The Other Stuff

Tubi TV Teaser from adrise on Vimeo.

Although Netflix, YouTube and other video providers offer a whole lot of stuff, I’ve often wondered where the other stuff resides, why we’re not seeing so many old TV series and movies, and why so little that is produced and distributed outside of the U.S. is offered to U.S. audiences.

TubiTV (dreadful name) is about to change that, or, at least, some of that. It’s a new video-on-demand service with about 20,000 titles in its startup library. According to Variety, “Tubi TV content partners include Starz Digital Media, Cinedigm, Shine International, Jim Henson Co., Hasbro Studios, Film Movement, ITV, Endemol, Zodiak Rights, DRG, All3Media, Kino Lorber, Korean TV network MBC and Korean studio CJ Entertainment. In addition, Tubi TV has lined up several digital content partners, which include Newslook, AP, Reuters, anime distributor Funimation, Havoc Television, ACC Digital Network, Viki, and Wochit.”

When it launches in the U.S. this summer on multiple platforms, it is expected to be free (ad-supported).



Post-CES 2014

Sony-wideIn the old days, I used to go twice a year: once to Las Vegas in the winter and once to Chicago just before summer began. There were so much to see!

This year, CES came and went, and although I wanted to be there just for the fun of it, I was surprised because I didn’t notice the usual flood of stories and cool products that I wish I had seen for myself. I suppose there are a few reasons why: many of the products of the past were driven by their own unique hardware needs, so the physical design and functionality of so many products were unique. Now, many of these innovative ideas use the same portable computer—the smart phone or the tablet—so the form factor and the functionality is less original. Often the innovative idea is iterated as software or accessory, not a whole new thing. (On the far side of this timeline, my basement is no longer quite so full of old stuff that seemed like a great idea at the time, and so, my garage sales are less frequent and less thrilling for the neighbors).

In past articles, I’ve written about the new 4K HDTVs, and now, we’re starting to see digital cameras (including a $2,000 camcorder from Sony) that can create content for the new format. New screens are curvy, which is cool, but so far, not so useful. Still, this is among the things to come that we will own within a few years—whether as part of a phone or a living room TV set.

This was supposed to be the year of the wearable computer, and that’s going kinda slowly. Pebble updated its cool smart watch, which is now smaller, heavier (but still okay), and comes with twice the memory (4MB up to 8MB). For details about this Bluetooth device, and a taste of other wearable devices from the same company, be sure to read a very helpful article on The Verge. Their article about Razer’s Nabu wristband is also interesting, perhaps more as a trend report than a piece about something you’ll be buying this summer; ditto for the backgrounder about Nuance, which is bringing Siri-like technology to wristbands another small devices.

Sony A5000Happily, Sony is beginning to regain some of its juice. The image that tops this article is a fun piece about Sony’s CES presentation using 4K technology and a fair amount of hands-on creativity. The company will introduce a new short-throw HDTV projector this summer that will allow, for example, useful projection onto tabletops (though what I really want is the touch-screen desktop surface used on Hawaii Five-O). Sony’s still cameras (which shoot video, of course) are becoming more and more impressive—and smaller. New to the line is the A5000, but if you haven’t checked out the RX-100, I encourage you to do. It’s my favorite camera (right now, anyway).

Lots of heat re: 3D printing, which is increasingly ready for prime time. Once again, The Verge does a superior job in explaining what this technology is all about, what happened at CES, and why this may become important to you in 2014. For example:

Unsurprisingly, everyone at the CES 3D printer zone thinks that consumer-level 3D printing is on the cusp of something big. “It’s just kind of a whole ecosystem that has to be built up, and it’s kind of slowly growing out,” says Abdullah. “I don’t think we’ve hit that tipping point obviously, but I think that we will get there soon.” Chang describes 2014 as “like the year when the Apple II came out.”

Yes, TV sets will become that much larger, and digital cameras will become that much smaller. More of us will be wearing digital wristbands of some sort, no doubt communicating with one another or with some super server as we track what we eat or where we go or how thoroughly we exercise. Somehow, with each passing miracle, these seem to be less newsworthy. And yet, it’s fun to see what the latest Jawbone portable Bluetooth loudspeaker can do, or how successfully Beats is invading popular culture (now with its own music service). So we are we not all completely crazy about the potential of 3D printing or wall-sized video projections? Because we’ve got a 5MP phone in one pocket and a tablet that’s much smarter than most of NASA’s old school gear in the hand that used to tote around a MacBook Pro but doesn’t anymore because that’s just too heavy or too much of a pain to connect using the smart phone’s portable internet hub. We’ve become so sophisticated, everything exciting seems commonplace, or predictable.

