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.


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.


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.


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.

4K TV – Sooner Than You Think!

A few days ago, I was on the phone with the FCC and an interesting question came up. Will broadcast stations have enough over-the-air bandwidth to provide 4K service to the public? I was struck by the question because 4K is such a new idea, and because I’d never really thought about it as broadcast idea.

Compare 1080 pixels (dark green0 with 4000 pixels (red) and you get a sense of how much more picture information (resolution, detail) is available on the new 4K TV sets.

Compare 1080 pixels (dark green0 with 4000 pixels (red) and you get a sense of how much more picture information (resolution, detail) is available on the new 4K TV sets.

What’s 4K TV? It’s a much higher-resolution version of HDTV. And the first 4K TV sets are arriving soon (see below0. In order to provide all of that picture information, more data is required, which means larger storage devices, and, in order to provide that data to connected TV sets, more bandwidth is required, too. That’s the basic theory, but it’s important not to think about 4K in terms of the current systems because of that always-astonishing digital magic trick: compression. Yes, 4K requires a lot of data and a lot of bandwidth. But “a lot” is a relative term. And yes, there are new digital broadcast standards on the way. Good news for consumers and for broadcasters, who will be able to pack more and prettier program material into their TV signals, not-so-good news for broadcasters who are attempting to build a coherent strategy related to the upcoming FCC TV spectrum auction, in which many stations will trade their licenses for cash, or for the opportunity to share a channel with another broadcaster in the market.

panel2_imageAnyway… I woke up this morning to an announcement from Sony… with all sorts of enticing promises: improved detail, improved color rendition, better audio, screen mirroring so what’s on your tablet can be viewed on your new TV (albeit it in lesser detail, a service currently available to Apple users).

How much? $5,000 for the 55-inch model, and $7,000 for the 65-inch model.

What are you going to watch? Well, yeah, that’s always the problem at this stage. Here’s a terrific article about “upscaling” the currently available media, which seems to require 24x improvement. More data will require more robust local storage, and so, we move closer to a complete convergence of television, home network, home digital storage devices in sophisticated home library systems, and, perhaps far more likely, streaming solutions in their next phase: advanced versions of Netflix, Hulu, and so forth, tweaked to serve big files for 4K TV sets.

Which brings us back around to the TV station wondering about its 4K future. Sure, it’s technically possible to broadcast 4K, but in the few years remaining for the current broadcast standard, this seems fairly unlikely because (a) it will be expensive for television stations to install in their master control facilities, and (b) relatively few people will leap from their new-ish HDTVs to 4K sets in the next year or two.

Sony-4KTVDo we want or need even more resolution than 1080i HDTV sets provide? Maybe for microscopy or astrophotography or other science work that demands the highest possible resolution. Do I think ESPN is investing in a whole new 4K operation–cameras, video switcher, storage, transmission, etc. so I can watch baseball in even higher resolution. You know they are, or will soon be, doing just that. And when they do, we’ll buy the sets because, you know, people will come…

The Fourth Good Idea (The One That Works!)

Good idea #1 – On every iPad, Apple includes a slot for an SD card. That way, I can copy a file from my computer, insert it into the player without any fuss, and edit a document or watch a movie.

Didn’t happen.

Good idea #2 – Recognizing the error of its ways, Apple introduces a $30 accessory called the Camera Connection Kit. It includes two small white blocks, one of which allows the insertion of an SD card into an iPad. But only for transferring pictures. Forget about editing a Pages or Numbers file, or watching a movie.

Good idea #3 – Seagate introduces GoFlex, a lightweight, portable disk drive that connects, wirelessly, to any iPad. The secret is a wireless network created by the device; that’s how the connection to the iPad is made. The capacity is 500GB, a very healthy amount of space for all sorts of files. Unfortunately, Seagate’s interface technology proves difficult to use, and, at least for me, it seems to work less often than other devices. (Seagate has provided help, not once but several times. New Year’s Resolution: Since I love this idea, I will try again and get it right.) It costs less than $200.

