Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Whither print?

I just reread a not-so-recent posting on Infoworld.com about the demise of the print edition of that venerable tech magazine. It is a short article, worth the read even for those not into tech specifically. Ed Foster writes about his mixed feelings regarding the cessation of a hard copy edition of the magazine as it moved to a web-only existence.

I have to confess that I share his ambivalence about the future of "dead tree" editions of things. I love curling up with a good book. I adore the smell of a used book store and the feel of a quality edition of old favorites. You can take a paperback book camping and not worry about battery life. Or weight. A room lined with full bookshelves is a beautiful thing. There are many things I also like about print magazines, not the least of which is their linearity or at least their limited options for jumping around.

Sometimes clicking around links on web pages makes me wonder if I'll ever find my way back to something I wanted to read but saw in passing on the way somewhere else. My desktop regularly gets overwhelmed with links to these pages that I drop there "temporarily" so i can get back to them. At one point, I had created a half dozen desktop folders at different times to hold these "must read" links that I never seemed to find the time to get back to but had to get off my desktop.

It appears that many, many people agree with me that print is a terrific medium. I've heard the comment "I don't like reading on a computer screen" so many times I've lost count. Not just from adults, either, but even from a surprising number of students.

But if this sentiment is really so ubiquitous, why are print magazines getting smaller and smaller? Or moving strictly to the web like Infoworld? Why are newspapers losing readership and advertising dollars--the only two sources of revenue they have to keep going?

Is this a trend merely of the news sites, whose content must be fresh and constantly changing? Their need for quick presentation of the "new" would definitely make electronic access more desirable for both producer and reader. Or is it bigger trend that is starting there but with time will move on to literature? Already electronic publishing of research papers, which do not normally change after publishing, is happening electroinically. Is it only a matter of time before everyone is so accustomed to reading on screen that they will naturally gravitate to that medium for books' content as well?

Previous transitions in this transmission of information (verbal to written, scrolls to books, manual copies to printing press) each produced such a noticeable improvement without obvious down side that the transition was probably quickly and widely accepted. (At least it appears so in retrospect. One imagines that folks at the time may not have thought so.) Does the transition from paper to pixels have this same upside-only character? It looks that way for at least some content.

As Tablet PCs become more widely accepted and deployed (which, in spite of the naysaying of those who still don't get it, they are and will) some of the other objections will be eliminated from the equation. While not the same experience as reading a book, neither is reading on a Tablet like reading on a strictly vertical screen on a desk, or even on a notebook on your lap. Several good reader formats already exist and more are being explored and developed. More and better ways of allowing annotation are being created. Tablet models are, for the most part, comfortable to carry and hold and will continue to improve over time (although right now we are seeing one step backward for each step forward with many vendors. HP, are listening? Give us back a detachable keyboard, screen and bezel buttons, and the scroller!)

I don't claim to know what the future holds, but I'll be very surprised if most of us aren't doing most of our reading on Tablets or Tablet-like devices down the road. What about you?


So much has been happening over the last year (or two!) that postings here have languished. Certainly not for lack of topic material!

We are now officially a one-to-one Tablet PC school. After a major vendor snafu, we are now mostly running on HP 2710p Tablet PCs, which I generally like well. (More on this later.) We are a significantly smaller school than we have been in the past, a somewhat intentional short-term situation with a large impact on our program. We had a great orientation week planned with lots of Tablet PC based training--which was completely derailed by the aforementioned vendor snafu. We recovered and did an abbreviated version of it that was quite successful in my opinion. (Gotta roll with those punches.) Preparations are ongoing for the 2008 WIPTE conference, with a new video presentation option this year geared primarily toward pre-K-12. More on this on the WIPTE site shortly. We've begun the implementation of a work request tracking system that I have very mixed feelings about, but which is an essential part of supporting such a one-to-one program. We've made a commitment to a 10 minute max response time for any classroom technology issue that arises during a class.

And I could go on and on...

