Archives for posts with tag: mobile phones

Disclaimer 1: I haven’t played with an iPad yet.
Disclaimer 2: While I agree with everything Cory Doctorow wrote about the iPad, I still want one. Please don’t judge me…

Today is launch day for the iPad, and, it’s going to be remembered as an “important” day in the development of computers, as the launch day of the iPhone represents an important day in the history of the mobile phone (and, as we’ve discovered, the eReader and the computer). That said, I think it’s important to stress that the iPad is not a computer.

In an editorial published yesterday entitled “Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either)“, Cory Doctorow makes the case for why the iPad is not a “revolutionary” product when it comes to user empowerment. Take a moment and go read the article. Seriously…  whether or not you agree with Doctorow’s conclusion this is an important discussion.

I for one agree with Doctorow. Apple, by extending the “successes” of the iPhone with the iPad, is defining a new, restrictive, device space – one in which the device you purchase is wired shut (I’m borrowing both the phrase and concept from Tarleton Gillespie ((For an excellent summary of the parts Gillespie’s argument that are especially relevant to this discussion see his article “Designed to Effectively Frustrate.”))) . As Doctorow points out, as with the iPhone, the iPad is a device that you buy but don’t own.

  • Even though you paid hundreds for it, you can’t take it apart without voiding the warranty. ((Note that the iPad and the iPhone were by no means the first devices to forbid the user from taking them apart.))
  • Even though you paid hundreds for it, you can’t customize it in an non-Apple approved way it without voiding the warranty. ((The iPhone was, however, the device that popularized the App store model which has since been embraced by Google and Microsoft.))
  • Even though you paid hundreds for it, you can’t load apps from 3rd parties without going through the Official App store without voiding the warranty.

To appreciate how this model is different, think about a car. I can perform routine maintenance on my car without voiding the warranty (provided I do it correctly). I can put alternative grades of gas in their car without voiding the warranty. Most importantly, I can open up the hood and take a look at the engine without voiding their warranty.

The iPad is, to borrow another metaphor from Gillespie, a car whose hood is welded shut. If you break that seal, even if you don’t touch a thing, you’ve voided the warranty. Further it’s a car in which I can only put in approved gas, and that gas can only be bought from the manufacturer of the car.

This all leads me to why the iPad and other upcoming tablets are not computers. The computer, as we understand it, was the ultimate in customizable equipment. Take a trip to the grocery store and take a look at the magazine rack. Even at a time when magazines are ceasing print edition, you’ll still find numerous magazine dedicated to how you can mod your computer. And even if you aren’t interested in modifying your computer, you still have full choice over what software you can load on it. You can purchase software at computer/electronic stores, big box business stores like Staples, and even at supermarkets and dollar stores. You can also download software from countless websites. There’s no approval processes. For better or worse, anyone can write and distribute software. For all the reasons stated above, this isn’t the case with the iPad.

The iPad is not a computer. It’s a device which the user has limited control over.

An argument has been made that this closeness doesn’t matter when the platform is so easy to program for that a 13 year old child can create and market their own app through the store. The problem this argument conflates access to authoring tools and a marketing channel with control over the device/distribution. Put it a different way, yes that child can build their own app. That’s nothing new, precocious children have been programming for years! What this argument fails to take into account is that the child’s ability to distribute that app is controlled not by the child but by Apple. If Apple decides that the app is inappropriate — of course, everything that junior-high-school-age boys produce is always appropriate —then it will be removed from the store. Once that happens, there is no way to load it onto the iPad, even if that child ops to eMail it to friends. Private distribution, outside of the app store, is not a option.

And while someone might say that the child could get around this restriction by building their application on the web, there are two problems with this model. First, there is still no easy way to charge for access to a web app. Second, and more important, the primary graphic tool for building web applications, Adobe’s Flash, cannot run on the iPad.

Others have suggested that the iPad is nowhere near as closed a platform as the printed book. While  this is a bit of an “apples vs. remote controls” type of move, even if we take the comparison seriously, I don’t think it holds up. Yes, I can’t directly change the content of the book. I’m not easily able to add pages or words for example (at least not additional printed words). However, I’m free to alter the book in any way I want. I can make notes in the margins. If I’m a dadaist (or a ransom note writer), I can cut the book apart and reassemble the words in different formats. And I can also choose to create my own book, radically altering the form of the book, as well as its contents.