Me, I think I preferred the naiveté and twice-annual festival of wonder.

The Future is Ours to Lose

And in exchange for free internet searches, discounts on books and other merchandise, posting pictures of family and friends, and playing games, we’re giving it away. Giving away our means to earn a living. Giving away our privacy and most personal information. Giving away copyright protection, our health care data, our time. Making large companies and internet entrepreneurs wealthy. Waving goodbye to economic opportunities that could, in the mind of non-economist but future thinker Jaron Lanier in a creepily fascinating book called Who Owns the Future. From the book jacket, a clear explanation of a complicated book:

Lanier asserts that the rise of digital networks led our economy into recession and decimated the middle class…In this ambitious and deeply humane book, Lanier charts the path toward a new information economy that will stabilize the middle class and allow it to grow. It is time for ordinary people to be rewarded for what they do and share on the web.”

futureukuscomboCertainly, creative professionals have seen new opportunities, but many jobs have disappeared, crumbled, or become so easy for amateurs to do, there is little perceived need for professional work. Two examples: illustration and another is photography. What about people who drive for a living? Lanier: “A great portion of the global middle classes works behind a wheel. Many have entered middle-class life as a taxi driver or truck driver. It’s hard to imagine a world without commercial drivers. A traditional entry ramp into economic sustenance for fresh arrivals to big cities like New York would be gone. Wave after wave of middle class immigrants drove New York taxis. And I’m trying to imagine the meeting when someone tries to explain to the Teamsters that nothing like their services will ever be needed again.” You see this in the battles between the everyone-can-be-a-cabbie service Uber and the people who actually make their living by moving people.  Soon, cars will move without drivers. Lanier: “Both cabbies and truckers have managed to build up levees…they’ll be able to delay the change…there might be a compromise in which a Teamster or cabbie sits there passively, along for the ride, perhaps to man a failsafe button…the world of work behind the wheel will drain away in a generation.”

Lanier: “What about liberal arts professors at a state college. Some academic will hang on, but the prospects are grim if education is seduced by the Siren song… The future of “free” will beckon. Get educated for free now! But don’t plan on a job as an educator.”

Lanier’s Siren server combines a Siren’s song with a server that collects information, provides appealing benefits, and causes tremendous destruction as it is managed by a wealthy few. The Siren server is portrayed as a monster stomping the life out of everything in its path. Health care? Empathetic robots empowered by Big Blue’s encyclopedic database of knowledge, the processing speed of a digital chess champion, and unbelievably precise motor skills. The list goes on.

So what’s to be done? It’s tough for anyone to survive in the modern world with a “just say no to the Siren servers!” philosophy. So much relies upon credit cards, EZ-Pass, Android, and, yes, Netflix (now my most-used television “channel”). What’s more, there’s the “Pervasive Creepy Conundrums: online security, privacy, and identity.”

Lanier builds his case for divergence with a disheartening disclaimer: he cannot explain the idea simply. In fact, he can, and somehow, his editor did not delete most of chapters 16-20 because they take too long to set up a very good, very simple idea: two-way links. He appropriately credits an early home computing visionary, Ted Nelson, whose name may be familiar because he was the guy who originated HyperCard, which Ars Technica describes in a wonderful article entitled “25 years of HyperCard—the missing link to the Web.”

hypercard_tutorial_posterLet’s continue down that path: “The foundational idea of humanist computing is that provenance is valuable. Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for value they contribute that can be sent or stored on a digital network.” I agree. For more about why and how I agree, see my recent articles about Google Books.

Simply: “If two-way linking had been in place, a homeowner would have known who had leveraged the mortgage, and a musician would have known who had copied his music.”

Lanier is right: That changes everything!

It’s a complicated fix, a change in the architecture of so many things digital, but it’s worth the shift. Here’s a straightforward example of why: “When you buy a physical book, you can resell it at will…” It is yours to own, sell, repurpose. “You can get the author to sign it, to make it more meaningful to you, and to increase its value.” With an eBook, you have only purchased “tenuous” rights within “someone else’s company store.” And so, “Your decision space is reduced.” It’s just not a fair deal. What’s more, this kind of thinking leads to the kinds of big company, big brother control that makes nobody comfortable (and few people wealth).

