Friday
Apr092010

The iPad Mystique

Since Apple's iPad was released last Saturday, reviewers have been applying lots of metaphors to the multitouch tablet. It's been called a Swiss Army knife, an oversized iPad and a netbook with the keyboard torn off. I'd like to add another to the pile. The iPad is like Rebecca Romijn. Well at least it's like Ms Romijn when she plays Mystique in the X-Men movies.

Mystique is a beautiful, mutant shapeshifter. She can appear to be anyone she choses, altering her natural blue skin and yellow eyes to match the task at hand. She's a Senator, no she's a hot bar babe, no she's the Iceman. She can switch her identities like TV channels.

The iPad, turned off, is a graceful slab of aluminum and glass. There is no keyboard and only one recessed button on its front surface. It looks like a trivet designed by someone in Sweden who wears interesting glasses. But turn it on, and its inner Mystique emerges. It's a word processor; no, it's an e-book; no it's a piano keyboard; no it's a talking child's book; no it's a photo frame; no it's a video player. The iPad, by being nothing, can be anything. That is its mutant superpower.

Well, that and super speed. I now own an iPad, and travelled to Buffalo to get one, sight unseen. Why? Because earlier reviewers used one adjective over and over - fast. They were right. The iPad is so responsive to touch that it's practically pre-cognitive (like the super-fast arachnid in the first Spiderman movie, to continue this leitmotif). You press its on button, and a blink later, it's on. No waiting for a hard drive to spin up (it has none). No waiting for an operating system to shake itself out of slumber. No nothing. On. Launch an application and it's there. Shut it down. Gone. No hourglass, no spinning beach ball of limbo, nothing.

Yes, it is true that the iPad has limited multitasking abilities (that is, the ability to run more than one program at the same time). But, all of Apple's own applications can take advantage of multitasking so I can listen to music while I type this, for example. And, in practise, the apps launch so quickly (and many remember their state) it is not that much of an issue. Come the fall, with the 4.0 of the operating system, a more robust multitasking will be available to third-party apps as well.

The other thing that made me lay down $600 for the device was the early reports of battery life - better than the 10 hours Apple promised. First off, it is unheard of that reviewers actually get better battery life than a manufacturer proffers. Second, 10 hours is remarkable. What was more remarkable was my own experience. Yesterday, an early day for me, I turned on my iPad at 4:30 a.m. At 10:30 in the evening I still had 15% of the battery to spare and I had been using it heavily, and demoing it to strangers for a good part of the day.

How well does it assume its multiple identities? Like Mystique, flawlessly. It is not just an information appliance, it's like the appliance section at Sears. As a book reader, it puts the Kindle to shame. First, books can have colour illustrations (and they are vibrant and crisp on the gorgeous iPad screen). Except for second-hand books, I will probably never buy a physical book again. Right now I'm reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and it's a pleasure. Second, unlike the Kindle, the iPad can display books from not just the Amazon store, but from Kobo, it's own iBook library and other vendors as well.

I've also downloaded The Cat in the Hat. It too is an electronic book, but, it will read itself to me, the words highlighted as the narration rolls on, the illustrations zoom in and out and I can touch the screen to hear the names of the objects my finger falls out read out loud. Try that on an e-ink device.

A moment later I can be playing (really badly) a near full-sized row of piano keys, on which I can ham-fist out chords. Then, a map of how the night sky looks above me, right now, appears. I can touch a star and learn all about it. I can then fire up The Elements, a wonderful coffee table book about the periodic table - samples of gold, mercury or uranium spin to my touch, slowly when I release them.

The Marvel comic book reader presents the bright panels of Spiderman in full-screen or, as I move through the comic, zooms in on one speech balloon at a time.

Right now I'm writing this review using Evernote. I could stop, save and synchronize this document and then pick up my iPhone (or laptop) and continue writing on that device right where I left off. I can browse the web, check my email or use one a a handful of Twitter applications to stay abreast of social media happenings. I can also read a growing number of magazines on the iPad including Time, Men's Health and Popular Science. The pricing of these publications needs to come down, but they hold promise. And photos? This is a photo frame that MOMA would be happy to use.