What is particularly interesting for me, as a social scientist, is that this “locking down” of the iPad and other tablets can be seen as reversing a key trend of modernity/promise of technology. According to its proponents, the “computer/internet revolution” enabled us to move beyond the “mass” prefix. No longer were we the “mass produced” culture of the industrial age. Technology enabled choice; it allowed us to personalize our commodities and our media. Mass media was replaced by web 2.0 where anyone could create their own content and share it.

The iPhone, the iPad, and a number of other devices on the horizon, step away from this. In the name of user experience ((Note that I don’t want this to be an either/or situation. Just about every decision Apple has made can be justified in terms of user experience. Of that there is little question. However, failing to acknowledge the trade offs that are occurring because of this and contemplate how this may be indicative of a larger trend would be a mistake as well.)) we are taking a step back towards Fordism (“You can have any app you want on your iPod as long as it’s approved by Apple.”) Cynically, one might argue that what this is really doing is pulling the veil off of the “mass customization” that we have really been experiencing ((See Mark Andrejevic’s iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Internet Era for a particularly excellent summary of this position.)) — that we have never realized the freedoms promised to us by technology. I’m not quite that cynical.

I, like Doctorow, think it’s important for a space of experimentation and resistance to be available. ((This is a fundamentally different position than being technological Utopian — I don’t think technology is the solution, its what the people do with the technology that matters.)) And the failure of the iPad, and a number of other tablets that look to be on the way, is that it doesn’t provide that space. If anything, the iPad works to enclose possibilities, not expand them. My hope is that this model will not win out. My expectation (especially considering that after writing all of this I still want an iPad) is that this will be the future (or at least for a while).

Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either)

This is part of a series of articles about the technologies that are changing eReading. For those who have been following them so far, it’s probably becoming clear that like O’Reilly’s Andrew Savikas, I see mobile devices as the mainstream future of eReading. Previous articles have touched on the GMS mobile telephony standard and how the iPhone has changed the expectations smartphones and other screen based consumer electronic devices and mobile OS’es On the eve of the announcement of the iSlate, it’s a discussion on how Apps transform expectations.

How Smartphone Apps will change our Experience/Expectations about Computers

Over the past few articles, I made the argument that smartphones have changed our expectations about the availability of touch and downloadable 3rd party apps on similar devices. These expectations are because of similarities in visual appearance, functionality, and price point. Put another way, because my Kindle costs roughly the same amount as my (subsidized) iPhone (or Droid, etc), is mostly screen (like my smartphone), and is used for the display of digital information, I expect it to have the same features (touchscreen, color, apps). If I paid more for the Kindle (or other eReader) than my phone, then it definitely should have those features.

As recently as this past December, Jeff Bezos touted the fact that the Kindle only did one thing well:

And then for the Kindle device, we want that to be the world’s best purpose-built reading device. It’s not a Swiss Army knife. It’s not going to do a bunch of different things. We believe that reading deserves a dedicated device, and we want Kindle to be that device. It’s like a digital camera. I like having the digital camera on my smart phone, but I also like having a dedicated camera for when I want to take real pictures. (Jeff Bezos, Newsweek Jan 4, 2010)

Unfortunately, the problem with uni-functional/dedicated devices is that the average consumer isn’t willing to pay a heavy premium for them. Take his example of the digital camera – unless someone is a gadget person or an aspiring photographer, chances are that they paid less for the camera than they did for their smartphone. In fact, it wasn’t until the price of a digital camera dropped below $200 that they truly took off as a category. (Side note: I’m unsure if consumer digital cameras will survive in the long run given the increasing quality of cellphone cameras.)

The same is true for eReaders. If the Kindle cost less than $150, I think people would have an easier time treating it as dedicated device. For the moment, that isn’t the case. And, not surprisingly, last week Amazon announced that they are bringing apps to the Kindle platform.

But what happens when you start to bring apps to a given device? As I mentioned last post, one thing that can happen is that the applications lead to a reinterpretation of the “purposes” of that device. As previously mentioned, even though in 2008 Steve Jobs didn’t think people would read on the iPhone, 3rd party app developers and iPhone didn’t see things that way. Taking advantage of the iPhone’s mobility/portability, its multi-touch interface, and its ability to easily access content from the internet, apps like Stanza turned the iPhone into an eReading platform.

Note that we shouldn’t forget the users in this account, as they are as much a part of the story as Apple and the App developers. They had to discover the reading application (either by browsing the app store or via word of mouth) and figure out a way to integrate them into their own routines.