AirstashGood idea #4 – Maxell introduces AirStash. It’s a small wireless network, and it worked the first time. There are three parts, well-integrated. The first is an app, clean and simple, just a list of files organized by file type (movies, etc.) The second in an SD card (up to 32GB). You insert the SD card into your computer, load it up with files, and plug it into the third part. That’s a device roughly the size of a large cigarette lighter. On one end: an SD card slot. On the other, well, nothing you need to make the connection (more on that in a moment). You find the AirStash network in the list of available wireless networks, make the connection, return to the app, and just watch the movie (or whatever it is you want to do). From time to time, you need to recharge the AirStash battery–that’s the third part, a USB plug that you insert into any computer or USB/AC adapter for the recharge.

My test device was loaded with several good films: I watched The King’s Speech and Inception, and both played flawlessly.

Sorry, but I can’t resist:

Good idea #5: AirStash is updated so that it can be used without shutting down the WiFi network that you usually use. Right now, that’s a flaw. I hope it will be fixed.

So, that’s the story. AirStash is a product that really works. And it’s simple enough that I was able to write an article about half as long as usual, simply because, well, this really is a simple product to use, and to explain. Whoever made this happen, good work! (And thank you for solving the problem that Apple never should have created in the first place!)

AirStash Phone

Here’s a look at the AirStash app for the iPhone. Simple, straightforward and intuitive.

The 21st Century Pen

Great idea no. 1: pull a quill, dip it in ink, and write on parchment. The idea lasted about a thousand years.

Great idea no. 2: figure out how the ink can be contained within the pen. After a century or so of experimentation, mass production of fountain pens began in the  1880s.

Great idea no. 3: the ballpoint pen goes on sale in 1945.

Almost great idea no. 4: LiveScribe, a pen that remembers what you wrote, when you wrote it.

LiveScribe is, in fact, the brand name for several smart pens. The one I tried called is the Echo. Several Echo models are available for about $125-250; the difference between them is the amount of internal memory.  As you can see from the layout below, the pen records and stores up to 800 hours of audio, writes in ink, contains a small microphone and loudspeaker, and connects to your computer via USB for downloads and for charging. That’s half the story.

The other half of the story is the special paper required by the pen. It’s a tiny matrix of dots imprinted on “LiveScribe Dot Paper” available as notepads, sticky notes, journals, notebooks, sticky notes–you can even print the special paper on any laser printer. I think the notebooks are best–and I believe it is wise to invest in LiveScribe’s $25 Portfolio to keep both the pen and the notebook in a single binder so that neither strays far from the other. Both are required for LiveScribe to do its magic.

How does it work?

The Echo has an on/off button. When flipped on, I see the time and the remaining battery power. In the notebook, I find the crossed arrow and click on its center point. This causes the pen’s display to read (and the pen’s internal voice to say) “Main Menu.” Then, I choose another icon (located on every notebook 2-page spread) labelled “Record” and we’re off. The pen records audio and it also remembers what was written, by time. Press “Play” and you hear the recording. Click anywhere in your notebook’s written text and the pen will tell you when the text was written by day and date.

There are other features–and more coming as LiveScribe develops this ingenious device not only as a pen but as a portable computing platform. You can draw a small piano and play it with your pen. You can adjust date and time, configure for left or right-handed writing, adjust playback speed, calculate  (there’s a printed calculator on the inside front cover of the notebook–the result appears on the pen’s display).

It all works well, but the display on the pen is pretty small, and it’s not easy to remember every command. You can send any page, or group of pages, to Facebook, Evernote, to your desktop, as a graphic in a text message, or as a graphic in an email. The trick is to remember how to do all of these things, especially if you don’t use these features every day. Here’s how the system works:

One more term that LiveScribe has begun to popularize: “PenCast.” That is: you write and draw with the pen, narrate your work, then package it up for viewing. It’s a bit like a traditional presentation, a bit like a conversation around a whiteboard, and it’s quite effective.

Sending the pen’s contents to your computer requires the installation of some free software as well as Adobe AIR, which is also free. Although free, the connection process is not intuitive. Here’s where the teeny screen on the pen becomes awkward, and the lack of printed “Connect to…” commands on the notebook pages results in a tedious exercise. If you don’t use the LiveScribe pen regularly, it’s very easy to forget how to send notes to email, Evernote, your desktop, etc. And when you do, the result is not an audio-visual file, but just a pdf (without the audio accompaniment). To get both, you must produce a PenCast–not hard to do, but again, you must remember the special particulars of this device. Given the large number of clickable commands in each notebook, I sure wish the “send” commands were included among them. And, I sure wish there was more visual feedback coming from the desktop software, where character counts are not limited, as they are on the pen.