In short, since I got the iPad, my Macbook Pro, which I use for heavylifting like video editing, has not moved from my desk. I will use my iPad for writing, presenting (it has a version of Keynote and can plug into a laptop projector) and web browsing. It has no built-in camera. But, using a piece of software on the iPad and another on my iPhone I can use the iPad as a big screen for my iPhone's camera and take pictures with it, the images relayed from one to the other using Bluetooth. I can also use Bluetooth to connect a wireless keyboard, though the virtual one on the iPad is very serviceable. 

A lot of people dismissed the iPad as just a big iPod Touch. That was a misguided and narrow view. It really is a new, elegant and simple computing paradigm. When you actually hold, touch and use one, you realize that, starting with the iPad, tablet computing is going to shape shift the future. I welcome our mutant overlords.

Monday
Jan042010

iLeaf '10 - Apple Tablet Docs for the Rest of Us?

This is a just riff on ideas from Mike Cane and John Gruber. Gruber, a savvy Mac-watcher has suggested that not only will Apple announce a tablet this month, but that it will be aimed at replacing the Macbook. Mike Cane, a writer and keen observer of e-books has suggested that a new iteration of Apple’s iWork suite could include a tool for making digital “books” for an Apple Tablet or iSlate.

So, let’s play with those ideas. Let’s imagine that, in two years' time, most people who are carrying around a 13-inch Macbook are now packing an iSlate. What’s on (or streaming to) the iSlate? Music, podcasts, movies, TV shows - certainly. Those are all available for free, for purchase or for rental now from the iTunes Music Store. But clearly the iTunes Music Store (soon to be, I bet, just the iStore) will be expanded. It will include books, newspapers, magazines and most interestingly, new kinds of digital documents that take full advantage of the multimedia, wireless and geo-capabilities of an iSlate. Most of those documents will stream to the iSlate, I'd wager, rather than be stored on it.

So, who’ll create those new digital documents? Time and Sports Illustrated have already shown interest and prototypes. So has Conde Nast in general. But, what about the rest of us?

The iTunes Music Store began with label acts. Then the Store introduced the world to podcasts - many created by ordinary folks like us. Those free podcasts now share the iStore with Bono and Radiohead. And how do many of us produce podcasts? Using the iLife product - Garageband. In fact, how do most of us edit the movies, cull the photos and create the documents we use now on the Mac? By firing up iMovie or Final Cut, iPhoto or Pages - all created by Apple as an integral part of the Mac experience.

So, what if Cane and Gruber are right? What if Apple intends not just to release a tablet but rather a Macbook-killing tablet that will need its own productivity suite? What if iLife ’10 will include not the stale-dated iDVD but (let's call it) iLeaf '10.

iLeaf would be a Pages/Keynote/iDVD hybrid that will give the rest of us the ability to create rich, interactive content for the iSlate. We've seen a hint of that in the iTunes Extras and Album Art features in the iStore. What would we do with authoring capabilities like that? What would it do for journalism, including citizen journalism?

Already Keynote, which I love, allows us to create presentations that can include complex animations, transitions and robust typography. Pages, Apple's Word replacement, can already include photos, movies and text boxes.

iLeaf should allow us to really bring Pages documents to life, marrying the best of both it and Keynote and really pushing the Core Audio, Quartz and Core Video capacities of OSX along with whatever GPU goodness the iSlate may have. We already have the ability to create mini-docs on the iPhone via Reel Director. No doubt the almost-certainly custom CPU/GPU chip in the iSlate will have more horsepower than an iPhone. I wonder what it could do?

And, if the imagined iLeaf tool (for the fabled iSlate) does come to be, what format will the files be available in? Maybe ePub for basic documents and some HTML 5-friendly format for more complex content? That would be like creating MP3 files for ordinary podcasts and AAC format for enhanced podcasts with chaptering and graphics in Garageband now, so it has a precident.

