the digests off, the link to do this would encourage you to log in with your email address – and show you what is available.  You might also consider allowing the links to take you directly to your own page (in the zero-login, cookie only, format I described a few days ago… this might have problems though, as I would suspect these links and emails might be very forwardable.  That said, commenting by replying to emails, facebook style, would have to be supported.

This wouldn’t be an overnight success – but it would provide a pathway to something which could grab people virally, and wouldn’t require people to use the site themselves unless they wanted to.  And to get people to want to use the site?  Well, it would simply have to be better for them to use than Facebook - and given how hard Facebook seems to be trying to drive people like me away, that can’t be too difficult.

 

Rethinking Social Networks : The App.Net move

Social Network

Social Networks are high in people’s minds right now.  Twitter is annoying its developers, trying to become an island rather than the convenient platform it used to be.  Facebook is a mess, a jumble of confusing options, an unfriendly interface, and adverts jumping out at every corner – it reminds me more of the pre-Google Altavista than anything else.  And there is reaction to this.  The Diaspora project seems to have gone nowhere, but newcomer App.Net has hit a kickstarter target – and, by getting enough people to make a cash commitment has become interesting.

App.Net makes two points:

  • At the moment, the customers of social networking sites are not the users, but the advertisers.  So long as the users are tied in, they will remain, and their eyeballs will be able to be exchanged for the contents of advertisers wallets.  A social network designed for users needs to be funded by the users – they need to be the customers
  • What makes a social network work is when it ceases to be a website and becomes a platform

Its worth describing two geek fallacies before we continue:

Fallacy 1:  Any good internet project is distributed in nature.

This is the flaw of Diaspora.  Geeks love us some hard distributed systems problems, but the take away from the user the simplicity of going to a single place – the same place as everyone else – to get what they want.  Distributed technologies such as social media require people to provide servers – but these servers have to be paid for, so people will charge.  Charging isn’t too bad, except any such server must, by its nature be a commodity, there is little room for differentiation.  It is hard to see why anyone would want to get into this game – see the decline of usenet servers as an example.

Fallacy 2: It is all about the platform

UIs are for wusses.  What matters is the clever technology underneath.  This is both true, and false.  What matters to must users is that users get the features they are looking for – it doesn’t matter if the backend has some hyper-clever architecture or runs in Spectrum BASIC if it does the job and keeps out of the way.  Geeks think differently – they want to know that their lives are going to remain easy as they interact with the system over time, so they design platforms which you can build good products on top of, but don’t care that much about the product.  I fear this might be what app.net are doing.  I hope I’m proven wrong.

Where app.net have been clever is in using Kickstarter for some cash.  Not because they needed the cash (if you can convince that number of individuals to pony up $50, you can probably convince some investors to do likewise).  Getting the cash gave app.net some publicity, because Kickstarter is hot right now, and social networks are causing consternation – and for a social network to get going, it needs publicity.  But it also got a number of people to tie themselves into the service – and the sort of people who would fund a new social network are early adopters, the thought leaders in the social sphere, and this could be very important to app.net’s growth.

But it could be more important to the people who paid for the developers licence.

Right now, if I wanted to try something new and interesting in the social world, I would seriously consider tying it in with app.net – because its a small market of exactly the sort of people you want playing with your fresh idea.

I don’t think there is anything special about app.net in itself, but I expect it to be a breeding ground for interesting social graph based applications.  So in app.net’s case, perhaps by building the platform, they are doing the right thing, even if it isn’t the right thing for them.

Incidentally, I have a number of thoughts about the next moves that could be made in social networking – I’ll be writing about them over the next few days.

Turn on, tune in, log out

British biometric passport

I hate logging into websites.  And I’m a master of it.  After a number of hassles with external websites revealing my passwords to the world, I now have a lastpass setup managing my login credentials and a google authenticator to keep my google identity (which is probably more important than my birth certificate) extra-secure.  And does this work?  Well, most of the time, but the other day I got logged out of a banking account and had to reregister because I got my details wrong 3 times in a row.  Was it my fault?  Well, maybe, but I don’t for the life of me know what exactly I did wrong  - or how I could avoid doing the same things wrong in the future.

