Wk9: The Hardest Button to Button – Reinventing the keyboard.

There has to be a better way

In the last decade, almost everything we’ve known about computers has changed. But  the humble keyboard remains pretty much the same (and in some ways worse). Maybe it’s time to have a think about it from scratch.

The layout of a keyboard has pretty much stayed steady from typewriter days. Big tall buttons in mostly the same order. For programming purposes, we had a series of function buttons that most people never touched. They added a number keypad on the right as well.

In fact, the development of the keyboard in the last decades has been only about adding buttons. Some newer, even clunkier keyboards had stand-alone volume and playback controls. Add some screen stuff as well (brightness, contrast, etc). If you look at one of those keyboards, they are clunky, complicated and full of redundancies.

And, once again, it took Apple to really think outside the square.

I’m a Mac user, and when I have to go back to PC, it’s always the keyboard that is the biggest struggle. Apple are pretty good at touting all their features, but they kept quite mum about the keyboard ones. Maybe it’s because they’ve used them for so many years.

Really thin buttons is the main one. Most keyboards have buttons that are almost 1cm tall. It might sound like a small complaint, but the lightness of touch increases speed and reduces strain. Not to mention getting rid of silly valleys where food can get into. Macs also come with back lighting on the keyboard, that automatically comes on in low light. They also got rid of the wire.

Beyond the physical advancements, there are some changes in the thought behind the keyboard. The Function buttons (F1, F2 etc) are rebranded into useful things like Dashboard, brightness and volume. Looking at a MacBook, where I’m typing this now, the keyboard looks compact and efficient.

Most importantly, I use every button quite often in my active use of my laptop. I don’t have lots of buttons taking up space for no reason.

Again, there maybe some who simply think – who cares? But we should. Technology should be looking at how to improve every aspect of our lives. Why has only one company in the world ever looked at keyboards, and how we typed?

If we took a snapshot of what your most used buttons are, what would you see? How often do you hit those function buttons. Or print screen? Numlock? Pause break?

Less buttons work. And it’s worth thinking about. Are frequently used buttons hard-to-get to? Are rarely used buttons in the way? What about finger strength – are the most used keys lying under your most powerful fingers?

Maybe it’s time for good old QWERTY to go. Dvorak (link) has never caught on, but maybe we can use some of the thoughts behind it. Or this new Android keyboard designed for thumbs (link) – splitting QWERTY in half.

Otherwise we are wasting time. Sure, it’s a small waste. But its’ a waste multiplied across millions of computers and users, hours and hours, every day of the year.

I think the most interesting Apple has done with keyboards is on the iPhone. Cutting it into three – allowing type to appear first, then punctuation in the next two screens.

Cleverly though, when it comes to typing in URLs, there is a button for “.com”. That whole phrase is one button. It’s a shame that seems to be the only real breakthrough of new buttons. And a new type.

When I was in high school, I had an essay to write about Hamlet. Because I was typing and retyping the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so I set up a simple ‘macro’. A little Shift+Ctrl+R would type Rosencrantz, saving me some time. This was over a decade ago, programmed by a kid. If everyone in the world was typing Rosencrantz a lot, we should be looking at a Rosencrantz button.

And maybe new types of buttons are what we should be looking at the most.

Here’s one suggestion (link) – a Share button. In the era of social networking, people often share content they discover. Is there a way we can work out the rules, and save me scrolling around a page to find that share button?

If I was allowed to create a button, it would be “Search”. You would still need to type a search field somewhere. Maybe hitting search pops up a window with a text field, and pressing again launches the search. When done in a browser, it goes to Google. On your desktop, it goes to Finder. In Word, it searches for words. In iTunes, it finds your songs. Seems like a no-brainer.

The Apple iPhone keyboard doesn’t take things far enough. Imagine giving programmers full keyboard customisation. For Twitter – the hashtag is too far away, and retweeting should be a keyboard button. Hopefully they will open this up in future.

Such keyboard customisation exists. Check out a Pro-Tools keyboard (link). It just takes computing back to something very basic and powerful. Press a button, and something happens. If only we could control those buttons.