One more not-wild-about-it: the pen’s tip should be covered when not in use, but the small plastic cover is small, slick, easy to use. Hopefully, a future pen design will erase this concern.

Still, this is an impressive step forward in the history of pens (seriously, this is how progress looks). As the LiveScribe community grows–and it is growing steadily–the design inefficiencies will become non-issues.

It’s interesting that this is, in essence, a paper-and-pen product, a kind of enhanced notebook system, as opposed to a fully digital solution. It’s nice to be able to take notes in a notebook, to use a pen on paper, and to know that there’s some technology to enhance the experience, and to transfer all of it to a computer for storage or sharing. It’s old-school in its way, but when you get the system working properly and you use it every day (so that the commands become natural, not tedious steps along the way), LiveScribe is an impressive product indeed.

Secrets of Memory – Exposed!

I just received a piece of plastic, about the size of a postage stamp, containing as much memory as a MacBook Air: 64GB. And that made me wonder: is the 64GB on the Monster Digital SD XC USH-1 Class 10 Vault Series card (got all that?) the same as the  64GB of flash memory inside the Air?

Well, no, it’s not. Not according to Mike Ridling and Mark Morrissey, the President and Head of Storage Technology at Monster Digital.

We started at the beginning: spinning disks. Over the decades, the disks became smaller, and when Apple used the technology in the iPod, 1 in 3 units failed. So, Apple went shopping for a better solution.

At the time, flash drives had been around for about five years, and they were popular, but limited in terms of storage capacity. Camera manufacturers were experimenting with ways to store large number of images in a non-volatile format (that is, when the power goes off, the stored material remains). Then, Apple adopted flash memory for their portable devices–and the market shifted from spinning disks to non-volatile, highly portable, small-sized memory.

What’s inside that SD card? A tiny controller that routes data into and out of the card, and organizes the data on the card’s silicon chip so that it’s accessible and so that the card lasts as long as possible (but not forever).

About six years ago, the Secure Digital Association (SD = Secure Data) standardized the metrics for both memory capacity (64GB) and access speed (Class 10). In fact, the access speed matters–but the information is not always easy to find in your device’s instructions. If you own a big DSLR, buy Class 10 cards. Ditto for any camcorder that costs more than, say, $600-700. A Class 6 card is sufficient for a lesser camcorder or a more modest digital still camera. If you’re using the card in a smart phone or a low resolution camera (say, 2-3 megapixels), then a Class 2 is all you need. Of course, Class 10 cards cost more than Class 2 cards.

If you require higher transfer rates, you’ll want a UHS-1 compatible card, but note that not all of these cards are compatible with all devices. (Monster emphasized that their card works with a lot of different devices.)

Right now, the largest available SD cards are 128GB, but we’ll see 256GB in a year or so. Somehow, through the miracle of engineering, the cards are able to store more data but they don’t become larger (more data is stored within the available space). This means we can expect compatibility for a longer period of years.

Now what about the 64GB SD card in the 64GB MacBook Air? Can I simply double my storage capacity with the purchase of a $200 memory card? Well, sort of. The SATA3 solid state drive in the MacBook Air transfers data at 6GB per second. How does the SD card compare? Well, it’s slower. A lot slower: 80MB per second. This is why the SD card is better suited to, say, storing documents and transferring documents on the Air than, say, running Photoshop. In fact, the 64GB and it’s big sister, the 128GB are ideal for storing either almost 25,000 photographs, nearly 11 hours of HD video, over 1,000 hours of digital music. It’s ideal for use in an HD video camera, for example.

I did ask about whether technology was changing quickly enough to affect my thinking about the next generation Air (coming in May, we think). The answer came as something of a surprise: a new external drive for the Air (and other devices) that would plug into the new Thunderbolt port. Offering a transfer rate of about 10GB per second (1/6 of the internal drive, but a heck of a lot faster than the SD card), this is probably the next step in portable memory for portable computers.

And what about iPad storage? Yeah, it’s kinda messy. Apple really didn’t design iPads for external storage, so the solutions are workarounds. That probably won’t change in the future.

So, I’ve learned to use terms such as “transfer rate” and “Class 10” with some knowledge that I lacked yesterday. And, I’ve gotta say, I have a soft spot for Monster. So, thanks to the two executives who helped me to navigate this technology.

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