Lanier’s theory about “commercial symmetry” places everyone—companies and individuals, governments and other institutions—on a level playing field. Rules apply in both directions. People’s rights are not reduced. There is fair play. I am not required to subsidize ESPN on my cable bill; I don’t watch, and probably will never watch, most of the cable channels that I am required to fund each month. We’re trying to do something like this with health care—patient rights and all of that—but the health care system is not likely to share information about its economics. Students are graded by teachers, but (most of the time), teachers are not graded by students or (much of the time) by their employers or the larger body of taxpayers who fund their salaries, benefits and pensions.

Still, there is that looming question: is the value that we provide to, say, EZ-Pass or Netflix, transferable to real income for individuals who must earn a living. If Netflix discounted its services in exchange the data that we provide, would that result in more or less employment overall? Less, I suspect—but I’m operating within a present-day reality, and if we’ve learned anything from the future’s past, paradigm shifts change all of the rules.

Lanier probably doesn’t have the answers, but he writes in a way that makes you think, and he ignites meaningful conversations like this one. Smart guy, interesting book.


Human Bodies and Wearable Computers

So let’s say you’re Leonardo Da Vinci, inventor and artist. You’ve been hired by Google, Apple, Samsung, or some other tech company to create computers that will be (a) useful and (b) worn by most of the people most of the time. Where are you going to put that computer?

So let’s say you’re Leonardo Da Vinci, inventor and artist. You’ve been hired by Google, Apple, Samsung, or some other tech company to create computers that will be (a) useful and (b) worn by most of the people most of the time. Where are you going to put that computer?

I don’t envy the designers responsible for the next digital revolution: wearable computers. Mostly, the human body is poorly suited for the attachment of devices. Google Glass makes sense for the (I’m guessing) fifty percent of people who wear eyeglasses, but why would the other half decide to wear them? To see in the internet 24/7? Seems like a shaky argument. Hats make sense, but only under limited circumstances. Earphones are a good idea, especially if they’re worn on a headband covering both ears, or hooked over the ear. Those that simply plug into the ear are always falling out, or dangling a cord in an awkward way. To work properly, they must either cover the entire ear (muff-style), or include noise cancellation technology. Belts are a not-bad way to hang stuff, as we’ve discovered with belt-packs for cell phones. Ankle and wrist bracelets make sense, in part for law enforcement (both ankle monitors and handcuffs), and also for decorative jewelry and wristwatches.

If you’re designing wearable stuff, and the stuff requires a screen to be seen by human eyes, or to be within the range of human voice, options are very limited. Perhaps attach something to the face, but that’s awkward. Wrists are better because whatever it is can worn as a kind of jewelry, or hidden under long sleeves, or made small enough to be noticeable only upon closer inspection.

I suppose that’s why Apple, Samsung, and what will probably be a dozen other manufacturers have jumped on the wrist as the new place for humans to carry their increasingly small computers. Apple kind-of, sort-of tried this once before with the nifty little square iPad Nano, and, of course, Casio’s digital watches, tiny keyboards included, were iconic 1980s gadgetry (for a rundown on the history of digital watches, click here).

All of this raises an interesting question: if a watch could be very, very smart and very, very capable, what might we want it to do? Tell time—that’s the obvious one. It’s probably reasonable to assume that a watch, when held close to the mouth or the ear, could double as a phone. This makes more sense to me with a Bluetooth headphone; external noise would probably make phone calls difficult to hear for both the sending and receiving parties. Casio used to use the watch as a calculator, but the buttons were always too tiny, and so was the display. Do I want to watch a video on my watch? Probably not. Listen to music? Sure, but again, I would need a headset. Pedometer? Sure, and that was part of the appeal of the little Apple Nano (which could be attached to a wristband). What if the little watch was a WiFi device with a connection to the cloud? Then, I might be able to receive a Netflix film and send it over to any specially-equipped projector. Cool idea, but I’m not so sure that I want the signal running through my body for two hours. Find my phone? Sure, why not? Dictation machine? Okay, but there’s that sound issue to be wrestled by designers. Do I need a smart watch? Well, let’s take a look at Samsung Galaxy Gear Smart Watch, in part to understand what is now available at the likes of Best Buy, and also to predict what Apple will try to do just that much better when it releases something that might be called an iWatch in 2014.