Less buttons work. Yet more buttons need to be invented. It’s an interesting tension.

But buttons no longer need to be physical anymore. Tablets and phones are moving away from the physical keyboard. And a button is just a button – software can rewrite it’s function.

It seems like it’s been a long time for the keyboard. I can’t remember there ever being a game-changing one – maybe it’s not as cool as Thunderbolt or Retina Displays. But it’s our very access into the computer. It should be the best it can be.

Nice article about keyboard challenges – http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/tech/news/hardware/The-search-for-the-perfect-keyboard/articleshow/7583512.cms

Discussion of a ‘Share’ button – http://kovshenin.com/archives/every-keyboard-needs-a-share-button/

Wk4: Hanging on the VOIP – or why isn’t the telephone dead already?

"Do you know how much this call is costing me?"

Skype is 8 years old this year. Figures last year suggest that Skype has more registered users than even Facebook. So why do so many of us still make phone calls? Why hasn’t VOIP (Voice Over IP) services like Skype and Facetime taken over?

As we explore the answer, let’s step back for a second and look at a parallel technology – SMS. I still get heaps of SMS’s. And I send plenty too. Yet – pretty close to all those text messages are going to a phone with email technology. Why didn’t I save myself a few cents and send an email instead.

There are heaps of reasons.

1) Most people don’t have emails refreshing all the time. SMS’s actually ping people immediately.

2) Although most people do, I can’t be sure their phones take emails. And people use different emails.

3) And hey, sometimes I just don’t have their email.

4) I’m usually connected to a phone network, but not always a data network. This is also a black hole on the other side – what if they have bad data reception on the other end?

5) A smaller point, but many parts of the world doesn’t have the smart phone penetration and network services of a data network.

So plenty of reasons. Which is a shame because it makes so much sense. Why do we need two technologies to send simple text messages from my iPhone to yours? Why do I need a pipe called phone network and a pipe called data network?

Well, because data networks are kinda shit.

It still makes ultimate sense though. I think the SMS will die in the next five years – if not earlier. Because all those problems I laid out above could be fixed easily – and we’re not even waiting for technology to catch up.

I think it will have to be a short-message-direct-service that is not email for one. I think email and SMS type messages should not be mixed. They do different things. So we need to dump the phone number AND the email address. We need something new (Skype username? Twitter username? ICQ number? Who knows).

Then it just needs to run on a data network, not a phone network. And it is automatically set to “push”, not wait for people to login and download. It is a lot like instant messaging, or general chat programs – when you’re logged in!

When someone invents this app, they are going to make a billion dollars.

Which brings me back to Skype – the most famous VOIP service. Why hasn’t Skype killed the telephone?

Look at the pros. It costs nothing (above your net connection). It’s gotten to the point where the voice quality is pretty good, and certainly better than most mobile phones. You can do video chats if that’s your thing.

So what are the cons?

The big one is that no one is on Skype all the time. Or even most of the time. Skyping is an event for most people. You make appointments with people to Skype. And not everyone has Skype. 600 million users might sound impressive. But over 4.6 billion people have mobile phones!

All the reasons that SMS clings onto life apply in some way to it’s voice driven older brother.

But the tide is turning.

Most people I know hopped onto Skype to escape the cost of overseas and interstate phone charges. In 2009, Skype made up 12% of all international phone call minutes – a stat that has been trending up for years.

The dam is going to break, and VOIP services wont be seen as for overseas calling only. Apple’s Facetime is really pushing the personal, emotional value of their video-over IP service, not the price.

And maybe Skype’s reputation has been set, and some other upstart will take VOIP into our homes and every day life. But I think Skype works great – I hope they survive.

In 2003, I spoke to the CFO of the big company I was working for about VOIP. We also discussed Microsoft’s Netmeeting, and the bad quality of the audio. Nowadays, microphones and even cameras come with laptops. But those early uses of Netmeeting brought up another con for VOIP – one that is harder to define.

This one has more to do with human nature. And the wonderful David Foster Wallace summed it up nicely in his masterpiece Infinite Jest.