I’ll get back to the role of the user in a future post. For the moment though, I’d like to think about the intersection of hardware and software. Returning to smartphones, I want to discuss how their ability to combine “contextual” information with a constant connection is going to change our expectations about what both devices (including computers), and perhaps even books, can do.

By context I mean that the smartphone is constantly “aware” of its position in the world. Between GPS and cell tower triangulation, it’s possible for the phone to locate itself down to a few meters. The accelerometer within the phone can judge its orientation (landscape vs. portrait) and if it is in motion. Newer phones even include magnetometers (or digital compasses) to provide information about which direction the phone is pointing. Finally, specific environmental information can be conveyed through the phones recording devices (camera and microphone). Add that all up and mix in constant internet access and the result is a device that not only knows where it is, but it’s able to share that information with outside services.

This “awareness” is the foundation of applications like the popular Foursquare. Foursquare is a location-based social networking game. Users gain points by checking-in at venues using text messaging or a smartphone apps application. Acquire enough points and you become the “Mayor” of a specific venue. In some locations, venues have partnered with the service to make special offers to subscribers. What’s important to note is that this type of application would be difficult to execute, let alone build a significant following, using laptops or other portable computing technologies. The success of the Foursquared platform is directly tied to the specific capabilities of smartphones.

Looking to the future…

With recent increases in the processing and graphic power of smartphones, lots of interesting things can begining to happen. Rather than talk about new chipsets that are just becoming available from companies like Nvidia (btw, at this moment their stock is severely undervalued – hint hint), let’s go to video evidence:

This is an HTC HD2, a currently available smartphone, acting as a Playstation emulator. While gameplay is a little slower than on the PS1, it’s still an impressive leap. As these capabilities become standardized on smartphones, it will allow for Augmented Reality interactions. Augmented reality is used to describe a live direct or indirect view of a real-world environment whose elements are merged with (or augmented by) virtual computer-generated imagery – creating a mixed reality. Here’s an example of an ARG developed by grad students at Georgia Tech. Using a smartphone and a specially designed gameboard, the students have created a unique zombie shoot-em-up game:

The interaction with the game board is based on the QR Code (3d Barcode) technology. The software recognizes the image of a static graphic matrix and decodes information orientation information from that matrix in order to render the building structures. Here’s a similar example, using a desktop computer, where a print ad for the Mini was enhanced by an AR rendering of a Mini.

In the case of the Zombie game and the Mini ad, the majority of the information about the graphic code is contained within the app itself. The graphic simply provides positioning information. However, that doesn’t always have to be the case. A QR Code, for example, can encode up to 4,296 characters of alphanumeric data (30x the limit of a twitter post). Already there have been a number of interesting experiments with QR code enhanced reading:

These are all examples of hybrid projects that rely on the capabilities of a smartphone (or technology commonly found within a smartphone) to function. Each integrates with print to deliver an enhanced reading experience. It’s also possible to think about how cell phone technologies could enhance an ebook experience. Imagine for example a constantly updated electronic Zagats guide that uses a phone GPS technology to find nearby resturants, provides walking/driving maps to your dining location of choice, and actively solicits you for feedback on the location you just visited.

For other ways that the eReading experience might be enhanced, we turn to an interesting project from Japan. Nintendo Japan and Harlequin are teaming to release Love Stories for Adults: DS Harlequin Selection for Nintendo’s portable DS game system. Each of the 33 eBooks released for the DS will feature a character relation chart which is updated as you progress through the stories, view summaries of what you’ve read so far glossaries of terms and names, and background music. There is also a social reading component. Readers can record impressions of the works by simply selecting keywords, and will be linked to online columns about the work.

We’re just beginning to beginning to see what enhanced ebooks might look like. Clearly social reading (like social networking) will fit into the experience.

Last week, I began an exploration of the technologies and trends that are influencing the future of reading with a discussion of the GMS mobile telephony standard which numerous devices use to enable “ubiquitous” mobile internet access. Today, we’ll take the next step and being to talk about smartphones.

Smartphones (Part I)

[The Apple Iphone 3GS gets a Phone. by flickr user Ninja M.]While there is no universal definition of a smartphone, the general agreement is that in addition to telephony, smartphones integrate a number of features that traditionally were only found on Personal Computers. Smartphone examples include the Apple iPhone, the Blackberry Storm, the Google Nexus One (Android), the HTC HD (Windows Phone), and the Motorola (an)Droid.