Samsung_watchLet’s deal with the “of course” list first: it displays the time, offers a stopwatch and an alarm clock. It can be used as a phone. It’s a remote control for your nearby phone or tablet so you can start and stop and choose music. It can find your device if you’ve lost it. You can take pictures (1.9 megapixel camera, and it also shoots bits of video). It displays text messages and Tweets. There are bits of a Facebook timeline, and promise of more apps (inevitably) that will display news, sports, and other data.

What else? Well, there will be apps. Apps for your phone, apps for your tablet, apps for you computer, apps for your smart television, and now, apps for your watch (soon: apps for your car, too). This is the promised land: the gee-wiz app that makes everybody wonder how it was possible to live even a single day without a very smart watch.

For more details about Samsung’s watch, read David Pogue’s story in the New York Times.

It’s still early days. This watch is only half the story: you must pair it with a Samsung Galaxy phone or tablet, and so far, only one of each of these is compatible with the new watch.

So there are two rather obvious hurdles. First, there isn’t much that I want or need my watch to do in the 21st century. Second, not many people wear watches these days because they carry cell phones that tell the time.

I think we all want to see something surprising and magical that changes our perception of technology and its relationship with the human body. Somehow, designers must  figure out how to make the wrist digital because that’s so very difficult to do on the head. There are many easier jobs.

Your New Digicar Subscription

Ford Model T, circa 1910. Buy it for $850 or rent it for 10 cents a mile.

Ford Model T, circa 1910. By 1916, you could buy one for $850 or rent one for 10 cents a mile.

Robotic cars that drive themselves–that’s the comic book version of the future currently in advanced stages of development at Google, Mercedes-Benz, and, I would guess, just about every significant vehicle and technology maker on earth. Before the end of the 2020s, these cars will be as common as a Toyota Prius. In theory, cars that drive themselves will reinvigorate the automotive industry.

But that’s not the big story.

For a moment, think about your telephone(s). In your pocket or bag, you carry an expensive digital multi-purpose device that multitasks as a telephone, messaging center, emailer, web browser, camera, clock… so on. At home, you may still pay for a relatively stupid device that is little more than an old school telephone. Which one will go away? Easy answer.

Now, transpose that thinking to the car of the future. It’s foolish to impose old expectations on a new paradigm. A digital car will probably reinvent the whole idea of cars as well as our relationship with personal vehicles. We saw the start of this idea with rental cars. ZipCars showed up in the US around 2000, an idea borrowed from Europe. City dwellers and college students are Zip’s best customers because the opportunity to pay a membership fee for occasional use of a car is more sensible than owning, maintaining, parking, and otherwise caring for a physical product. In essence, ZipCar transfers the customer relationship from product purchase to service/subscription.

From last weekend’s Wall Street Journal:

Brace yourself. In a few years, your car will be able to drop you off at the door of a shopping center or airport terminal, go park itself, and return when summoned with a smartphone app.”

Presumably, the new cars won’t crash–saving enough lives to repopulate Newport, Rhode Island or Key West, Florida every year, and then some.

From the same WSJ article:

private vehicles spend 90% of their time parked and unoccupied

Let’s pull together several ideas. Texting while driving is just plain dumb. And yet, for most people, driving a car is less interesting than playing with an iPhone. If there was some way to move from place to place and allow texting (or emailing, playing a game, or learning), that might be preferable to our 2013 status quo. Me, I’m happier reading a book than doing daily battle with aggressive trucks exceeding the interstate’s speed limit. Let my digicar’s radar system, wide-baseline stereoscopic camera, massive processing power (think: computer chess applied to the calculus of high-speed traffic or crazy curvy country roads). Let vehicles talk to one another (“hey, I’m in the wrong lane–would you please slow down so that I can make that right hand turn coming 2.348 feet at longitude X and latitude Y?” “sure, anytime, have a nice day”)

How does EZ-Pass and privacy fit into all of this? For those who still honestly believe that their travels are not easily recorded, stored and compared with every shopping receipt, it’s both another loss of freedom and another realization that privacy is something that one cannot easily or simply protect in a digital age. Certainly, this information could become the property of bad people (or governments or large corporations, who may or may not define ‘reasonable’ as individuals do).