But for now I'll put up a quick post to follow this one that is mostly just a bit of pondering about the state of the world.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Always connected, part II

Just a quick note as a follow-up to the last (now ancient) post.

InfoWorld has posted an article on the state of online applications as replacements for desktop applications. Can Web-based applications outwit, outplay, outlast the desktop? It is an interesting read and approaches this topic pretty much strictly from the angle of how well the various web-based offerings compare with MS Office in allowing the writer to get his work done. Overall? After a week of web-only applications, his conclusion is not particularly well. The author indicates right up front, however, that your mileage may vary. It all depends on what you need.

While the capabilities of these applications is, almost by definition, in a constant state of flux and, one hopes, of improvement, they are constrained in ways other than just the unreliable state of Internet connectivity. Case in point on that, by the way: our ISP had problems yesterday that left a number of sites completely unreachable while others were agonizingly slow to load. This lasted pretty much all day. If we depended on a web based application for our work and it was at one of those sites we could have chalked the entire day up as a productivity loss.

His final lines supports my opinion about web-based applications in general.

Anyway, a quote from the end of the article:

Was the experience worth it? Definitely. Are the applications worth the trouble? Mostly not. Zoho is definitely the standout in the group. It’s the only one that not only offers most of the apps I need but also seems to have a clear vision of where it’s going. And it’s free. ThinkFree and gOffice are similar, but neither has the breadth of apps, features, or collaboration that Zoho does.

The rest seem to be offering these apps simply because they can. Google’s Writely and Spreadsheets are impressive examples of Web 2.0 technology, but neither can compete with a desktop app on its own. And neither takes enough advantage of the Web’s particular technologies as yet.

Plus, all these applications are hampered by their very foundations: the Web. Without a Web connection, you can’t use these applications. With a spotty Web connection (such as the one at Bryant Park), you’re dead. Locally installed applications are simply more reliable and feature-rich. No big surprise there.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Always connected or always available?

Maybe I'm just getting old… There was a time when I would jump all over any new technology with the starry-eyed optimism of any youth, or at least any young geek, thinking that this technology was the wave of the future and anyone who couldn't see that was just ignorant. (Oh wait, that attitude is what gave us the Dot-Com bubble, wasn't it? And the subsequent Dot-Com bust…)

But these days, more and more, I get the feeling that the world is full of starry-eyed youths who can't really see the future to save their lives, just the latest buzz-words and hype. I, however, in my maturity and wisdom see things as they really are…

Same hubris, opposite perspective I suppose.

Anyway, my cantankerous musings today stem from thinking about the issues of thin-client computer, desktop virtualization, software as a service, the "death of the desktop" and a number of other buzzwords that are zipping around the tech media today like flies on road kill in mid-July.

In their proper place, most of these technologies have huge benefits in terms of cutting costs (especially support costs), providing quality service, improving reliability, etc. But to hear the pundits pontificating, that proper place sounds like it is everywhere and for everyone and the whole world is going to come around soon.

I think the main thing that bothers me about these technologies, what makes me leery of them even when I can see real benefits to them, is that they all presume a constantly connected system. Even in this day of hotspots at every coffee shop, this is simply not the reality for most of us. Or at least not for those of us who really can and do use our computers anywhere. Sure, if I have to open up my computer and set it on a table before I can use it chances are I will be doing that in some place that will have a wired or wireless connection. But with a Tablet that isn't the reality any more. I use mine in the grocery store for shopping lists. I use it in the car (usually only when I'm not driving but I do keep directions on it), I use it for meetings at other people's houses, I use it in church. In short, I really do use it everywhere, and many of those places have no connectivity. And no connectivity means no data when that data is anywhere but on your computer. It will also mean no applications when those are provided by Google and hosted on Google's servers.

Now maybe that is just because I live and work in the rural northeast, but I doubt it. I think the reality even in major cities is that connectivity really isn't ubiquitous, it is just ubiquitous in most of the places where people actually sit down to compute. And I don't think that (always sitting down to compute) is the future. The future rightly belongs to those who will compute wherever and in whatever position they want.