I also hate writing login mechanisms for websites.  They always seem overly complicated – the sort of thing you wish could just be done better by someone else.

My first experience of a half-decent login system was with tripit.com.  With tripit, all I had to do was start forwarding emails to their email address.  I got an email back telling me I could go to a magic URL, where all my details were awaiting me.  But then it asked me to set up a password to secure it all.

On most websites, it doesn’t matter who I am.  It only matters that I am the same person I was last time I came to the website.  Why should I have to log in?  In fact, a lot of web sites recognise me and log me in automatically if I’ve been there fairly recently

So, Idea 1:  Instead of making me sign up to a website, just assign me a cookie, and then whenever I come back in – in a day, a week, or a decade, read that cookie, and log me back in.

This is simple.  It is session management.  Website writers are going to have to do session management anyway, so why not just have two sessions – a short term ‘is currently doing a particular thing’ session and a long term ‘is still the same person’ session.

There seem to be two big problems here:  Security and Multiple Browsers

The security problem is that cookies remain the same and are passed in plaintext.  This can be resolved, in part, by making all connections via https.  All the evidence seems to suggest https-only is the way to go for lots of reasons, so this is no big loss.  As for cookies remaining the same – well, the website can always decide to change your cookie on its own schedule (so long as you log in).  And because the cookie will be website generated, it will only ever work for that website – and if that website gets hacked, well, they probably have access to everything you stored on that site anyway.  No no huge risk, so far as I can see.  (we could probably do more complicated things like making the cookie you provide a public key, and making session initiation a challenge response procedure, but that probably isn’t needed)

The multiple browser issue is harder.  If I want to access the same account from two browsers, the cookie generated account issue is a problem.  Different cookies will be generated for each browser – meaning you are a different person at work and home.  There are three ways around this:

1 – add the ability to set a username and password to your account once you have logged in.  Let people associate different browsers with the same account by then loggin in with the username and password.

2 – add the ability to associate an email address with your account.  You can then request the site emails you with a way to log you in on other machines.  Since you’ll need to do this if you have the username password mechanism, you’ll proably have to do this anyway

3 – make the problem your browsers problem.  Come up with an way of identifying the cookies as shareable, then let your browsers choose a central location to allow them to be synched.  This is ideal as it also allows browsers to let you switch between multiple accounts with the same site.

So – this seems quite simple, but it seems you still need to write code to register an email address with your site (at least until all the browsers come up with a solution to synch cookies).  My suggestion here is:

Idea 2: someone needs to generate a web service which will manage the storing of email addresses and associating them with an internal representation of user ids.  All your site would have to do for registration purposes is provide a form which sent the email address and internal id to said service.  When a user wanted to receive a log in email, you would have to provide a simple request whereby you provided the email and your sites id, and got back the internal id.  You would then look up the id, then generate an email which would lead the user to a page which would allow them to access their long term session cookie.

some bonus ideas:

Idea 3: if I send an email from my valid account to ‘logmein@whatevermywebsiteis.com’, it should, by return post, send me an email that would log me in – meaning I wouldn’t have to do any setup work’

Idea 4: You could happily sign up with multiple email addresses.  The site should only send to the email address you request.

