Wk21: iPod Classic – the whiz kid, now the black sheep

No, dude, really. How do I do album shuffle on this?

Apple was a fancy niche computer brand until they struck gold, somewhat accidentally, with the iPod. Released in 2001, it really broke through when Apple released a Windows-capable version of iTunes in 2003.

The iPod hit mainstream. The white headphones. Those TV ads. Then other models came along – nanos and shuffles. Finally, the iPhone and it’s cousin, iPod touch.

But what of the humble, original iPod? Now dubbed the iPod Classic, the reason many people started paying attention to Apple in the first place is now dying in obscurity.

My 160GB latest generation iPod Classic managed to wipe itself a week or so ago. And it occurred to me how terribly outdated it is. The current iPod Classic (the sixth generation one) was last given a real update in 2007. That’s 4 years!

In those 4 years, Twitter has rose from nothing. The iPhone and the iPad has come along. The entire career of the Fratellis has come and gone. The world has changed so much – but 4 years with no change for the iPod Classic.

Some Apple stores don’t even have them on display. It is a surprise every year that it isn’t phased out completely every year. Apple has moved on, and the iPod Classic is left behind.

Most of my music friends still use them though. The reason is easy – that capacity. 160GB of awesome space – 30,000 songs or so.

If they are trying to move us all across to iOS devices, they keep forgetting about capacity. 64GB is the top of the range, and a lot of it is used up by apps and things that go with those devices. Whereas in 2005, the iPod already came with 80GB for music.

(The reason, on a technical side, is the different types of drives both devices use.)

I have spent a hell of a lot of time digitising my music. And I like carrying around as much as I possibly can in my pocket. This is something I learnt to love with previous iPods.

So lets look at what it does – for music. I don’t care about cameras. I don’t care about games. What I want is the best possible device to listen to mp3s in my pocket.

For music, the iOS devices still lack a few things. Basically, for all it’s all-in-one-ness, the iPhone doesn’t make a terribly great iPod.

My favourite thing on the iPod Classic is the album shuffle. It basically plays an album in the proper order, and when it’s done, picks another album to play from start to finish. So you’re not just diving into thousands of tracks blind.

Even better is the ability to change from Song shuffle to Album shuffle on the fly. You can scan through songs randomly, but if you hit across one on an album that suits the mood, you can go into that album.

The track counts and play information seems to be more reliable. I often listen to albums on my phone, and my play counts remain unchanged. I know this sounds like a nerdy thing – but it should work and it doesn’t.

Other little things. Lyrics work better on the old iPod. Physical buttons meant you can scroll tracks blindly. I have perfected the in-pocket un-hold and next-track.

In fact, the iPod side of iOS gadgets have not really changed since launch. If anything, the iPad takes away one of the better features – cover flow.

That is not to say the iPod Classic is perfect. Far from it.

It seems hopelessly dated for one.

It is hopelessly slow for another. Trying to activate cover flow with 25,000 songs is almost impossible. It takes too long for the images to load.

Search is hard. Not only due to volume, but no keyboard means it’s a complicated scrolling process. Creating playlists are a drag.

Album covers are so small as to be rendered useless. (Oddly, the iPad has made me fall back in love with album artwork, seeing new details on the covers of albums I already loved).

What seemed so innovative in 2005 is now dated and old. Take the click wheel. So clever to begin with, it’s lack of accuracy is now a bane.

But the capacity wins out. It really does. To have just about everything I want on hand is better than any cover flow or genius playlist. I spent years working on my collection, why not have it with me? Why can’t I listen to an old Bob Dylan b-side followed by a new Bon Iver track? Or every album by Elvis Costello? Why let hardware restrict me?

It is far too late for me to go back to a pathetic 64GB.

(And for all it’s faults, it is still better than any non Apple mp3 player.)

Could someone build a better iPod app for the iPhone?

Seems kind of silly, but people have created other browsers, other calculators etc. Apps can access your music library. It’s just a button on your phone, after all.

Here’s what would be great:

Something that can allow me to edit things on the fly.

Something that allows me to correct artwork on the phone

Something that previews what tracks are about to come up on shuffle

Something that does the album shuffle thing

There’s probably more things that can be improved. Could some nerd out there do this now? I’d pay for it.

Could all be moot thanks to the upcoming iCloud predictions. Everything will be on the cloud, right?

I think it will take decades, if ever, for could computing to be everything. But right now, the iPod Classic is still the best mp3 player for the music obsessive.

And I’m worried Apple are going to can it any second. I will probably go buy one or two new ones, keep them sealed, and use them when my current one dies.