In that book, videophones took off initially, then people gave up on them, because they felt uncomfortable. This might seem like a trivial point, but I think it’s important. AND, I think it’s weirder without video.

People still feel weird barking conversations at a computer. For over 100 years, we have spoken into a handset. Using VOIP services is like speaking aloud.

I have a theory that for Skype to really catch on, they should build a handset (with two jacks, one for the mic, one for the headphone). If people could speak into a handset, they don’t care if it’s a computer or a phone that routes their call.

Which is also why mobile VOIP is the next big thing. Skype, Facetime and a number of other competitors are jumping onboard Android, iPhones et al. The ultimate handset.

Some of you may know, Skype actually has a mobile phone. The Skypephone didn’t catch on, for all the same reasons that Skype has not really caught on as a whole (and I’m not sure if it’s still in production).

Computers can be just about anything you want it to be. It’s amazing how long it’s taken us to adopt the computer as a phone. But the future is already here. Data networks are just around the corner from a big jump (into 4G speeds, and free wi-fi becoming more commonplace). And everyone’s getting a smartphone.

And it’s up to us, as a whole, to take advantage of it. If you’re not on there, why should I be? We all have to jump in – together.

And we can kill off the telephone for good.

Skype by Numbers – http://gigaom.com/2010/04/20/skype-q4-2009-number/

Utterly brilliant site by Jean Mercier focusing on the stats of Skype – http://skypenumerology.blogspot.com/

A nice summary of the bit in Infinite Jest about videophones. http://kottke.org/10/06/david-foster-wallace-on-iphone-4s-facetime

The Skypephone – http://shop.three.com.au/mobile-prepay-details/3-Skypephone-Prepaid-White

30 for 30: iPods

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

13. IPODS

The "photo" iPod

Like everyone else, I got an iPod. It changed the way I listened to music.

I was planning this blog for later in the series but circumstances dictated otherwise. My iPod died. Gone. Just wiped to zero. 5 years of play counts, artwork, playlists etc – no more.

It was a 160GB silver ‘classic’ – which made it sound dated as soon as it came out. It’s travelled with me everywhere, and I used it for around 5-6 hours a day – at least. In the last week, it’s battery life was down to about half an hour, and it would turn itself off for no reason. Until today, when it decided to give up the ghost for good.

So, goodbye iPod. 24,000 songs, all gone. It was fun.

I was late to the iPod. Most of my friends had one by the time I did. I even bought one for a girlfriend before I got one for myself. I only really decided to get one when I decided to do some travelling. So I bought a 60GB one, in 2005.

Oddly, I did get an early mp3 player as a present. It was very hard to use. It made me resist “going digital” for a while.

I prepared by ripping some music to my computer before I even got one. In an ill made decision, I decided to start with Elvis Costello. Not just ALL his albums (up to Delivery Man, 21 of them), but all the Rhino bonus discs. Get Happy itself was 50 tracks. My iTunes had 20 versions of Watching the Detectives, what with all the demos and live versions. When I finally got the iPod, it was basically an Elvis Costello iPod.

So I wiped all that and started again. I tried to be more democratic about it the second time around. Basically, I would put one album on by every artist I really loved. Live with that for a bit. Then choose another album by them, and spread the net wider to artists that I liked. Then again, another round. It was like the nerdiest NBA draft picks.

I managed to hit 24,000 songs on my iPod, including several thousand I deleted over the years, before she died. I think by the end of it, every Elvis Costello album was back on there.

I wasn’t that excited by the iPod to begin with. I remember looking at it, on my sofa, in my house, thinking, I kind of just want to put these albums on my stereo. But I figured it might be handy.

The click-wheel was clever though. That alone got me past the gate. Much like the iPhone later, the iPod wasn’t only easy to use – it was kind of fun to use. Looks at me scroll!

I quickly took to it. I could listen to music in the garden! I could listen to music when I go for a smoke! I could listen to music on that walk from the train station to home. I could even listen on the train.

In fact, the biggest negative is that when I got an iPod, it killed my reading. My reading has still never recovered. Maybe it might now.