A digital car would certainly know where it is going, where it has been, and where it needs to go. And it would know, and record, passenger identities. When traveling, we’ve been balancing time, money and privacy for a long time. Here’s the current situation–consider how similar a digicar service and the “rental” of your airline seat can be:

If I want to travel from Times Square to Hollywood, I can drive for about 40 hours (more, if there’s traffic, but my digicar might know how to circumvent it). If I drive 8 hours/day, that’s 5 days of driving, 4 hotel nights (about $500), and 2,800 miles (100 gallons of gas, or about $400 worth), plus wear-and-tear of about $200 (if all goes well)–5 days of my life plus over a $1,000 of my money. I could take the train for 20 hours and spend about $450, but if I want to sleep on the train, it’s 43 hours and $1,200, plus the time and money required to get to and from the train stations. If I fly, my time expense is about 8 hours door-to-door and my dollar expense is $500 including ground transportation. Train and air travel requires me to surrender personal information about my identity and my precise travel plans; car travel does not (except when I use a credit card to fill the tank, which I will do about 8 times, pay a toll with EZ-Pass, or sleep in a hotel, or eat, making it easy to track my progress).

A long paragraph for a short idea: we routinely exchange privacy for time and money. Are we ready to surrender those expensive machines that sit idle all but 10% of their lives. Is the car of the future more likely to be a product (buy one at your local Ford dealer) or a service (lease one with an app, or sign up for a rental subscription service).

The answer is pretty clear to me. After the vehicle drops me off at the supermarket, I don’t much care what it does or where it goes, and, in most situations, I don’t  care whether it’s Holly, Dolly, Lolly, Molly or Folly The Digital Car that picks me up when I’m ready to go home. I just want to know that it will be there, on time, clean, reliable, capable, and right-sized for my needs (smaller if I have no bags). If I need the car for an extended period, I’m sure I could pay a higher subscription rate, perhaps by the month or year, perhaps by the trip. Will I be able to reserve? Will the vehicle show up? What if we get lost? What if there aren’t enough cars?

How many cars is enough cars? Right now, we’ve got about a billion cars for about seven billion people on planet earth–but that’s only because China’s ratio is about 7 people to one vehicle (in the US, it’s about 1.3 people per car).

More cars, more roads, more paved-over nature, more crowded national parks, more traffic jams, more stress on an interstate infrastructure that’s already stressed. Fewer cars? How about more efficient use of the whole idea of cars? Think about my imperfect math: if every car’s use was doubled in its efficiency, and was used 50% of the time, maybe we could reduce the number of cars on the planet by a third or more. If the cars were smart enough to avoid accidents, there would be no more time or energy spent on drinking and driving, or texting while driving, and no more arguments between teenagers who are probably too young to drive and parents who are terrified every time their child backs up out of the driveway.

For details about specific companies and their progress, click on the Wall Street Journal’s car below.


Shooting with an iPhone


So the new iPhone 5s includes an 8 megapixel camera. What can you do with a camera phone?

Turns out, quite a lot, especially if you happen to be an extremely skillful photographer whose credits include National Geographic.

Confirming the “it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer” theory, have a look at this work, read the article, and take the time to read the comments.

Here, then, is a sample image, a bit of the article in a Nat Geo blog, and a sampling of comments. Find it all here.

The photographer is Jim Richardson.

What surprised me most was that the pictures did not look like compromises. They didn’t look like I was having to settle for second best because it was a mobile phone. They just looked good. Nothing visually profound is being produced here, I would have to say. But it feels good, and I even noticed some of the folks on our tour putting big digital cameras aside once in a while and pulling out their cell phones when they just wanted to make a nice picture.

Alex of Virtual had this to say:

Not a fan of the either or approach that has been floating around, but definitely love the flexibility of using my phone as a camera. Scotland is incredibly difficult to photograph, so kudos for some wonderful shots. I actually find that with some vistas and views I have a much easier time capturing it accurately with my phone than my Canon. Interestingly, there were a number of shots I took on a recent Scottish roadtrip that were much better on the iphone (landscapes and Panoramas really are great on there if the light is right) than on my dSLR. Kudos!

Not quite convinced? Try the photographer’s Instagram exhibit, where you will find several dozen superb photographs. Among them, this image.


Surface Is Resurfacing

You may recall Microsoft’s Surface–kinda looks like an iPad, but it’s a real Windows 8 computer in a very thin portable package. As an iPad user, I am jealous of the Surface’s nicely designed flat keyboard, and the way it’s built into the iPad-like front cover of the device.  I like the way Windows 8 looks, but the story fell apart for me when I realized that so much of Windows 8 is, sadly, a lot like Windows 7, which was too much like earlier versions of Windows for me to switch back to the Microsoft side.

