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.

Lanier

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.

WSJ Car

Shooting with an iPhone

richardson-featured

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 Wayfarer.com 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.

instagram

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

Micra

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 multitool.org, 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.

Thoughts on Mobile, Part Three: Connecting Dots 4, 5, 6

Yesterday’s post ran long, so I decided to cut it in half. Here’s the rest of it, or the third in a series of two articles. (Something like that…)

A group video call on Skype.

A group video call on Skype.

Dot #4: Connectivity and Sharing. Here in the 21st century, we demand not only connectivity but sharing of information in real time. We fall short in whiteboard-type environments where we can see ideas and people simultaneously, and when we do, the interaction is sub-par, but this will steadily improve through Skype, Google, and new ventures. All portable devices must connect anywhere, at any time–this is a shortcoming of some apps (Evernote, for example) and some devices (most portable computers, unless a separate wireless hot spot is generated by a nearby cell phone). This is foolish retro-thinking. The next generation of computers, tablets, all devices should include built-in connectivity for WiFi, 3G, 4G, and so on. Fortunately, these devices and their related systems work very well. And, fortunately, the technology is constantly improving to allow more throughput, faster speeds, fewer problems, and increased security. What we don’t have quite yet is a kind of super-DropBox where it’s easy to share any document on any device, regardless of whether it’s in the cloud or on a specific device. VPN (Virtual Private Network) technology resembles a solution, but what we need is a more robust, full-featured, easy-to-use system. I suspect Apple and Google are hard at work developing something to do this job–they’re already on the way with Google Docs and the new iWork set for release later this year.

illo_newworld

Dot #5: Output. This one is confusing. I own an iPad which doesn’t do well in an environment where printed documents are the standard. Most printers won’t talk to a tablet–though some now have email addresses for that purpose (yes, some printers have email addresses–seems confusing, I know). When I was using a portable computer, I often printed documents. With the tablet, I find myself storing documents and reading them on the tablet’s screen. Far less printing. Almost none, in fact. My output is, typically, an email to someone who wants or needs to read something I wrote. I do print some documents for reference, but printed documents are difficult to revise, so I tend to focus on digital copies. The file folder in my briefcase were once filled with paper, but now, not so much. Even handwritten notes are being replaced by the notes that I take on the tablet–when they’re in Evernote, they’re very easily shared with my other devices and with other people via email or shared settings.

Dot #6: Portable. For me, this means the device goes just about everywhere I go. In that regard, the iPhone (any smartphone, really) is a suitable solution, if one with a too-small screen. There is access to web and email, phone, messaging, internet, iWork documents, Evernote, the list goes on. The tablet does not go everywhere because it’s a little too big, even for someone like me who is rarely seen outside my home without a shoulder bag. There’s some minor conflict here about size: the phone ought to be larger, the iPad needs to be both small enough to carry everywhere (the iPad Mini) but large enough to provide a full page of printed material or to create diagrams or word processing documents or spreadsheets or presentations (the iPad full-size model). At first, I was sure I would need a keyboard, so I bought one and thought I’d carry it everywhere. I don’t. In fact, I use the portable keyboard only when I have a lot of writing to do away from home–not so often, as it turns out.

How long does the device need to run between recharges? Eight hours seems pretty reasonable, more is nice.

GoalZero's external solar charger is convenient, but this technology should be built into every portable device.

GoalZero’s external solar charger is convenient, but this technology should be built into every portable device.

Any accessories required, as one might carry with a portable computer? Absolutely not.

One further notion about portability: the device must be easily used anywhere. With an iPad or tablet of sufficient size, that’s anywhere at all, standing, sitting, lying down. With a portable computer, a desktop surface makes the process so much more comfortable–though some people can work with the computer on their lap (I need a fat pillow to do that, and the computer tends to slide around). The tablet can be raised or lowered to adjust for eye position and lighting; this is difficult to do with a portable computer.

Of course, everyone’s needs are different, and some people use their portable device as a power tool. For most users, I suspect this is overkill–just like a gigantic SUV might be for local grocery runs and soccer practice.

What’s next? I think we’ll see keyboards becoming vestigial, and improved touch screens as the standard for portable devices. I know the devices will become faster, contain more storage, offer better screens and longer battery power, and we all know that prices will remain quite low, but will slowly rise. There will be more pocketable devices, and attempts to move away from a traditional flat screen. OLED technology, for example, allows a screen to roll up for storage. This will be the next frontier, worthy because the size of the screen is the key determinant for portability. Once that dot becomes more flexibly defines, all of the other dots line up in support. That’s the longer-term future.

itri-6-inch-color-flexible-amoled-img_assist-300x315

For the shorter-term future, I’d look to combining my tablet and phone into a single device that works and plays nicely with a more powerful computer (which will also evolve) in my home or office.