Idea 5: If you lose control of an email address, you may need to revoke it.  The best way to manage this would be to allow you to revoke all email addresses, then let you assign them again one by one.

xoxco makes a similar argument (which didn’t so much inspire this piece, as made me think there was probably something up the tree worth barking at)

Use Case : Information Capture

When stumbling around trying to figure out which combination of tablet / laptop / phone makes the most sense for me, I find it useful to consider the use cases which, at the moment, my devices don’t quite meet.  The most obvious thing that I’m missing is a good information capture device.  Here are the situations where it would be useful:

I’m called into a meeting – I need to be able to access web sites during the meeting – and perhaps run GoToMeeting or WebEx, so it’ll need to have decent web browsing facilities.  I’ll also need to be able to access (and maybe write) emails.  Finally, I’ll want to be able to type down notes as quickly as possible, without looking at the keyboard (so I’ll need the sort of feedback which only a physical keyboard can give, and I’ll want a full size keyboard, for comfort)

I’m at a conference.  I want to take notes in all of the sessions. So I need good battery life, and I also need to be able to type with the device either in my hands or on my lap.  So far, I’ve not managed to find a device which is as comfortable for taking notes on as a keyboard, and many tablets with keyboards won’t rest nicely in my lap.  Later, I’m going to want to transform these notes into documents.

After a day at a conference, I’m in my hotel room.  When I travel, I prefer not to take my main computer with me – I prefer to have something cheap, something which doesn’t have all my data on it (I have backups, so I could stomach the loss of my data – and a good quantity of my data is in the cloud, but still, I don’t want the inconvenience).  Recent experience has shown that my windows tablet (with docking station and bluetooth keyboard) does well here (though isn’t that cheap – still any tablet & wireless keyboard combo would clearly do almost as well).

As an added benefit, it would be nice to be able to make doodles and drawings to accompany my notes, using a pen or stylus.

My suggested solutions are:

Carry a laptop, and some form of extended power.  This would be a good reason to buy a macbook air.  But an air, or an ultrabook would not meet my criteria of being a cheap device.

Carry a netbook and some form of extended power.  Then also use a tablet for the things tablets are better for.  The problem here is that netbook keyboards are not as big as I would like.

Carry a tablet, and then use one of those pens which record what you write for making notes:  This isn’t a bad plan – although I doubt the OCR capabilities of the pen’s software.  And we could probably achieve the same thing with pen, paper and a travel scanner.

What would seem to me a better idea would be a tablet case which has a built in keyboard, and is designed to work as a laptop.  Extra marks if it can contain extra batteries to increase tablet lifetime.  We’re not just talking a tablet dock, we’re talking about something specifically designed for using on your lap, like a laptop.  The idea of it being a case more or less rules out android devices – they are just too different from one another, you would end up with some half functioning system equivalent to those suction pads you use to attach phones and GPSs to car windows.

The right sort of thing already exists for the ipad – consider for example the keyboard case from clamcase.com.  There is a japanese company selling a notebook case which also sports a  battery, but this doesn’t seem to have worldwide availablility yet.

I wonder, however, if this is an opportunity for windows OEMs who were blindsided by Surface.  Suface, no matter how funky the magnetic keyboard thing is, won’t work from your lap.  Yet a Windows RT device would meet all my needs as described above.  A WinRT laptop would have a niche that Surface can’t quite touch – and a slightly higher spec varient could easily come with a stylus.  Ultimately, a device like that might mean I would rarely, if ever, need to use a proper laptop for anything.  And also that my life in conferences, meetings, and bland corporate hotel rooms would be much improved.

 

I want a different car.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with my car… well, it might be getting on a bit, and its a Skoda, but aside from that, there is nothing wrong with it. Still, I’m beginning to think about what I want in a new car, and I’m coming to the conclusion that it doesn’t exist.

Since my readership probably consists of tens of thousands of car designers all wanting to hear what I personally want in a car I’m going to share my thoughts with them (and indeed you). My point here is that the existing ideas about cars may suit most people, but there are niches which seem untapped, and maybe it is time for a company to do to the car market what Apple have done for the tablet and mobile phone.

The main thing I want is a car that will drive itself. Big strides are being being made here from groups all around the world. I expect to see self driving cars in the near future, and hope they are given a decent chance by the press and public.  Still, they’re not going to happen by the time I replace my Skoda.