The ball has really been dropped for music fans. And if Apple doesn’t pick it up, hopefully some young app-maker will. I just need them to create that 1TB iPhone.

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Wk13: Lost In Translation – The Treachery Of English

Languages is still a challenge online

I consider myself, pretentiously, an international citizen. I speak a couple of languages and I’m learning another. That, coupled with travel has made me aware of what I call the “Treachery of English”. Why is technology so inherently English?

In the futuristic TV show Firefly, everyone speaks the only two languages that are left – English and Chinese. It doesn’t seem so much like science fiction anymore.

It seems an odd by-product of the internationalisation of our culture. That language seems to be moving to a Highlander model – there can be only one.

Digital success favours the English. How many great digital products have come from non-English properties? Perhaps only Spotify. Google, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, YouTube, etc. All from English speaking countries (mainly the US). No wonder some countries see the internet itself as Western Imperialism.

How did we get here?

Sometimes the language itself is the problem. I worked for two years on a project to create a Chinese version of a website and was thrown head first into the problems of double byte. After we spent thousands, we would have had to rebuild the whole thing from scratch.

URLs are in English. HTML uses Roman characters. The whole internet would have to be reinvented to make it otherwise. To work in the digital space you have to learn English. And sadly, this battle may have been fought and lost. Maybe some future iteration of HMTL may change it but I think not.

But there is a bigger threat. That framework of English washes down river, with major consequences.

New technologies start in English or Roman characters. With luck they expand futher, but usually they don’t. Twitter is reliant on English. iTunes only has one store that displays non Roman characters – Japanese. And most computers can’t disply it correctly because it uses a plugin for Windows. Even the Chinese keyboard on an iPhone, a device of infinite possibilities, is clumsy.

But it isn’t just east versus west.

Everything starts with one language – English. How far down the list is Danish? Czech? Or French Canadian? These are the languages that are dying out.

These smaller languages always get screwed. Movies, even big tentpole ones, don’t get translated into many languages. You might get a French, Chinese or German, but Serbian?

But here is the point of all this:

The digital revolution should destroy these market concerns.

We can reach anyone who can speak any language – online.

I am going to use Harry Potter as a barometer for languages. Those books were published in over 65 languages (including language variations like French Canadian, Cantonese and more). This says to me that there is a) a market, no matter how small and b) a translator probably looking for work.

Point a), the small market, should be big enough to support the zero printing cost of digital. And hopefully the profits from that small market can support the wages of Mr b).

And if that market is there, and it’s attended to and supported – it can grow

Then there are the books that already exist. For some reason, my iTunes/iBook account doesn’t let me buy any French books. Why? Why can’t I get the Serbian digital version of Harry Potter. Or at least the French one?

Like most things, it’s a hangover from the old world. Why would you print up French Harry Potters in the UK, when there is a small audience for it? But now it’s clicks of a button, the changing of territory rights in a table. Yet no one is looking at this. Or worse, someone is still thinking it’s not worth their time.

This might horrify right wingers who believe in one language for one country. But I believe otherwise. How great to be able to access books, movies and music in their original language.

Film, books and music companies are bleeding money. And online sales are healthy, but they are still missing out on a massive financial trick. All because we are still used to promoting and selling one language version in one country. Everything else is a niche market.

If we are all looking for money, surely catering to all language speakers everywhere is the first step.

Let’s look at it from another angle. I want to buy Roald Dahl’s works in French.

It exists. It’s been digitised. iTunes has it on their servers. I have a credit card. You want my money. I want to give it to them.

What’s the hold up?

How do we avoid the vision of the future from Firefly? How do we stop culture from sliding into a single language monotone?

We have to make the internet admit that there is more than just English. And the underused, under appreciated non English market could be a critical key in making digital products more profitable.

It’s a world wide web after all. Lets reflect the whole world.

Wk 12: I’m So Tired – Digital fatigue and retirement

"This Angry Birds game is brilliant!"

When I was young, I would program the VCR for my family home. I don’t think this was a rare occurrence. Most kids I know were better than their parents at it. They were old and didn’t understand how these new machines work.

Years later, I realised that I didn’t know how to tune a VCR anymore. The technology passed me by. I would sit there holding a tune button on the player. But now it was on the remote. And little cousins of mine were better than it than me.

For years this thought has haunted me ever since.

What if technology passes me by completely? How do I stop it?

The idea of “digital retirement” is taking, ironically, some strides in my life. Having just turned 30, many of my friends are wary and against Twitter. They just don’t ‘get’ it.

What is annoying is the arrogance of this statement. It’s almost as if they’re saying “Hmmm, I think the world is wrong on this one.” When the opposite is true. It is the point where you have retired from the digital world.