HTML 5 is almost certain (i.e. no Flash) as Apple is clearly behind it and the Safari browser supports most of the standard already including video, canvas interaction, drag 'n' drop, offline storage and more. As far as ePub goes, it's becoming a standard but, as Cane points out, it's not without its inconsistencies.

Just speculating here, but the more I think about the fabled iSlate, should it actually be announced, the more I think this kind of game plan makes all the sense in the world. It would be unlike Apple to introduce a tablet if it isn't a total game changer. And, it makes little sense to have a device that serves up a whole new breed of document without empowering its owners to create just that kind of document. That's just not how Apple has done things in the past. So, iLeaf '10? I'm hoping I'll be helping my journalism students make good use of it this time next year.

Thursday
Dec242009

Here Comes the Unicorn - the Promise of the Apple Slate

There is now little doubt that Apple will announce some sort of tablet computer late in January. Although the Apple tablet has been anticipated for years now, it would be unfair to call it vapourware, as it has never been announced or even hinted at by anyone in Cupertino. The better metaphor may be hardware unicorn. It is a fabled, cryptozoological object; possibly glimpsed and possessing, legend has it, great beauty, elegance and power. If it, in fact, walks the Earth at all.


Let’s imagine it does. What might it be and what might we, as journalists, do with it? It seems now that the first Apple tablet will be seven inches on the diagonal, giving it about four times the surface area of the iPhone. It will also probably be the first in a series of tablet devices from Apple. Well, really, the second, since the iPhone/iPod Touch are arguably the first in the tablet lineage.


We can expect an update to both the iPhone and the iPod Touch in June to bring them in line with whatever industrial design and processor upgrades the tablet - let’s call it the Slate - will introduce. So, the Slate line will begin with the seven-inch version, with a probable release date in March or April. Rumour suggests that a 10-inch version will arrive later in the year. This will give users a small, medium and large Slate version to choose from. Within those sizes there will, no doubt be variations based on connectivity (WiFi only or WiFi/3G), processor power and possibly screen (although I think that less likely). Let’s talk about the screen.

Apple could go with the same display that it uses for the iPhone/iPod Touch. But, new Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) screens are starting to show up on other devices like the Zune HD from Microsoft and the Nexus One phone from Google.


OLED screens offer brighter, sharper images with less power consumption. But, they’re also more expensive than the LCD screen on the iPhone. Nonetheless it’s unlikely that Apple can rest on its laurels for screen display. It could use OLEDs on a seven-inch screen but that would make the device pricey and we haven’t heard any rumours of Apple buying up a lot of seven inch OLEDs. But, for that matter, the only supply chain rumours we’ve heard so far are the one about the company purchasing a lot of 10-inch LCDs. So, it is possible that the seven inch Slate is a unicorn and that the first Slate will be a 10-inch with a conventional LCD panel. This is, afterall, just speculation.


There’s also a darkhorse to consider here. Pixel Qi is an e-paper display company that has created a LCD screen that is readable in sunlight and in lowlight. The California/Taiwan company claims its screen (which have been used in the One Laptop Per Child computers) offers the best of e-paper technology (like on the Kindle) along with full-colour and refresh rates suitable for video.


So, it is possible that Apple will use a Pixel Qi screen. That would make the Slate a real rival to the Kindle for e-book reading, would give it potentially great battery life and also the ability to show video. However, it is unlikely that the Pixel Qi screen would match the clarity and vibrancy of OLED technology. That means that in a side-by-side comparison the Slate would look dowdy compared to a Zune HD. It’s hard to imagine Steve Jobs standing for that.


Of course the screen will respond to multitouch gestures like the iPhone/iPod Touch. However, I think we can expect to see the vocabulary of gestures increase to accommodate the larger screen’s capacity to deal with two hands and ten fingers. Expect a great on-screen keyboard (perhaps with some haptic feedback), but there is no chance Apple will allow a physical keyboard to be attached, tethered or connected via Bluetooth. That is just not the Apple way.