Surface2-ProWell, it may be time to reconsider. The new Surface 2 and Surface 2 Pro are coming, There’s a new metallic look that brings the device into the iPad category, at least in terms of the way it looks and feels. Think in terms of a MacBook Air when you consider that the SSD drive (the solid state drive) can be upgraded to 500 GB, and the Haswell (same as Air) processor is fast, efficient, and gentle on battery life. It costs nearly a thousand dollars ($899, and that’s not fully loaded)–seems a bit high to me–but it comes with some free cloud storage, and a free year of international Skype calling, which may turn this into a terrific deal for some users. (The ordinary Surface 2 has lesser specs and costs about half as much, still quite a bargain for someone who adores Windows 8, full computer functionality and an iPad-style form factor).

The “Touch Cover” is much improved, too, with many more sensors for an experience that feels both more reliable and more like a true computer keyboard. Given the price of the whole device, I think the cover should be part of the package, and not a $100+ add-on. At perhaps twice the price (price not yet announced), here’s something very cool: a Power Cover–that is, a Touch Cover with a built-in battery supply that you can use to nearly double the computer’s own battery supply. Very nifty idea.

And, there’s a dock with a USB 3.0 jack, and so on. Gee, I wish there was something just like that for an iPad–sometimes! At other times, I find myself quite happy with the well-designed, deeply limited range of options for the iPad. It does what it does, it does the job about 98% of the time, and it’s both reliable and easy. When I see a Windows computer anywhere nearby, “easy” is rarely a word that comes to mind, but I’m the first to admit that, after decades of life as an Apple guy, I may not be seeing things clearly.

If you’d like to know more about the new Surface products–the Surface 2 and the Surface Pro 2, try these stories:

Tech Crunch: Meet Microsoft’s Surface 2 and Surface 2 Pro

The Verge:  Hands-on with Microsoft’s New Tablet Powerhouse

PC Magazine: Microsoft Surface 2 vs. iPad Showdown

USA Today: Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2: So Right But So Wrong


Comparing the New iPhones

compare_iphone5ccompare_iphone5sApple certainly knows how to generate buzz. They introduce two new telephones, and the internet lights up.

Today’s big news is the new iPhone 5s, a more powerful computer in the same small-sized box. The chip is now an A7, far more sophisticated, and faster. Why should you care? If you play games on the phone, serious games with adventurous graphics, you will see more detail, more fluid movement, and the kind of sophistication you’re accustomed to seeing on, say, an iMac. If you’re an avid iPhone photographer, you’ll find that autofocus is quicker, and that frame rates for video are faster. Of course, the overall operation of the phone-as-computer is snappier, more efficient, more energy efficient, too. There’s a sexy fingerprint sensor, too. And there’s a more natural flash.

Both phones now include an 8MB camera.

The 5c is designed for fun–it really is a cool-looking phone. It costs about $100 less than the 5c, and it comes in five colors. Aside from the processor (here, it’s an A6, which is still quite powerful), and the lack of a fingerprint sensor (some people will need one, some won’t), it’s very similar to the more expensive model.

For those whose iPhone 4 was beginning to look and feel a bit old, it’s now time to refresh the phone with a new one. For those with an iPhone 5, it may be wise to wait because there’s nothing here–aside from gaming speed and a better camera–that would compel a shift. Nice to have, not essential.

Apple has succeed with their iPad cases, so they’ve picked up the concept here, too. You can buy a nifty plastic case, in colors, for the 5s, or nice leather cases for the 5c.

For a closer look at features, similarities and differences, check the Apple comparison page.

So that’s the quick scoop. I’m sure you’ll see another hundred articles about the phones by morning, but I was curious for myself, and thought I’d share my notes with you.

Wallet, Cash, Phone, Keys – What Did I Forget?

OLED technology allows for flexible phone design. For more, click on the link to read a good article in TechWhiz.

OLED technology allows for flexible phone design. For more, click on the link to read a good article in TechWhiz.

