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Getting rid of the laptop

I’ve been playing with evaluating two new toys important new pieces of technology: an iPad and a Pulse SmartPen. The combination almost makes we ready to ditch my netbook — or at least got me thinking carefully about why I still have one.

The iPad is well-known; the SmartPen perhaps not so. It’s made by a company called LiveScribe, and works with special notebook paper. A camera in the nib watches what’s been written and tracks the pen by looking at a background of dots arranged to provide location information about the pen on the page. The pen can also record what’s being said, and cleverly links the two data streams together: later you can tap a word and hear what was being said at the time. I’ve been using one for a fortnight.

I used to keep written notebooks, but moved to taking notes purely on my netbook when I realised I was forgetting what I’d written where: a notebook is just a dead tree with dead information on it, and I’ve become used to everything being searchable. However, getting searchability meant converting my note-taking style to linear text rather than mindmaps or sketches, since that’s what the tools typically support. (There are mindmap tools, of course, but they’re completely separate from other note-taking tools and so get in the way somewhat.) There’s also a barrier to note-taking in having to get the netbook out, rather than just picking up a (special) pen and (special) paper. The resulting data is searchable, since the desktop tool does fairly decent) handwriting recognition: I can “tag” pages in the margins, writing slightly more carefully than usual, and search for the tags even if full content searching is a bit aspirational.

For what I do this is a lot, but not quite enough, as I spend a lot of time reading, looking up information and writing emails, papers and the like. A Kindle or other e-reader would be great for the reading, but not for the net access. That’s where the iPad comes in: can it replace the need for a more traditional web-access and writing device? It’s certainly a lovely piece of kit, fast and stable, and allows easy browsing. The keyboard is pretty good for a “soft” device, and one could easily see writing email and editing small amounts of text using it. I can also see that it’d be an awesome platform for interactive content and mixed media books/films, assuming the editing tools are available elsewhere.

Of course neither netbooks nor iPads are really optimised for the creation of content: they’re very much consumer devices intended for the consumption of content written on other, bigger machines. I don’t think that’s a criticism — no-one does smartphone software development on a smartphone, after all — but it does mean that neither is optimal as a device for someone who creates a lot. But the combination of a digitised paper notebook with an internet-access device is extremely attractive. Both devices are extremely portable and friendly, and link well to the larger “back office” machines I use for “serious” work.

I have two worries, one about both devices and one about the iPad alone. The first worry is the almost completely closed nature of the software. The Pulse loads its recorded sound and images into its own desktop tool, which are than only available through that tool despite (I imagine) using standard data formats internally with some clever hyperlinking. The tool does provide important value-add, of course, specifically the links from written text to recorded audio. But that should be separate from the actual content, and it isn’t. One can “archive” a notebook, or turn individual pages into PDF, but not (as far as I can tell) get access to the content programmatically as it stands. That’s simply obstructive on the part of Livescribe — and also a little shortsighted, I think, since their linking technology could clearly be applied to any print-linked-to-sound data if their tool was open and able to access arbitrary content. I think this is a great example of where openness is both friendly to the community and potentially a commercial virtue. (Oh, and the Livescribe desktop only works on Intel Macs: who exactly writes non-universal binaries these days? and why?)

The iPad has a similar ecosystem, of course, which is “open” in the sense that anyone can write programs for it but “closed” in the sense that (firstly) access to the App Store is carefully constrained and (secondly) there are features of the platform and operating system that aren’t freely available to everyone.

I can understand Apple’s contention that — for phones especially — it’s important to only download apps that won’t brick the device. This doesn’t of course imply that there should be a single gatekeeper as has happened with the App Store: one could provide a default store but allow external ones, as happens with Android Market. A single gatekeeper is basically just a way to extract rents from the software ecosystem. This can stifle both innovation and price, to Apple’s advantage.

What worries me more, though, is the extra, non-commercial dimension in terms of content control, which I think is more broadly damaging than just software. I was looking at an app for cocktail recipes (Linda’s a big fan). There are several available, of course, but all come with a rating of 17+ because of their mention of frequent drinking or drug use. There’s a suggestion of the illicit becoming the illegal there. It’s also well-known that Apple enforces a “no porn” rule on the App Store. Whatever one’s attitude to pornography, much of it isn’t illegal and it’s not clear that a software company should restrict the uses of a device above and beyond the law.

The whole experience reminds me very strongly of Disneyland: safe, beautiful, welcoming, friendly — and utterly fake, and utterly anodyne. One can choose not to go to Disneyland, of course — and certainly not to live there — but it’s another thing to hand control of access to information and information technology off to a commercial third party. Anything can be disallowed on a whim, or for the greater commercial good — and can of course be disallowed or edited retrospectively.

Whether we like it or not, human culture includes material, that is distasteful for many people. That’s why we have critical faculties, and diversity, and laws on free speech. Commercial device providers and operators are not constrained by requirements to fairness in the way that newspapers and public broadcasters are, and could easily be persuaded to silence some forms of speech on the basis of commercial interest regardless of their wider legality.

For the present I’ll be keeping the netbook for internet access, but using the SmartPen for note-taking, and thinking a bit more about a dedicated ebook reader. It’s a compromise between openness and convenience that I’m conscious of making, and not without some hesitation. Time will tell how the choices play out and evolve, and maybe I’ll buy an Android tablet when they mature a little 🙂


2 Comments

  1. Hi Simon,

    Pretty much agree with you – love Apple stuff, which I run at home, but have similar concerns as you above. They seem to want to force a mobile closed-garden model into the PC world which is traditionally been open. Google may also be a mega-corp, but at the moment in this area are at least more open. Have recently got the Nexus One and really like it – and would wait for an Android tablet – IPads are also way overpriced.

    As for eBook readers, especially Kindle, I have not taken the plunge, but what bothers me is the formatting and DRM issues – books are lovely open objects which are all in the same “format”, can be lent around or resold. But the DRM models want to recommoditise the book to be more like a licenced artefact tied to one (and only one) device. The less tech oriented commentators in the press don’t seem to get this. I want to see if a more open model emerges.

    Cheers

    Brian

    Brian

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