There is a strong rumour that the underlying OS for the Slate will be basically the same dialect of OSX used in the iPhone. In fact, some key developers are being encouraged, according to the mill, to create fresh versions of their apps to take advantage of a Slate’s larger screen real estate. That probably means that existing apps could run unaltered in small iPhone-sized windows on the Slate screen.


Think of that like emulation-mode in the early versions of OSX. Emulation mode let OS9 programs run under OSX. Several months ago we saw a leaked and possibly fake demo of apps doing just this on a prototype Slate-like screen. If such an “emulation mode” exists, it would be, I imagine, short lived as really, it would be a better experience all around if apps took advantage (or could take advantage) of all the screen real estate. That would still leave room for widgets like in the OSX Dashboard now.


And, it’s likely that the Slate OSX/processor will allow more than one application to run concurrently. The iPhone can do this now, but only with Apple applications. A Slate won’t be a viable laptop replacement without this concurrency unless, like in the Chrome OS, everything is happening in the browser. That’s an unlikely strategy for Apple. And, speaking of the browser, certainly the Slate will use WebKit as its web engine (it’s what underpins Safari). It will not support Flash, opting instead to fully support HTML 5 in Webkit. That will enable video/audio embeds to rival Flash and in an open source manner.


So, what would the Slate be used for? As my iPhone programmer friend Mark Pavlidis has pointed out to me, the iPhone is all about access to the Web. He thinks the Slate will be all about access to all the other media.
I think that’s a smart observation. Apple wants its new device to wipe the floor with the Kindle, the Nook and the Sony Reader. The company wants those devices to look like Selectrics next to the Slate. It’s fairly certain the Slate will be a kickass e-reader. Apple will probably create its own e-book software as the best e-reader on the iPhone, Stanza is now owned by Amazon. So, unless Jeff Bezos wants to toss in the towel, it’s unlikely Stanza will be the defacto Slate e-reading software.


Apple will also create an Apps Store experience for media: books, apps, magazines, newspapers, movies, music and television. It’s halfway there now. With its recent purchase of Lala, Apple has signalled its interest in getting into the streaming media business. It certainly has the server capacity for that. Making the media streaming would be a great advantage for a wireless Slate. It would mean the device itself would not have to have a great deal of storage (say only 16G or 32G) because most of the media it would play would be streamed to it either from a home network or a streaming media store in the Apple cloud.


So, if this unicorn exists, what does it mean for journalists? First, it’s going to be the go-to device for the early-waiting-for-the-kettle news junkie fix. It will be a very convenient way to see last night’s video news, listen to the radio and read-in on newspapers and blogs. It will also be your book reader, typewriter and web browser. With the exception of doing the post-production heavy-lifting for audio and video, expect it to do everything a netbook/laptop can do now. It won’t fit in your pocket, but neither does a paperback, newspaper or netbook.


In terms of media production, we’ll need to rethink graphic design, granularity, geo-specific news and social media integration. Programmers, artists and journalists will have to collaborate as never before. Distinctions between radio, print and television will fade and become more interesting discussions about the intricate dance of audio, video, words and diagrams driven by open civic data crunched like granola.


Apple wouldn’t create a unicorn if it didn’t think it could change the game. It’s a big gamble. The first Slates will be expensive and will be snapped up by early adopters, just like the first pricey iPhones. Will Slates become commonplace on GO trains and coffee shops? In two years, I think so. Will publishers and TV execs hop on board? I think so.


Do I believe in unicorns? Yeah. 

Thursday
Sep242009

Open Source Journalism and the Maker Culture

Journalism is a secretive trade. We hoard and protect our sources, we keep our exclusives under wraps, we cherish and crow about our scoops. Should the outside world do any nosing about in our laundry, we form tight protective balls that would put doctors, lawyers, sow bugs and politicians to shame.

And, we’re a craft that thrives on control. We constrain the size, tone, timing and content of the news. In fact, we decide if it even is news. We are to news what the Spanish Inquisition was to sin.

In an age of scarcity of presses, of airways and of broadcast licenses, that model was serviceable and comfortable - a conceptual famous blue raincoat. 

We thrived on that scarcity, that control, that secrecy and that one-way pipeline to our audience.

But now much of that audience is moving to the social web where the concepts of scarcity, control, secrecy and broadcast are as out of place as a crossing guard at a teen girls’ sleepover.

Yet, much of what we teach in j-schools is predicated on those ideas: that we own the story, that we shape the news, that we control the valve that trickles the word on the street into the ears, eyes and minds of the public- that we are the gatekeepers on a farflung mishmash of data, drama, B.S. and ballyho that is so much noise and nonsense until passed daily through our purifying membrane.

When our instruction toughens that membrane by directing students to think critically, to crank their bullshit detectors to eleven, to unpack and tell great, human stories, we’re good. But, when we fail to encourage them to tell those great stories, new ways we retard our ability to prepare them for an online future. 

If we create j-school curriculum based on secrecy, control and broadcast we will not be training students to lead, we will be teaching them to clean from behind. We will be teaching them do to what we did, but with less paper and more silicon. We will be demonstrating how to shovel, not how to sculpt in a new medium.

This semester I’m teaching an Online Reporting Workshop at Ryerson University in Toronto and an MA class in Online Journalism at the University of Western Ontario, in London. I’m predicating the courses on the principles of transparency, abundance, collaboration and conversation - notions, I think, that resonate with the harmonics of the online audience.

Let me explain. The two classes are collaborating on a multi-part, multimedia project called MakerCulture - Taking Things Into Our Own Hands. It’s a deep, wide exploration of the world of artists, hackers, fabricators, activists and citizens who have decided that a DIY (do-it-yourself) approach to government, software, art, music and hardware is a valid response to global consumerism. It’s a fascinating feature full of astonishing gimcrackery and a sideshow tent full of characters. Great stories, no question.

It will be collaboratively published on rabble.ca and The Tyee. It’s the first time Western and Ryerson have worked together on a joint journalism project, and the first time rabble and The Tyee have co-published as series.

The students at the two universities come together online using a collaborative website called a wiki. Each member of the team can edit, comment on, alter or erase any page of the wiki. It is a read-write medium with no central command and control. All the writing teams are responsible for updating their progress, their contact diaries, links, research notes and drafts. If you want, you can look at it here http://makerculture.pbworks.com/. If you like you can see all the levers gears, false starts and progress we’re making. And so can anyone else.

Sure, we could have said, “Wow, this is a great story. No one else is tackling. Let’s keep it under wraps until we’re ready to launch and then blow the lid off it.” But, online, in the world of social media, that would make no sense at all.

By exposing our work transparently we invite audience participation and engagement early in the story’s development. We encourage would-be readers of the final piece to help us shape the story, make it better, make it stronger, make it deeper and more true. We deliberately blur the line between author and audience. We want our audience to help up tell their story. We want to open source our journalism. That's the spirit of the social web and, in a lovely meta way, the spirit of maker culture.

We’ve also created a blog for the project. You can see that here http://posterous.com/main/site/391061. It’s our public, ongoing diary where we share our discoveries, thoughts, needs and raw footage with our audience.

Is anyone interested? Turns out, yes. In the first week after the blog launched it got over 3,000 page views. Why? Because we also talk about our work on Twitter using the hashtag #mcry. It turns out a lot of educators, writers, journalists and folks in the growing maker culture are very interested in what we’re doing, and are keen to help.

In fact, when we were first developing the mindmap for the feature series we made it public so members of the community could contribute nodes and notions. You can see that here http://www.mindmeister.com/29859948/makerculture. Turns out that turning our audience into collaborators made the mindmap, and the project, stronger from the outset. 

I’m already getting feedback on Twitter and via email from folks who will be great sources and content experts for our stories. So are my students. They are engaging early in an conversation with our audience and inviting them into the process long before the feature series is published (probably next January).