Then you have airplanes, boats, cars, locations with secured wireless and all sorts of other places where a connection can't or won't happen. And laws that make it illegal to sponge off an open wireless connection. (There goes my ability to keep in touch with family while on the road!)

And don't even get me started on the reliability of Internet connectivity. We just went through four days of no connection at home owing in part to a leaky circuit box and wet weather and in part to a Comcast support screw up. Four days of no access to my data and apps? No way!

And especially don't get me started on the whole security angle of all my data stored on someone else's server with the data of 1,000,000 other people making one very fat, juicy target for someone hell-bent on identity theft or corporate espionage or just plain mischief. Think that is far-fetched? Then you're not reading the papers. They regularly tell us about the very large number of big data bases that are attacked and cracked just to get the personal information of a significant number of people. And those are just the ones that are acknowledged.

OK, I feel somewhat better getting that off my chest. Maybe I'll head on out to the field by the stream out on the back part of campus, relax, and read some of the books I've got on my Tablet. And because they are there and not somewhere else, … I can.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


As a starter to what I hope is a renewed period of activity on this blog, I wanted to share my thoughts on the "perfect" Tablet PC. Perfect, at least, within the current bounds of the technology.

First a quick update on what we are using at Vermont Academy. (We are just now beginning to look at options for next year, though we won't be making a final decision until March or April.)

Our standard model Tablet PC this year was the HP TC4400. We opted for the high-end model with all the bells and whistles, most importantly an indoor/outdoor screen. It is a pretty sweet computer and I am pleased to be using one as a secondary Tablet PC and development computer. It is running Vista Ultimate (from MSDN) quite happily and I am VERY pleased with Vista. Now if I could just get the HP drivers to enable the buttons and a few other odds and ends like the microphone… Maybe after the consumer release of Vista…

But my primary Tablet is still my trusty and aging TC1100. Much as I like the horsepower, bigger screen, outdoor viewable screen, etc., of the TC4400, the form factor of the TC1100 is still closer to "right" in my opinion.

So, without further ado, my specs for the perfect Tablet PC. HP (or anyone else), feel free to claim these for your own. Just let me be a tester for you.

Size and weight: The external dimensions should be barely larger than the screen. The weight of the keyboard-less Tablet should be under 3 pounds, preferably around 2 pounds. NEC had a 2.2 pound Tablet years ago. One half, perhaps three quarters of an inch thick, but no thicker. The keyboard weight is discussed below.

Screen: 12.1" is the sweet spot here. Large enough to be useful, small enough to carry around conveniently. Indoor/outdoor viewable. Wide, wide viewing angle. No extra bezel around the keyboard beyond what is necessary. TabletKiosk seems to have this down well.

Memory: 2 Gig standard, max of at least 4 Gig. USER ACCESSIBLE! All the Tablets I've seen hide one of the chips, so an upgrade that requires the replacement of the internal chip is not possible by the end user.

Keyboard (and ports): It must be both detachable and secure when connected. The Tablet should be able to fold over the keyboard face up or face down. The small clips on the TC1100 are a weak point and we have seen many a keyboard bite the dust when the hinge broke when dropped. Why do we have to have inserts into the Tablet from the keyboard? How about a connection that actually grasps the outside of the Tablet itself enough to hold it securely? If the electrical connector is designed right, the Tablet could go in either way and there wouldn't even need to be a pivoting hinge. (I'm not 100% sure of this, so make sure I get to see those early prototypes, OK?) Weight of the keyboard is not a key factor! In fact, I would prefer a keyboard that actually weighs as much or more than the Tablet itself. Put a second battery in the keyboard. Heck, put a huge battery in it. My TC4400 has a couple pound battery attached that gives me many hours of usable time. Stick that inside the keyboard. Put an (optional) optical drive in the keyboard itself. Put most of the connectors (several USB, modem, etc., maybe even the Ethernet connector) into the keyboard. The only regular ports I really need on the Tablet itself are a couple of USB ports, audio and microphone, SD card slot and (probably) a PC-Card slot. Maybe the Ethernet, though I find that when I use that I am generally on the keyboard anyway. The advantage of a heavy keyboard is that you won't carry it when you don't need it (and generally this is also when I don't need most of the connectors). You can offload some weight from the Tablet itself this way. When you do need the keyboard, it is heavy enough to make the system stable, not top-heavy like the TC1100. Oh, and make it a decent keyboard to use. While I love using a Tablet in slate mode, I am a touch typist and I want a real keyboard… Last thing on this point: make sure that the keyboard latches securely when closed. I find it very unpleasant to hold a tablet with the keyboard attached (convertible or hybrid) and feel that movement between the two pieces. It's a common complaint.

Battery: Until I had the external on the TC4400, I thought carrying a second battery and hot-swapping was just fine. I was wrong. It is good, and definitely the internal battery should be hot-swappable, but having that external battery is great! It needs to go on the back of the system and attach in such a way that the unit doesn't sit at a funny angle when on the desk. It should also not negatively affect the carrying of the unit like some do. They change the balance point or extend to one side or another and, for many users at least, make carrying the system more awkward. (To be fair, with both the TC4400 and the Lenovo systems, some users actually like the extra ledge the battery creates and find it an aid to comfortable carrying.) Eight cells is good, twelve cells is marvelous! A really nice feature of the HP 12 cell is that it can be independently charged and comes with its own power block.

External buttons and indicator lights: Besides the standards in the Tablet PC spec, several programmable buttons should be on the system (and make sure you include something akin to HP's excellent Q menu). These should all be located on the side (when held in portrait mode) and positioned centrally on the side. In this way, both left- and right-handed users will find them convenient. I'm right-handed, so I am just speculating here (left handed users should chime in on this), but I imagine that a left-handed user would want to set the standard portrait mode into the secondary portrait position so that the buttons are accessibly more easily with either the hand holding the Tablet or the writing hand. Rotating my TC1100 this way puts those buttons down in the lower part of the screen where they are awkward to reach. Additionally, wireless on/off, mute, and maybe volume (perhaps by using the jog dial cleverly). Power, wireless, charging, hard disk activity lights at a minimum. Small and discreet, please, but easily visible.

Docking station: There is plenty of room for improvement in almost all docking stations I've seen. The TC1100 dock is good. It allows the tablet to rotate and to be positioned at angles between nearly vertical and nearly flat on the desk in either orientation. This is critical. The TC4400 "dock" is really little more than a port replicator. Useful as such, but I do most of my work in portrait which means I only get to see part of anything I've worked on when docked. I've thought for a long while that a wireless dock would be a great option and it looks like that is becoming a reality now with Toshiba's new R400. (More on this unit in a bit.) That is brilliant! I have so often wanted to hold my Tablet and write on it while looking at something on the external monitor. The TC1100 dock sort of allows this since I can lay the Tablet down, but wireless would be the perfect solution.

I could go on and on (in case you couldn't tell…), but these are some of the key features I would look for.

All that said, the new Toshiba R400 could up the ante for convertible Tablets. It is a svelte, attractive unit. It has the wireless docking station. It has a great looking display and seems to have a reasonably well attached screen. Still about 4 pounds, though. I hope to see one when we evaluate computers for next year. For now, it's worth looking at the video of it from CES that the GottaBeMobile guys have posted on their web site. It doesn't answer every concern but it looks to be a definite step in the right direction in a convertible world.

Back in the saddle again...

(Does anyone remember the old Firesign Theatre sketch with that song in it?)

After a lengthy hiatus, I am hopeful that I can get back to a more regular schedule posting here. It is certainly not a lack of activity that has kept things so quiet. Quite the contrary.

That said, I'll start with a post I've been mulling over for a long time...