And what about power? Since they can be charged almost anywhere, I like solar cells. They’re small, flat, and becoming affordable. I also like charging mats. AC adapters are probably unavoidable, but better batteries make them less essential.

Sorry for the long post, and for the multiple parts. This was interesting to write, so I just kept going.

Thoughts on Mobile, Part Two: Connecting Dots

Dot #1: Input. In order to operate any sort of computer, you need to provide it with the information floating around in your brain.

Dot #2: Display. In order to process the information that you’re pouring into the computer, you need to see, hear, or otherwise sense your work-in-progress.

Dot #3: Storage. Whatever you input and display, you need to be able to keep it, and, change it. Also, it would be best if there was a second copy, preferably somewhere safe.

Dot #4: Connection and Sharing. Seems as though every 21st century device needs to be able to send, receive, and share information, often in a collaborative way.

Dot #5: Output. In some ways, this concept is losing relevance. Once displayed, stored and shared, the need to generate anything beyond a screen image is beginning to seem very twentieth century. But it’s still around and it needs to be part of the package.

Dot #6: Portable. Truly portable devices must be sufficiently small and lightweight, serve the other needs in dots 1-5, and also, carry or collect their own power, preferably sufficient for a full day’s (or a full week’s use) between refueling stops.

Let’s take these ideas one at a time and see where the path leads.

Dot #1: Input. Basically, the “man-machine” interface can be achieved in about five different mays. Mostly, these days, we use our hands, and in particular, our fingertips, and to date, this has served us well both on keyboards (which require special skill and practice, but seem to keep pace with the speed of thinking in detail), and on touch screens (which are not yet perfect, but tend to be surprisingly good if the screen is large enough). ThinkGeek sells a tiny Bluetooth projector that displays a working keyboard on any surface.

20130616-213558.jpg

There is the often under-rated Wacom tablets, which use a digital pen, but this, like a trackpad, requires abstract thinking–draw here, and the image appears there. It’s better, more efficient, and ultimately, probably more precise, to use a stylus directly on the display surface. So far, touch screens are the best we can do. Insofar as portable computing goes, this is probably a good thing because the combination of input (Dot #1) and display (Dot #2) reduce weight, and allow the user direct interaction with the work.

20130616-215054.jpg

This combination is becoming popular not only on tablets (and phones), but on newer touch-screen laptops, such as the HP Envy x2 (visit Staples to try similar models). The combination is useful on a computer, but more successfully deployed on a tablet because the tablet can be more easily manipulated–brought closer to the eyes, handled at convenient angles, and so on.

Moving from the fingers to other body parts, speaking with a computer has always seemed like a good idea. In practice, Dragon’s voice recognition works, as does Siri, both based upon language pattern recognition developed by Ray Kurzweil. So far, there are limitations, and most are made more challenging by the needs of of a mobile user: a not-quiet environment, the need for a reliable microphone and digital processing with superior sensitivity and selectivity, artificial intelligence superior to the auto-correct feature on mobile systems–lots to consider, which makes me think voice will be a secondary approach.

20130616-215041.jpg

Eyes are more promising. Some digital cameras read movement in the eye (retinal scanning), but it’s difficult to input words or images this way–the science has a ways to go. The intersection between Google Glass and eye movement is also promising, but early stage. Better still would be some form of direct brain output–thinking generates electrical impulses, but we’re not yet ready to transmit or decode those impulses into messages suitable for input into a digital device. This is coming, but probably not for a decade or two. Also, keep an eye on the glass industry–innovation will lead us to devices that are flexible, lightweight, and surprising in other ways.

So: the best solution, although still improving, is probably the combination tablet design with a touch-screen display, supported, as needed on an individual basis, by some sort of keyboard, mouse, stylus, or other device for convenience or precision.

(BTW: Wikipedia’s survey of input systems is excellent.)

As for display, projection is an interesting idea, but lumens (brightness) and the need for a proper surface are limiting factors. I have more confidence in a screen whose size can be adjusted. (If you’re still thinking in terms of an inflexible, rigid glass rectangle, you might reconsider and instead think about something thinner, perhaps foldable or rollable, if that’s a word.

Dot #3: Storage has already been transformed. For local storage, we’re moving away from spinning disks (however tiny) and into solid state storage. This is the secret behind the small size of the Apple MacBook Air, and all tablets. These devices demand less power, and they respond very, very quickly to every command. They are not easily swapped out for larger storage devices, but they can be easily enhanced with SD cards (size, speed, and storage capacity vary). Internal “SSD” (Solid State Device) storage will continue to increase in size and decrease in cost, so this path seems likely to be the one we follow for the foreseeable future. Add cloud storage, which is inexpensive, mostly reliable (we think), mostly private and secure (we think), the opportunity for low-cost storage for portable devices becomes that much richer. Of course, the latter requires a connection to Dot #4: Storage. Connecting these two dots is the core of Google’s Chrome strategy.

%d bloggers like this: