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Entries in computing (4)



When I heard that Brussels was hosting the largest TEDx event ever I signed up immediately. Now it's over, and I'm very happy I did. I'd certainly love to attend the real thing in Monterey, but until that becomes even faintly possible Brussels will do very nicely.

Organization was spot-on. Talks were scheduled to start at 15:43 and end at 15:53, and they did. Pacing felt just right: long breaks and longish sessions meant you didn't lose time shuffling in and out of the room, never felt overwhelmed and had time for meeting people and meaningful discussions. Every word could be heard clearly from everywhere. Whatever it is they're using for projectors, I want one for my home cinema, although I'd need a much bigger flat; the only thing comparable I've ever seen was at a Jean-Michel Jarre concert. WiFi didn't work, but, well, WiFi never works at conferences. (Good news is: I won't feel too bad if we screw this up for ER2011.) And obviously these are not normal people: there were 1000 attendees and 2000 WiFi devices in the room. At one point I wanted to download iMovie for iPhone so I could quickly edit and upload a clip I'd shot, and in that crowd there is nothing even remotely exceptional about this. Of the many iPhone 4 users I must have been one of the few who didn't have iMovie already. Anyway, I couldn't: as everyone with Belgium cell-phones or international roaming (i.e. everyone) switched to 3G the cell towers around the stately Palace of Fine Arts were hit with the kinds of bandwidth demands rarely seen outside the Bay area, and more or less gave up.

Talks were many and varied, about robotic cars, interstellar space flight, commoditized EEG as a human-interface device, how the digital doubles in Lord of the Rings were made, the internet of Things… My favorites were probably the ones about economics. Dambisa Moyo's talk on How the West was Lost, delivered with no slides while sitting on a couch, especially resonated with me. I don't think it's lost yet, and nor does she, but I've felt for a while that Europe and the US have some tough choices ahead and that they're not discussed nearly enough. Even though I'd be the first to say that you can be a nerd yet not socially awkward, seeing someone with a PhD in economics being that charismatic felt a little uncanny.

Although overall quality was staggeringly high, there were a couple duds. You'd think watching the founder of Doctors Without Borders talk about how innovative finance will save the world can't be anything less than good, but everyone I talked to agreed that Bernard Kouchner's talk was a huge waste of everybody's time. Not only was he late and slow and inarticulate and had lousy slides which he actually turned away from the public to read from the screen, (I wish I was making this up, but I'm not) no matter any of that, the real problem was his entire talk boiled down to: "getting a few countries to implement a Tobin tax is a good idea". You know, I actually agree with that. And I'm immensely grateful that someone as obviously gifted and influential as Mr. Kouchner is trying very hard to get it done. (Especially since, living in Belgium, I'm constitutionally unable to vote for anyone who even bothers having any opinion on anything other than language borders.) However, when I pay for the privilege of spending 18 minutes of my time listening to a world-class speaker, I expect to get a little more information out of it than can be found in the average tweet.

But that's not even the talk that really pissed me off. That would be Lynne McTaggart's, acclaimed author of "What Doctors Don't Tell You", who spoke about the Intention Experiment, i.e. the idea that "the universe is connected by a vast quantum energy field" and can be influenced by thought, and her experiments to prove it. The talk was quite polished and competently executed, and even featured a complimentary hands-on faith-healing session at the end, but the problem is this is not actually an idea worth spreading. It's an idea that, in a perfect world, would have long ago been gagged, garroted, thrown out the window, shot, cremated, dispersed out at sea and never mentioned again.

By the way, I do understand that a conference that tries to be at the leading edge of both technology and art will have a few, for lack of a better word, "edge cases". People who are controversial but may possibly be right. Sometimes the difference between the brilliant out-of-the-box thinker and the nutjob is only visible in hindsight. So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Lynne McTaggart is not a pseudoscientific hack, but rather a visionary who's starting a revolution in how we perceive the fabric of the universe. It's possible. But I would bet a lot of money against it.

Anyway, if I'm spending a lot of time on the two talks I didn't like, it's only because I enjoy bashing people vastly more successful than I. They really didn't matter. After Lynne McTaggart came Paul Collier, who started by asking a trick question that tripped the entire audience (not 90%, not 99%, but literally everyone) and went on to give the most amazing talk about natural resources in developing countries, how they can help the poor improve their quality of life, and what he's doing to ensure they're used for this purpose. And after Bernard Kouchner came Stromae, who got the entire audience to stand up and sing and dance. Picture that: an audience of nerds, dancing in the fanciest classical concert hall in Brussels.

As enjoyable as the event was, from the start I felt somewhat weird about it. Only standing in the bus back home did I figure out what it was: it's not, actually, a conference. Both academic conferences and trade conventions are gatherings of people who come together to discuss their work. Yes, this involves a lot of people talking in front of slides, but this is only a means to an end. The end is to get people in a given field to discuss what they do. That's not at all what TED(x) is.

At TEDx, you don't meet the speakers. To be honest, I didn't really try to, but even if I had, the odds were severely stacked against me: there are 20 speakers for 1000 attendees. Add all the breaks together, and even under the ridiculous assumptions that speakers don't talk with each other, you only talk to speakers, never go to the bathroom and are comfortable talking to Nicholas Negroponte while sampling the cheese platter, statistically you can only hope for four minutes of face time with speakers in the entire day.

So you don't even try to. What you do is talk to random attendees, about nothing in particular. During the coffee breaks of a normal conference, you meet people who closely share your interests and discuss these. TEDx feels more like a speed-dating/networking session targeted at the kind of crowd that attends TEDx. It's a great crowd. Mostly young technophiles with a creative bend, yet diversified. I chatted with a retired English professor about underwater photography. I learned how the Yugoslav wars were perceived by Croats who were six-year-olds at the time. (Apparently it was kinda fun if you were lucky enough to be a child and not get killed.) The place is chock full of amazing people: scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, engineers… and not the kind of engineer who's a lifelong employee at a major utility company, but the kind who taught himself graphic design and understands the music business and wants to use that combination of skills in a unique way. Everybody reads Malcolm Gladwell. Many want to be Tim Ferriss.

The "conference" part, with the speakers and the slides and the introductions, is actually a sort of day-long entertainment that simply happens to be co-located with the networking session. Nerdy entertainment certainly, and great entertainment. If I were to list the five best talks I've ever attended, four of these would be from today. (The fifth would be the EuroPython keynote by Hans Rosling, who also spoke at TED in Monterey.) At TEDxBrussels, you get to see Nicholas Negroponte throw his laptop on the ground and tell how he dares intel or other competitors to do the same with their prototypes when he faces them. You get to see a fashion show by Bibi Russell, a former top model who gave up her modeling career to create a fashion house that employs 35,000 workers in rural Bangladesh who make fashionable clothes you really want to wear. You get to see truly amazing people make passionate statements about the world and wild predictions about the future. As Rik Torfs said in closing, they're unlikely to all be right. "Maybe we're just telling jokes. But they're good jokes, by brilliant people." I don't know about you, but that sounds like a pretty good day to me. It's a surprising event, unlike anything I've ever been to and not quite what I expected. But one thing's for sure: I'll definitely go again.


The iPad Review

I'm not entirely sure the world needs another iPad review, but since everybody who knows I have one apparently cares about my opinion, here it is.

Short Version

It's a fun device that very few people need but many will want. It has a few annoying quirks, some of which should be fixed in the next version, and it will not do everything a laptop does, but it does some things way better than any other device on the market today.


Given how intense the hype is, it's worth stating the fact that, as a piece of hardware, the iPad is almost entirely unremarkable. Yes it's a beautiful thing, and the screen is possibly the best-looking non-OLED display on the market, but all that is also true of the iPod touch. Because that's all the iPad is: a 10-inch iPod touch. Technically it would have made more sense to call it iPodXL, and a less marketing-savvy company would have done exactly that. Apple, however, knows marketing even better than it knows single-digit market share. So it named its new gadget "iPad" and introduced it as a completely different device: not an iPod, not a laptop, not a NetBook, but a solid slab of magic that will change your life, how people consume media, and the entire computing industry. As if a new name cold possibly turn an old horse into a young racing stallion.

Funny thing: apparently, it can. For the moment, it seems Apple has convinced just about everyone that its new iPodXL is a "game changer" and a "whole new category of mobile device" and "the future of computing", and every developer on earth is trampling his own mother to make it as one of the big fishes in a pond that didn't even exist until last week. This seems insane: people are investing enormous amounts of effort to "make it" in a platform that might itself be a total failure. Well, yes, it is insane, but it is happening, and judging from the apps that are available on day one, it is bound to make the device a success. Apple might have achieved a first in the entire industry: solving the chicken-and-egg problem before the device even came out.

So what can you do with a big iPod? When the iPad was announced, the first use I thought of was as a stylish way to present my portfolio. It is indeed absolutely awesome for that purpose. Photos look crisp and shiny, with great colors and shadow detail. They look better than on any magazine, any fine art paper, any iPhone or laptop or PSP, or in fact anything but a HDR reference monitor, and those aren't cheap nor pocketable. Downside is that the screen is also super-shiny, enough to be used as a mirror when it's turned off, and to make reflections distracting in some (reasonably rare) lighting conditions.

The touchscreen is also super responsive, even better than an iPhone 3GS. Battery life is excellent as reported elsewhere. All in all it's a big next-generation iPod, upgraded in just about every way.

I don't like the on-screen keyboard in portrait mode, but in landscape it is quite good. I took a typing test and scored 46 words per minute, which isn't too bad, but I can type twice as fast on a physical keyboard. Hopefully I'll get better at it with time, but I think there will always be a gap. The tactile feedback of a touch screen keyboard simply isn't as good as that of physical keys.


The most important thing about any hardware platform, however, is the apps it runs. Nobody buys Windows 7 for Windows Mail. They want to run Office, or SoftImage, or XMLSpy. Gamers bought Playstations because they were the only platform to run Final Fantasy 7 and Metal Gear Solid. People buy Mac OS X for iLife and Motion and Aperture. What do apps look like on a big iPod?

I started this review saying the iPad was the ideal digital portfolio. It's true. If you're a photographer whose business depends on convincing people on the spot that you know what you're doing, you need an iPad – or one of the alternatives that, sadly, you can't buy yet. For the rest of the world, the big thing appears to be news.

The NYT Editor's Choice app is awesome. Not just slightly better than the web version, but miles better, even better than the dead trees edition. It combines the tactile pleasure of actually holding a newspaper with the vibrancy of photos on a backlit screen and adds the appeal of video content. It makes the Daily Prophet seem bland and unappealing. Many apps in that vein are also great: AP news, Reuters, BBC News, The Guardian's Eyewitness…

Games are probably a big deal. I don't play casual games much, but the ones I tried were nice. Scrabble is just perfect. So is Air Hockey. Simple, entertaining, fun. Fieldrunners and Plants vs Zombies are excellent ports from the iPod and gain quite a bit from the larger screen. I've also tried Red Alert, and I'm with gizmodo: if I don't see Starcraft for iPad soon, I'm going to bomb Blizzard HQ.

Google maps seems as much of a killer app as it was on the iPhone. There it was a nifty trick, a somewhat convenient way of finding the nearest Starbucks. The larger screen real estate, plus the higher specs and probably quite a bit of optimization work – the iPad version is so fast it feels like SeaDragon – makes you wonder why anyone would ever use a paper map again. It also appears to cache up more data than the iPhone version. While away from WiFi I was pleased to notice that I still had access to most of southern Manhattan.

Mail, iCal, Netnewswire, Twitteriffic all work well and are a significant step up from the iPhone versions. While I almost never read long passages on the iPhone, reading on the iPad is even better than on a desktop PC, so I find myself staying inside the apps a lot more.

I haven't tested iWork much, but I've read about the horrible syncing experience. Obviously Apple needs to do something about this, although it won't be trivial. The main reason iPhone OS is so easy to use is that it completely hides the hierarchical file system – a complex data type that only computer scientists and software developers really ever understood. Users don't forget to save their work because apps don't even bother with "saving" when they can simply bring you back where you were when you relaunch them. Users don't forget where they put their documents because they only have a single place to put them in – the app's "library". It's going to be tough to reconcile this no-filesystem model with multi-app multi-device syncing. However, it's clear that Apple's current model is an awful ugly evil kludge and that it needs to be replaced before people actually start syncing. Personally, I have a lot of experience with hierarchical file systems, so I wholeheartedly vote for a Documents folder on the device and Dropbox support, so that my iPad can automagically access the shared folders all my computers work on. Sadly, something tells me I'm not gonna win this one.

OmniGraffle is a gem. As long as there isn't too much text, diagramming is easier with multi-touch than on a traditional computer. I hope OmniFocus comes out soon, because I use it all the time and running iPhone apps on the iPad is completely unsatisfying. Drawing apps like SketchBook and Adobe Ideas in general are a real joy, even for someone like me, who can't draw a sheep to save his life. I can't wait for some version of Aperture to come along.

Many reviewers see this as only a content-consumption device. At the moment I would almost agree – all the "creative" apps are flawed or incomplete – but I think that's mostly because designing an interface for something like a twitter client is much easier than for a Photoshop clone, and most developers still don't have access to the physical device, nor any experience designing apps for anything remotely similar to it. I'm pretty sure in the medium term we'll see great creative apps appear on the iPad.

Oh, and of course the big iPod happen to be a really good iPod. I watched the Daily Show while eating on the plane back. In comparison, the inflight entertainment system looked like something out of the 1950's.

Little Gripes

While it's a very good device overall, a few annoyances really scream "Version 1". There's the aforementioned file syncing. There's the lousy iBooks application, full of useless kitschy fake-wooden-bookshelves and gratuitous, time-consuming animations. The Kindle app is way better. There's the useless requirement that you sync the iPad with iTunes before ever using it.

The stupid dock is especially infuriating. It doesn't fit the iPad unless you remove the cover, which is difficult because of the really snug fit. Since the cover is so good that I never use the iPad without it, this makes the dock utterly useless. Even taking that aside, the Dock only has one 30-pin connector, so you have to choose between the AC adapter and the USB cable for iTunes sync. Since on USB the iPad only charges very slowly (on a MacBookPro) or not at all (everywhere else I tried), and it can't sync wirelessly, you can't simply dump the iPad on the dock and forget about it until the next morning, like you'd do with any other iPod. You have to wait for the sync to finish and then switch cables.

None of these are deal-breakers, but they could be solved with only a little thought, for example by using a special cord on the AC adapter with a USB plug at the end for syncing while you recharge. It is aggravating that the device was allowed to reach the market with such obvious quirks, especially for a product whose only selling point is superlative user experience.

But… it's a closed platform!

Isn't the iPad a closed platform? Isn't buying it condoning proprietary software and locked down hardware even though open alternatives exist? Isn't Apple an evil corporation bent on taking over the world?

YES! Of course it is. Apple wants its revenge from the battle it lost in the 90's, it wants to become the Microsoft of mobile computing and the Google of mobile advertising. It will do anything it can, within the confines of the law and what its users will tolerate, to dominate the markets in which it participates. There is nothing unusual or surprising about this: corporations usually grow or die, especially in highly competitive fields. The only unusual thing about Apple's Plan for World Domination is how surprisingly successful it's been over the last few years.

So Apple is locking out Adobe, patent-trolling Android, and screwing developers who use compatibility frameworks. Big deal. Google's "Don't be evil" statement is nothing more than a saying, and Adobe's revenue model isn't built on open standards. I don't always like Apple's policies, but I really can't get too worked up about them either.