Early smartphones, running RIM’s Blackberry and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, established the “base” feature set for these devices: telephony + the schedule and contact management features of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) + (enterprise) email management +ability to develop/run 3rd party software. At this point, at least in the US, these smartphones were marketed as business level devices. While Blackberry (or ‘Crackberry’) developed a certain cultural cache, it was with the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007 that smartphones transitioned into the mainstream.

(note: While the “hows” and “whys” of that move are important to understanding the future of eReading, we’ll have to put them aside for the moment. I promise that I’ll get back to them in a future post. For the moment, let’s just accept that the iPhone was/is a game changer, and one that helps us to understand the current direction of smartphones.)

The success of the iPhone moved the baseline expectations about how smartphones and their related services should work:

  1. Smartphone = Cool
    As mentioned above, the iPhone firmly established smartphones as a consumer product, and more importantly, a status symbol. The iPhone and other smartphones began to make the rounds in popular culture and discussions began to take place about the importance of having a smartphone to “fully engage” with the world around you. And rather than being pushed to the back of their catalogs, cell phone providers began to focus their marketing campaigns around these devices.
    [Iphone on TV]
  2. 100% more screen
    Previous devices relied on tactile hardware (keys) as interface devices. The iPhone was among the first smartphones to sacrifice physical buttons in order to maximize screen space; fast forward just a few years and it’s difficult to find anything but virtual controls on the vast majority of smartphones.

    The effect of the larger screen went beyond simply how it changed the UI – Apple could have made the entire phone smaller and still maximized the screen size. Drawing upon the visual media strengths of the iPod platform, Apple cemented the notion that smartphones were also portable media playback devices. This meant (and this is important for the future of reading) that people would accept carrying larger than average “phone” if it served other purposes. As with monitors, “widescreen” had come to phones and manufactures began to increase the size of their devices. Today cellphone screens carry resolutions like WVGA (854×480) and WUGA (~400×240).

  3. Touch me, touch me, touch me
    [Multi Touch Illustration from zatznotfunny . com]The Apple iPhone OS was arguably the first smart phone to be developed from the ground up with “touch” (or rather the finger) as the primary interface device. Prior to that, the expectation was that a physical keypad/board was typically the basis of interaction. “Touch control” was added, not through fingers, but through the use of a stylus (a future post will tackle touchscreen technology, so again, let’s leave the “hows” and “why’s” of touch alone for the moment). So not only was touch arguably an afterthought, but the assumption was that you’d only use a single touch point at a time. The iPhone brought the concept of multitouch to the mainstream (ie. Adding “pinch” and “stretch” to the interface).

    The effect of touch control is also felt outside of the smartphone market. Fair or not, thanks to the iPhone (and the iPod touch), touchscreen is now imagined as the standard interface for hi-tech portable devices that are primarily screen. I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen someone pick up a Kindle and attempt to manipulate the contents of a book by touching the screen only to be disappointed to find out that you need to use the hardware buttons.

  4. The App Store Model
    3rd party smartphone Apps existed long before the iPhone, but there few centralized repositories of applications, and none allowed for “one-touch” installation of applications. In fact, you were often required to tether your smartphone to a computer in order to add new software. Apple’s iTunes App Store changed all of that, enabling users to easily browse and manage applications via their phones. Perhaps more importantly, Apple built a business model around its App Store, taking a piece of every software purchase. Not surprisingly, the creators of the competing OS’s have followed Apple’s example and created their own App Stores.

    The result of the proliferations of App Store’s is two-fold. First, it has firmly established for customers and developers alike that smartphones are software platforms and are to be judged on how they can be extended through software. This leads us to a second point, the success or failure of a particular OS is now intimately tied to not only the experience of the OS, but also the recruitment of application developers.I suspect that, like touchscreens, this expectation of expandability will spread to all other smartphone-like devices – including eReaders. More importantly, it is through these App Stores (and apps) that reading came to smartphones.  Despite Steve Job’s claim that “people don’t read anymore,” reading apps like Lexical’s Stanza, the New York Times eReader, and Amazon’s Kindle software have been a great success on the iPhone. People familiar with the history of technology will see this as another example of how the use of technologies are shaped by multiple parties beyond the manufacturer, in this case users and third party developers.

Now, where does the larger screen, touch control and the apps take us in regards to eReading? I’ll tackle that tomorrow.

Crossposted at the OPL.