It’s 2013. Why are we still asking that question? Why are we still messing around with credit cards and driver’s licenses, house keys and office keys, and so much more. No need. Not any more. It’s time for somebody to invent one slim, pocketable slab that takes care of everything. Here’s my plan. Feel free to patent it and make a fortune. As I’ve thought about this–a perfect thing to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon–I’ve come to realize that the elimination of my wallet may, in fact, provide the necessary tipping point for several large industries.

How big should it be? When cell phones became very popular, the coolest ones, like Motorola’s Razr, were about the size of a credit card, and maybe four times as thick. (I just checked Wikipedia: Razr was about 4 inches high, 2 inches wide, and about a half inch thick; a credit card is about 3 1/4 inches tall.) I think that’s a good basic size because it’s so pocketable.

On one side, I think I’d want a touch-senstive display that could also respond to my voice commands. The display probably uses OLED technology so that it is flexible, and easily expanded or reshaped. On the other, I want solar cells so that I can recharge the phone whenever I am near sunlight.

Pretty much, that’s the design. Add the usual extras: camera lens, flash, microphone (detachable for some advanced Bluetooth use and stow-able within the device so it doesn’t get lost, and can be charged with the unit), speaker, AC adapter of some sort.

Can I leave my wallet and other stuff at home? Or toss it all in the trash?

Yes, but not immediately.

Let me go through my wallet first. Just about everything is associated with data–credit card or debit card, both about to go the way of the drive-in movie theater and the men’s handkerchief. My AAA membership card, health care card, drug card, and public library card can all go away; they are nothing more than physical manifestations of an account number. Pictures of my dog, and, oh right, my family, all are printed versions of digital images.  Okay, fine, I no longer need the wallet. Except for the part that, so far, Google has not been able to build a viable digital wallet business–and neither has anyone else. (The reasons: lack of public acceptance for Near Field technology [NFC], and the control exercised by the credit card companies.)

How about cash? Really, I use it only at the local farmer’s market or for a quick slice of pizza. If everybody else is using data instead of cash, I will too. So let’s just make the decision, together: no more cash or coins!

Presumably, the phone is the easiest one to eliminate. Do I need a separate wallet and phone? Nope. If I can combine a phone and a camera and an email system and VPN access, I can certainly live without a standalone phone. Gone!

Keys! There’s the problem. Yes, I have a digital key to my office. It’s the smallest thing on my keychain. Car keys are already digital, but they still resemble keys. A truly reliable digital lock, sufficiently inexpensive to serve consumer needs, remains just a few steps in the future. Recently, Gizmodo reported on a company called SmartLocks: “August is the lock that requires no key, only an invitation…” The video, below, lays out the plan.

For those who travel often, the old concept of a Passport that’s the size of an old savings passbook needs some rethinking. It should be digital, but that probably introduces all sorts of opportunities for bad guys. (Though it’s difficult to imagine how a larger vs. smaller passport would matter much.)

So what are we missing? Real-world stuff, I suppose. A few weeks back, I wrote about the real world (fun to do that, from time to time, on a blog that’s called Digital Insider) and explored the usefulness of multi-tools. It turned out to be my most popular blog article of all time, so I’m pretty sure we’ll keep those around for awhile. Which means we will still require pockets, or belt loops, or some other way to carry stuff around.

Still, wouldn’t it be nice, just once, to leave the house without asking the dog, “do you have any idea where I put my keys?” Assuming the dog’s chip is working properly (let’s assume every dog would have one; many already do), he or she would simply cause your phone to ring, which would allow you to grab your keys and your money and your flashlight and your phone on the way to the veterinarian’s office. To which the dog might bark–”aren’t you forgetting something?”

Tools for the Real (Non-Digital) World


Leatherman Micra, described below

For several years, I’ve carried a small Leatherman everywhere I go. When I lost it for the second time (first time: airport security; second time, no idea where it went), I decided to learn more about the whole “multi-tool” concept.

I suppose the story begins with the Swiss Army Knife, which was, when I was eleven years old, one of the coolest things that you could carry in your pocket. In those days, a good blade and a few accessories was useful, especially during Boy Scout Camp. For a long time, I didn’t carry much of anything besides a nail clipper, but that changed with serious business travel, and the inevitable need for a small pair of pliers, a knife, a pair of tweezers for a miscellany of small tasks that were completely unimportant until they became, you know, essential.

Gerber's Epic: drop pointed, sheathed, and serrated. Very popular.

Gerber’s Epic: drop pointed, sheathed, and serrated. Very popular.