I got the first ‘Photo iPod’. Hilarious to think of it now. I remember how Tom, an early iPod owner, had this two colour one, with buttons across the top. We used to listen to stuff in his car. And that geeky pleasure of thinking ‘mine is cooler’.

The best thing about this new iPod was that you could load colour album covers on there and it would come up on the screen. This was exciting at the time! And it wasn’t that long ago. It was the same year the FOURTH Harry Potter film came out. Yet it was exciting to get colour on the iPod.

I remember showing my friends who were musicians their own albums, with artwork, on this iPod. So wanky. But we were all fascinated.

This first iPod travelled with me overseas. I have hundreds of memories of walking through Europe, listening to music. Maybe I missed some of the sounds of a city, but as a music nutter, I couldn’t be happier.

60 GB turned out to be not enough. I had to keep deleting things. Finally, I had a car accident and found myself in a wheelchair for months. I got an iPod and meticulously imported all the info across to a new, 160GB monster. It took weeks.

I keep breaking headphones. Glasses and headphones. Geez, I have spent so much money on those things. And I approach headphones the same as glasses – buy something cheap because it will break or you will lose them.

I bought a really expensive pair once – Seinnheiser somethings. It had a case. A very complicated folding motion would collapse the headphones and you would twirl the lead around it’s body. It was as fun as folding a map. I had it for two weeks before I left it in a cab.

So I usually go for the second cheapest pair there is. I use James’ theory on this. If you buy the cheapest one, everything about it is bad. But if you buy the second cheapest, it means at someone thought about these headphones on some level (could have just been the price).

No wonder they keep breaking all the time though. Usually the bit near the pin, that goes into the iPod, goes first. But sometimes the headphone itself falls apart. But dozens of pairs of those is still cheaper than that expensive pair.

In recent years, I’ve discovered (cheap) in-ear headphones. Odd at first, now I’m used to shoving rubber things in my ears. Sure it blocks out a bit of noise and sounds stronger, but it just stays in the ear and bit better.

My second iPod, the 160GB monster, lasted me until this week. It recorded 5 years of my listening habits. I got quite obsessed with looking at it statistically.

For example:

Most played song was Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen. 78 plays.

Of 24,000 songs, only 1000 had never gotten at least one play.

However, half that collection was 4 plays or less. So there’s a lot of junk on there.

Poor ‘Sunday Girl’ by Blondie, was added to my iPod 4 years ago, and I never listened to it once.

I would add roughly 20GB of music to my iPod every year.

It was fun, looking at listening habits through maths. Well, fun for me anyway. I’ve lost all that now.

For the last few years, every morning, I listen to five songs that have zero plays. I get a lot of albums, and I still buy plenty of them. It’s one of many tricks I had to explore my collection.

And it’s great to have all those songs in your pocket. Whatever thought tickles your fancy can be there. God knows there have been times when the sun is shining and the only thing that could make me feel better is to hear Make Me Lose Control by Eric Carmen. And before the iPod, how would you ever hear that song?

Mainly though, I would just shuffle. Thousands of songs, what will fate dial up? Whether I’m on the a crowded train on the Circle Line, or walking around Berlin, lets see what song I can pin this memory to.

Trish mentioned today that I was taking the death of my iPod well. For some reason, it didn’t really matter to me all that much. I did try for an hour to save the thing, but in the end it was easy to let go of. I think, maybe, I was in need of a change.

The iPod death was always the biggest worry. I remember Jon, with an early iPod, losing everything, and paying big money to computer experts to no avail. I have almost lost my iPod many times, and those were scary moments.

I’ve put Born to Run (the album with Thunder Road on it) on my new 160 GB iPod. I’m going to put some records I’ve loved from this year. And start the draft again. Five years ago, the first Velvet Underground album I reached for was The Velvet Underground & Nico. I’m thinking now it’s got to be Loaded. But even part of me thinks maybe it’s a mistake. Maybe it’s time to find another new path altogether.

Maybe the shuffle thing should go too. Maybe, like many of my friends, I should just rotate my collection. Who knows. Without music being my job, I don’t need half of that stuff in my pocket. Hell, having gone through cassettes the CDs, I’m not even sure iPods will last that much longer.