This transparency not only makes the inclusion of the community simple, it makes the process of doing the story simple. No passwords, no central command-and-control. Instead we are creating an organic and open story development process that engages a community of people who can act as evangelists for our work. In the world of the social web that creates an expanding virtuous circle of network links and reposts that gives us access to expertise we would otherwise have missed.

When the story is finally published, all the folks who worked with us to tell the stories will be there to view the final product and to see what impact they had on it.

We’re trying to tell this great story, new ways. We want to embrace everything that is powerful about social media: its ability to virally share enthusiasm, its belief in the collective creation of a common good and its trust in the kindness of strangers and use that to, together, tell a story to ourselves.

This is an experiment. We have no idea how it will turn out. But, we’re diving in and putting our trust in the best of the social web. Maybe that's a good idea for our craft in general.

 

Monday
Aug172009

I Have Met Our Makers, and They Are Us

It’s a Tuesday night in Hamilton, Ontario, and I’m sitting with Myrcurial (aka James Arlen) http://www.myrcurial.com/ talking about makers, hackers' activism and hyperlocal journalism. Myrcurial is an online security consultant, a dyed-in-the-wool hacker and the wise-old-man of think|haus http://www.thinkhaus.org/, a hacker/maker workshop that’s being constructed around us as we sit in an
ex-autoparts outlet in the northend of town.

Myrcurial and think|haus are part of the maker movement in Canada. If the movement has a bible, it’s Make Magazine http://makezine.com/ - a publication that extols the virtues of using circuits and a grab-bag of Home Depot parts to make a potato cannon, a self-watering garden or a microprocessor robot rat.

Makers love Mythbusters, McGyver, old copies of Popular Science and Popular Electronics, 8-bit computer graphics and the chance to crack open and breathe new life into consumer electronics. Their motto is:
“If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” They have excellent skills.

“We like to bend gadgets and circuits to our will,” Myrcurial says. “We aren’t interested in what we’re told something can do, or must do. We’re interested in making it do what we want, extending its life,
giving it new purpose.”

Makers are experts in soldering, in circuitry, in welding, woodworking, fabrication or robotics. In the Hamilton chapter, there’s a hodgepodge of all those skills embodied in two dozen guys who aren’t
going to win any congeniality prizes, unless they gamed the online voting then used the award to send Morse code profanity via Bluetooth to the judges’ cellphones. The think|haus clubhouse is heavily stocked with cables, caffeinated beverages, dark t-shirts, lumber, wiring and large brains. The gang is planning on making a 10-foot kite with a gimbal-mounted remote control camera on-board. And there's some crazy
stuff too.

So, what does think|haus have to do with activism and journalism?

I think the Maker mentality pervades citizen journalism and activism. It’s really about being the change you want to see in the world and taking the tools at hand to the democracy, legislative bodies, gadgets or hierarchies around you and making them do what you want.

Don’t like mainstream media coverage of your community? Cover yourself. Don’t like the government? Do like the indigenous peoples of Bolivia and remake it in your consensual image. Don’t like international news? Aggregate your own crowdsourced coverage. Don't like DRM? Hack the lock. Against a two-tier web? Organize a townhall and encrypt P2P traffic. Don't like Windows or OSX? Adopt Ubuntu.

Back in 1982, Canadian science fiction writer William Gibson captured the idea perfectly in his short story, Burning Chrome: “The street finds its own use for things,” he wrote. It’s become the mantra of the
Maker and DIY culture - which are driven by the power of unintended usage. What’s different between 1982 is the power that’s unleashed with Makers or activists crack things open in search of new purpose.

When I was a kid and took apart a gadget all I got was a tube. In 1982, you’d get an 8-bit 8080 chip. These days you get a microcontroller or a graphics chip with the power to run full-on HD video. Or, you get an
activist group capable of instant global reach via Twitter, unstoppable cellphones and organizing parties in World of Warcraft.


We’ve always been Makers. Our tools have just gotten better. Way better.

Citizen journalists and activists can learn a lot from the maker/hacker movement. We should be meeting more often. Our rallying cry: “Sure, the government is broken, ya wanna make something of it?”