As long as developers continue to work on the platform (and with nearly 200,000 applications on the iTunes Store that certainly seems to be the case) this closed approach has almost no downside for the end user. (Apple's claim that it has significant upside is debatable.) The iPad, anyway, isn't any more closed than a PSP or a Nintendo DS, and nobody's complaining about them.

Is this the future of computing?

Many fans say that, and I always wonder what they actually mean by "this".

All the world's computers are not going to be replaced by iPads overnight. If anything, you'd then lack a copy of iTunes to initialize the next iPad sold. So if "this" is the future of computing, "this" can't possibly be "this particular device as it is now."

Clearly multitouch interfaces will play a big role in the future. When Aperture came out, I thought the Light Table feature would be really great if only it didn't suck so bad – and indeed, like most Aperture users, I've barely ever created a Light Table album. The problem is that it's a great photo organizing concept that sadly doesn't work at all with a keyboard and mouse interface. When full-sized Macs get multitouch screens it'll likely become a lot more popular.

If "this" means intermediate devices between smartphones and full-fledged computers, then, well, yeah, I think such devices will become more popular in the future, but they've always been used to some extent – PocketPCs, Palm Pilots, Psions EPOC devices, and lately Netbooks have their shares of fans. Many things in the iPad remind me of the Psion Series 5, one of the best designs ever in my opinion. This thirteen-year old device had an app-centric UI, a well-hidden filesystem, did mostly without Load/Saves and allowed working for 15h on text documents away from AC power. Nearly ten years ago I did all my note-taking in college on a 5mx, the only device at that time, and for a good long while afterwards, with the combination of ergonomy and battery life to make this possible. Now I would likely use an iPad. I am sure many people will.

Should I buy an iPad?

I don't care. Luckily, there are a couple flowcharts online to help you.

Seriously though, it's a tough question, because unlike with the iPod or the iPhone, there is no clear narrative of what this thing is actually for. It's not a laptop replacement, or at least, it can't replace my laptop, although this guy seems happy. It's kind of a kindle replacement, although a kindle might be better if you do most of your reading in bright sunlight or away from AC power for days on end. Some people will buy it as a gaming machine. Others as a news reader. Others as a digital portfolio.

It really is a blank canvas, which is its main strength. It's entirely plausible that popular apps six months from now will be unlike anything we've ever seen. Right now, the iPad is not perfect, and nobody really needs it. Many will like it, though, and in the near future innovative applications will undoubtedly come out for it and similar devices. For computing, these are very interesting times indeed.


Everyday tech tends to stick around...

John Brandon writes in TechRadar about tech we won't use in a decade. It's an interesting read, and some predictions seem fairly safe, but overall I don't think the times are moving that fast.

If you were already using computers a lot in 1999, the striking thing is how little things have changed since then. Maybe we weren't online all the time, but basically we used our computers in much the same way. Web-based email, IM, photo editing, computer-based video editing, etc. all existed and worked reasonably well.

Obviously I don't deny that things are improving. Syncing files between computer used to be a huge pain, and now it's just a little pain. Sharing things online is a lot easier. A home network can now be set up in less than two weeks, and it can be expected to actually work. Laptops are thinner and batteries last longer. Backupping cell-phone data on a computer isn't reserved to top coders and mad scientists anymore.

But, despite numerous predictions to the contrary, the keyboard is still there, the mouse is still there, and the basic concept of the general-purpose personal computer is still very much alive. I really doubt that this will change substantially in as little as a decade.

However, there's definitely one thing missing from the list: TV as we know it, with 100+ channels broadcasting lukewarm reruns 24h/day and a business model that requires people to tune in at 8:25 and not leave the room during commercials. There's no way that can survive another ten years.


TO-DO : buy more shelves

Reginald Braithwaite tells us about the seven books he'd buy if his shelves were bare.

I feel a bit stupid : there's three books I've never heard of and only one I've actually read. But if that one is any guide, I really need to get the other six...