So, It’s kind of exciting to start again. I get to rediscover all my music. Or maybe I will finally get some reading done again.

Wednesday Web: Mosspuppet.com

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – as the old saying goes. And if there is any doubt that computers are the new rock ‘n’ roll, we are now in a world where tech journalists are being parodied. And brilliantly so.

If you don’t know Walt Mossberg, the human version, he is the long time tech journalist for the Wall Street Journal. He is a big supporter of Apple products, and often gets products before release to review – making him hot commodity in the tech world. He’s grumpy demeanor and his video blogs on the All Things Digital site are well known to Mac fans, and technology fans in general.

So along comes Walt Mosspuppet. From the brilliant Rant Puppets studio, Mosspuppet was one of many parody puppets on the site. But Mosspuppet has struck a chord. In recent weeks, he has launched a twitter account, a podcast and a cool new blog.

Everyone wants information these days. Leaks, spoilers, exclusives – all hot words in this day and age. The real Mossberg has them, and Mosspuppet sends up that culture better than anyone. In his regular videos, Mosspuppet goes on about his NDAs, how he’s had the Apple Tablet for months but can’t talk about it. He’s also disturbingly in love with Steve Jobs. His enemies are any of Apple’s competitors. In short, he is the cartoon of every Mac worshipper out there.

Here’s one of my favourites, that pretty much sums up his credo

But as with every lie, there’s some truth. The blog is fantastic, bursting the bubble on net rumours, bad journalism, insane fandom and there is just some pretty decent swearing as well.

So go check out the videos first, and then follow the man (puppet) on his blog – http://mosspuppet.com/

(And hey, here’s another classic. This is back when he was still called Walt Mossberg)

Has Apple Forgotten the iPod?

Apple - Forgetting something?

Apple - Forgetting something?

Apple‘s announcements this week are all over the web. At their annual WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference), they touted new MacBook Pros, iPhones and more. But what about for the pop culture fan? Somehow it seems like Apple is leaving them behind.

When the iPhone was announced, it was a combination of a phone, a net browser and an iPod. Since launch, the interface of that iPod has, really, not changed.

Amongst the highly tech-y new announcements were some things that relate to pop culture.

1. The new Quicktime X. Looks quite interesting, and is set to launch in September with the new operating system. We like the look of it, and lets face it, there is no GREAT video player at the moment. We mix about with the current Quicktime, VLC, Windows Media Player, iTunes for some, our DVD playing program (add YouTube, BBC iPlayer and more – wouldn’t it be great if that was all in one screen?). It looks a lot neater and nicer, but will it do much more than the existing quicktime? With Apple doing such great business on video in the US, it would be great to see them lead in this area. But hey, anyone else who wants to take the crown here, we welcome you.

More here – http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/09/03/07/a_peek_at_apples_new_quicktime_x_interface.html

2. Line 6/Planet Waves unveiled a new application for guitarists. It’s basically an all in one guitar amp simulator. Pretty cool, but is there a line out? I can’t imagine people using their phones over a decent piece of music gear. Especially as they botched the presentation. We couldn’t tell if that was a real guitar or some new piece of hardware. Coolest thing though – setting the tuning of your guitar on the phone.

More here – http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/09/06/08/iphone_os_3_0_app_highlights_tomtom_gps_line_6_more.html

3. We can now buy and rent TV shows and movies from iTunes over 3G on the iPhone. If only they weren’t over priced already, and if only I didn’t have to pay data charges on top of that. Fail.

4. The new iPhone operating system promised a hundred new features, only some of which were presented. Maybe there is new functionality in the iPod side of things but we wont know til June 17th when it’s released.

It’s clear that Apple‘s current success and acclaim started with one product – the iPod. They took full advantage, but it seems like in recent years they have forgotten about the poor iPod. Last year’s changes amounted to very little. Genius has been given a lukewarm response. It will be interesting come September to see what changes Apple brings to the iPod line. Or is the iPod over? And the gaming/internet/all-in-one device like the iPhone going to rule us all? We don’t know, but we don’t know many people who use their iPhones over their iPod, especially if they need more that 16GB.