As I began exploring possible replacements for my lost Leatherman Micra, I discovered a small sub-culture of multi-tool fans. I was easily engaged at Eastern Mountain Sports and L.L. Bean stores as the salesperson and I obsessed about the various features of contemporary multi-tools. I found, a fan website that includes reviews of multi-tools made by SOG, Wegner, Victorinox, Leatherman, and perhaps most intriguing, Gerber. When the conversation turned to Gerber, each salesperson spoke with a kind of reverence–but not for their multi-tools, I later learned. Gerber is a distinguished maker of small knives, and, in case you’ve been spending a little too much time staring at a computer screen, you probably know that knives have become very popular. Gerber’s new hot knife is part of their Survival series–it’s called the Bear Grylls. You’ll be happy to know that Gerber also sells a multi-knife kit that they call the Apocalypse Survival Kit; it contains seven knives, including a small machete, and it costs about $350.

My needs are more modest. I need a small tool to carry everywhere, and a medium sized tool to carry most places. Sure, I use a pocket knife from time to time, but for me, a machete would probably be, well, overkill. As I asked around–I think I interviewed a dozen salespeople who knew their tools for this story–every single person recommended Leatherman. Why? They’re built beautifully, they last forever, and they get the job done. They’re also designed so that they’re easy to use, properly balanced, and less likely to be the cause of an accident due to odd placement of blades, openers or closures (I had some scary experiences in stores with lesser designs from other companies).

Leatherman-XE6Despite the fact that my son pokes fun, I do like my purple-colored (yes, they come in colors) Leatherman Juice XE6. Look around the Leatherman website and you’ll find multi-tools of every size and shape, including some large enough to hang off a real tool belt, and some small enough for a keychain. The Juice is about the size of a good Swiss Army Knife, and although it’s listed as “Pocket Size,” it may be a little heavy for the average pocket. There are several Juice models. The XE6 has more tools and accessories than most. Here’s the rundown:

  • a pair of needle-nose pliers that double as both regular gripping pliers and also as a small wire cutter/stripper;
  • a 2 1/2 inch pocket knife with a blade that’s long enough for many small tasks;
  • a serrated knife that doubles as a small saw; a very small pair of scissors that turns out to be surprisingly versatile;
  • a wood saw, useful for small jobs;
  • a diamond file that I’ve used for everything from fingernails to unsmooth furniture corners (I know it can handle more rugged jobs, too);
  • an unlikely quartet of screwdriver heads (the body of the multi-tool doubles as shank and handle), including extra small, small, medium, and Philips;
  • a corkscrew, bottle opener, and can opener;
  • and an awl, which is more useful than it may seem upon first glance.

By Leatherman’s count, there are 18 tools on this 6.4 ounce multi-tool. That’s not quite the most tools on any Leatherman product, but it’s awfully close (there are 21 on the Surge, but it’s much larger and weighs twice as much). There are more than a dozen different Leatherman multi-tool models, and it’s great fun to explore the whole line on their website.

I know that 6 ounces doesn’t sound like much, but there are many times when I just need some basics in a small package. That’s what led me, initially, to the Leatherman Micra, and I’m now using my third one. With lots of useful tools (10 in all) in a very small package (it can hang on a keychain, but the keys usually get in the way), the Micra is large enough to be handled as a useful, practical tool:

  • Scissors
  • Nail file and nail cleaner (you know, the hooky thing at the end of a nail file), plus a small pair of tweezers;
  • A pocket knife (with a 1.6 inch blade)
  • Extra-small, medium, and flat Phillips screwdrivers
  • A ruler with markings etched on the outside of the tool
  • Bottle opener

Overall, my needs are fairly pedestrian, but it’s good to know that I have what I need nearby. I am intrigued by some of the newer tools, but tools are not toys, and there’s no good reason to collect them. Still, the likes of the Skeletool (and similar models from Gerber and others) are intriguing, perhaps for another day.

The Leatherman Skeletool.

The Leatherman Skeletool.

By the way: if you become serious about purchasing, trying to figure out which tool comes as part of which multi-tool becomes mighty confusing. Use the comparison tool and you’ll save yourself a lot of time.

One more thing: for those traveling on airlines, note that the current U.S. TSA policy does not permit sharp objects of any kind. Several months ago, blades of a certain length were okay, but now (probably due to the Boston incident), the rules are again very limited. Just be aware, and check before you fly because your tool maybe confiscated at the security checkpoint.


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