I also quite fancy an electric car. I’ve one the maths, and I reckon for my needs a reliable range of 150 miles on a cold day is the minimum I need. And it needs to keep its charge for three weeks in an airport car park. And it needs to be cheap. Not as cheap as its petrol equivalent, but not expensive. It should save me money now if I were to drive 6000 miles. Again, the market is close, but it isn’t where I need it to be next.

So, those ideas are not plausible at the moment. But the other things I want are. They just don’t exist in the market place:

I want a cheap car.  Twelve grand seems a fair top price. I’ll go higher if you can convince me there is a good reason to (the electric car and the self driving cars would both convince me to spend a few more grand).

I don’t want to have to build it myself. Or to have to pay extra for someone else to build it for me. I’m ruling out kit cars here.

I want it to be cheap to run. This means it needs to be light.

I want it to have reasonable acceleration at junctions, and when motorways slope upwards. I’ve been in underpowered cars that don’t meet these goals, but my 1.4 liter Skoda does. I’m not asking for a 12 cylinder engine or anything. I guess the torque of a decent electric motor would help here.

I don’t really care about passengers. I’m happy with it being a second car. So maybe one person could join me, but sitting behind me.  Because:

I want the driver to sit in the centre of the front of the car. No passenger on my left (or right). That way, I can take it abroad with me and still be on the right side. This idea necessitates either a flappy paddle gear change or being an automatic. I can handle both.

I don’t want built in gadgets, because I expect to buy new gadgets faster than I buy cars. So while I like the idea of in car networking features, at most they should go as far as in care WiFi routing. Give me a socket for a sim card and ideally support for inter-car mesh routing and no more.  But all the gadgets I may want are usb powered, so give me a high friction shelf, with built in grippers of varying types, and a powered USB hub. Stick some powered USB ports in the boot too. I might want to add some storage. By default, turn the USB power off when I’m not in the car.

Provide a way that I can access any in car data streams, both mechanical (if the car can tell the same things a mechanic can tell about what sensors are broken, it can tell me in a nice friendly way) and generally provided to the user (Speedo etc). Provide them by http over the wireless network, so my devices can record them. If the car has a black box recorder, I want all of that available for my devices to read. There is a lot I can do with this data, so let me at it.

I don’t need much boot space, about enough for 1 large suitcase should be fine. Maybe I could have a bit more, if I didn’t have a passenger.

Ideally let me use the car as a mobile office.  Give me a convenient desk that I can pull out when I’m not driving.  If you can provide me with a way for the car to make me a coffee, so much the better. Office style storage is more useful to me than a glove box and space for golf clubs. A built in keyboard and trackball would be really handy.

Overall, this is about redefining what a car is.  To me, a car is not a penis extension or a status symbol, it is an extension of my office, a mobile cave for me to be in. What I want is more space, more room to be me. And I don’t see the need to pay much for it – given how cheap we have managed to amek computers, why can’t we try to do the same sort of thing with the basic motor car?

Does everyone really want the four or five seat box I see outside the window? Am I really so much of a niche that I’m the only person who thinks a car could be something totally different?

 

A UI Thought – ordering icons

The windows 7 taskbar – if you have only a few windows open – shows images for all the windows you can select from a taskbar icon.

When I use a dual screen monitor I generally use one screen for “stuff I’m doing” and one for “other stuff and reference”.  In my case, I do stuff on the right monitor and reference stuff on the left.

So when I see the icons brought up from clicking on the taskbar, I assume the window I want will be on the right if it’s something I’m working on and on the left if its something I’m doing.  This assumption is generally wrong.

So what I would like to see:  Well, you could just order the icons left to right by window position (and then maybe by either height or z-order to resolve disputes), or failing that (because its actually may not give the results you want), an icon list for each monitor would be good.  Which monitor should a window crossing 2 screens be listed under?  The one it would fill when maximised – after all maximising is something you can do from this menu.

 

Bonus points if I can move a window from one screen to the other by dragging it’s icon position.

 

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