There seemed like hundreds and hundreds more announcements from Apple during their WWDC. There’s great coverage over at Apple Insider – http://www.appleinsider.com/

and hey, we took our image from the great site gadget site Gizmodo.

Storm the castle: Music Pirates in the EU Parliament.

Waving the flag for copyright reform

The Pirate Party - Waving the flag for copyright reform

Sweden is definitely the most interseting place in the world right now for Digital Rights law. Unlike places like Japan, Sweden’s location in Europe means any decisions made there will have a big effect in the western world. Slowly, in the last few years, both legal (Nokia, Spotify) and illegal (Pirate Bay and the legal battles) innovation has been taking place in Scandanavia. This has been taken to a new level today with the Swedish ‘Pirate Party‘ taking a seat (maybe two) in the EU Parliament.

Formed in 2006, the Pirate Party is taking copyright issues as their mandate. It’s an amazing showing from the young people of Sweden (we assume it’s young people anyway) that this issue is something they feel so strongly about. The conviction of the Pirate Bay founders have increased the party’s media presence. Is this a one-off blip or something more long lasting?

We strongly disagree with the Pirate Party on almost all it’s issues. Looking at their website, we believe they have made some terrible assumptions about how art and copyright works are created. They talk about the imbalance in creating and promoting culture, but they have shifted that balance to the side of promotion. It’s also pushed to the extreme. With almost no concessions for the artwork creators.

People are creative because they have something to share with the world. Take away the money and the rights side, artists want to have a painting or a song and say this is mine, this is what I created. The Pirate Party want to sever that sense of ownership. It does not encourage creativity. It does not inspire. The fact that copyright is automatic is one of the most basic functions of art. We have never met an artist that is against copyright.

It also stifles originality. And strangles innovation. Why would anyone try to invent something new if they cannot patent it? It pushes every innovation to the hands of whoever can promote it best. Some young kid who creates a great new YouTube succesor, for example, will lose it to a big company that copies his work. There is no protection there.

That said, the world of copyrights is a changing one, and perhaps the EU parliament is the best place to be part of that discussion. Just a couple of weeks ago, Apple was calling for a Europe-wide license for iTunes. The free-for-all nature of Europe has hampered innovation for years. When the numbers are crunched, 200K people in Sweden voted for this party. They also got 1 percent in Germany. Something has to break, and the Pirate Party may be the first ones with the mallet.

Great story about all this on Torrentfreak – http://torrentfreak.com/pirate-party-wins-and-enters-the-european-parliament-090607
(Our photo, from the press conference after the election win, is taken from this story)

Find out more about the Pirate Part (in English) – http://www.piratpartiet.se/international/english

IPod '09 rumours begin

The current iPod family

The current iPod family

It’s May and we are starting to get rumours of this year’s iPods. For the last few years without fail, Apple has unveiled a new range of iPods in September. And every year, Apple fanatics try to piece together leaked tips from inside the Apple bubble and predict what is coming.

Generally, it is considered Apple’s ’08 refresh was a disappointment. The year before they launched the game-changing iPod Touch. They also made a 160GB iPod classic with a new interface, making the core device pretty much untouchable. Nanos and the Shuffle continued strong. Last year’s addition of the Genius function and a new shape for the Nano failed to set the world alight.

The first rumours we are hearing is from Macrumours. The addition of a camera in the iPod Touch and maybe even the Nano. It seems pretty certain that the new iPhones will have VIDEO camera capabilities. This could be a cool new feature in the iPod product line. The other rumour is the rainbow range of colours across all lines.

We’re not sure it’s a big enough change to impress the world at large. But then again, what is? The iPod works so well – the fact that it just works is one of the reasons it’s the best in the business.

What we would like to see? The classic/nano interface could be vastly improved. Better cataloging for video and podcasts. We see the thousands of new features for the new iPhone and we wonder if the iPod is being left behind. We hope not.

We’ll find out in September.

Apple UK –http://www.apple.com/uk/