How does this happen?

There’s a Douglas Adams quote that is often used out of context:

– Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

– Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

– Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Adams used this in a piece about technology, and the DANGERS of perceiving things as wrong or weird just because you happen to be born at the wrong time for it.

But there is a deeper reason tied to another old quote.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

My problem with the VCR came because I already learnt how to program a VCR. And it is harder to forget something than it is to learn something.

Most people I’ve spoken to will not get a different phone from an iPhone on their next upgrade. The main reason seems to be – I can’t go back. Regardless on where you stand on the iPhone, learning a whole new mobile operating system is a pain. I was once given a Sony Ericsson phone for free, with a camera. And kept my old two colour camera-less Nokia because it was too hard to learn a new thing.

This is an important side point. People can get stuck in their ways. Apple has gotten there first with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Yet they struggled for decades against Windows because who could be bothered learning a whole new operating system? The digital world – although ever changing – is ruled by habit.

The other great example is when Facebook changes anything. Oh the complaints.

But the world is going to change with or without you. And pretty soon the technology and networks that support my old Nokia (let alone that sized sim card) will be gone completely. Do I rally against the future? Is it against the natural order of things?

If there is such a thing as “digital retirement”, something I personally want to avoid at all costs, then it comes from “digital fatigue”. That all this new technology is getting too much. And technology just grows faster and faster.

So, the way to defeat it might be the thing that keeps normal retirement and fatigue at bay.

Exercise.

Try new things. Keep active in the digital space. Try out new things. Get the blood flowing in those muscles.

The people I’ve met who I think are the best thinkers, and are ahead of the game, are naturally curious. And they have dozens of logins to try out every new service they hear about. And they don’t always understand them, but who does.

You don’t have to love it – the general opinion of chatroulette was that it was crap and a fad. Most people agreed, but who actually tried it?

It’s that attitude I love – constant discovery.

I am still excited by new technology all the time. I don’t always understand it, but I don’t understand all new music either.

What I am worried about, is if I ever get to the point where I say “I don’t get it”. If I hate it – fine. If I don’t even understand, that’s a worry.

Once again – take Twitter. We all knew that the first people to hop onto that would be those with the most free time and the least to say. We saw that with mIRC. Then with forums. Then on MySpace and Facebook. But those who never thought any of those things were worth their time were never going to ‘get’ Twitter.

I wonder what Albert Einstein would make of an iPad. Would he “get” it? I know my parents are amazed I have a French dictionary on my phone. Maybe he wouldn’t understand it – but he would understand it’s usefulness – maybe? Or maybe it would be too much for him.

But that retirement is bound to happen to me. And in a way, I’m looking forward to that too. I love tech, digital and inventions. That in my lifetime there may be something so new, so different that my mind just gives up on it – that’s exciting.

Until then, there is so much to explore. And to explore FOR THE SAKE OF EXPLORING.

Travel keeps you young, they say. And adventures in new digital technology can keep digital retirement at bay too.

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/

Bands: There's an app for that

The Grateful Dead App

As innovative as the iPhone is/was, it’s the world of Apps that really make it special. It’s taken computing power back to being practical, and for the first time in a long time, not about the internet. As people launch more and more apps, it’s no surprise to find many bands launching their own iPhone apps.

So why are so many of them so shit?

Trawling around, we’re finding dozens of them. But the great thing about the App world is functionality, and many of these band’s apps are glorified webpages.

Calendars, News, About pages…what’s the point. When you have the internet on your phone? The worse are band apps that have Galleries. Galleries! This isn’t a mid 90s CD-Rom. Did you forget the screensaver?

Which is actually the point of this article. Too many of these apps feel like mid 90s CD-Rom programs. A bit of music, maybe a game, some photos, the lyrics… which may well be fine. But this is an app, something you keep on your phone. Not a CD-Rom that is there when you feel like listening to that record.

And why do we need band applications at all? Want to listen to music? There are lots of ways of doing that on the phone. Spotify‘s subscription will cost you less than buying all those band apps. And then there’s growth. We love a lot of music. But are we going to have to get every one of those band’s apps on our phones? If they start offering exclusives of some sort, we might have to. Or more likely, we’ll give up being a super fan because it’s too hard. We will be excluded.

So, we’re yet to be convinced by any band’s app. We’re struggling to see the point. And unless someone has a great idea, we will see it die alongside the mid 90s CD-Rom.

For the record – the band apps I’m looking at for this article are Wilco, REM, Belle And Sebastian, Pearl Jam, Grateful Dead, Pink, 311, Alice In Chains, Death Cab For Cutie, and more. If there is a good one we may have missed.

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.