TouchID aka Memory

As we approach 2015, the year Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to in the second Back to the Future film, a date that seemed wildly ambitious to young children dreaming of Hoverboards (what? almost sort of real?) everywhere, I have been thinking about the time that has passed between the presentation of an image of the future and history catching up.

Through a quirk of technological boredom, I swapped my out trusty MacBook for a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 two months ago. I’ll write more on this later, but one of the primary motivations for the switch was that replacing one old Mac with a newer model just didn’t excite me. This is definitely within “first world problem” status, but laptops, tablets, and phones are personal devices. They are extensions of our minds and bodies and with the variety of offerings, every person can pick a model to his or her choosing without issue, so might as well make the choice count.

But what makes a new MacBook? It’s thinner. And faster. And lacks legacy drives and ports. It’s a fantastic machine. But it is essentially the same as the first notebook computers I saw as a kid, 486-powered beasts that they were. The Surface may only be dazzling me with it’s differences, but for now, if that’s all it is, it’s enough.

The somewhat new site JSTOR Daily sent me on this little thought carousel. JSTOR, a database of academic journals and articles, has it’s issues, and that rabbit hole is vast, but this effort is one that I fully approve of: taking old content and bringing it back to attention through new pieces. That’s it. Write something using the vast library of research as a starting point and place of support and then get to work.

The topics have been wide ranging – economics, gender equality, history, and maps – along with many more, like pirates.

But the article in question was (Un)Catalogued: Reading the Landscape. Written by historian Megan Kate Nelson, the piece looks at her exploration of New Mexico as part of research for a book. As great as the read is – and the information about a river moving over time causing havoc with limited maps of the area – the quote that got me was:

I am not the first historian to have done this, and to write about it. And I am quite skeptical of the “hallowed ground” notion that one can “feel” the past by standing in a historic place. When I visit these sites, I’m not out to get a visceral connection to history. I’m there to get a sense of the landscape, to make links between the documents I’m reading and at the images I’m looking at, and the places in which they were produced.

It’s a viewpoint I don’t always share. Visiting Pompeii was amazing. I felt something walking those roads and looking in the ruined buildings. Walking down the streets of Palo Alto and being within spitting distance of the HP garage was exciting but not in a hallowed ground way.

More than anything though, I thought of Captain Picard teaching Data about the emotional connecting humans get being up close and personal with history. Touching the road, door, chair, or missile.

PICARD: Isn’t it amazing? This ship used to be a nuclear missile.

DATA: It is an historical irony that Doctor Cochrane would use an instrument of mass-destruction to inaugurate an era of peace.

(Picard feels the Titan V rocket)

PICARD: It’s a boyhood fantasy, Data. I must have seen this ship hundreds of times in the Smithsonian, but I was never able to touch it.

DATA: Sir, does tactile contact alter your perception of the Phoenix?

PICARD: Oh, yes. For humans, touch can connect you to an object in a very personal way. It makes it seem more real.

DATA: I am detecting imperfections in the titanium casing. Temperature variations in the fuel manifold. It’s no more real to me now than it was a moment ago.

People have taken to smartphones like they have few other devices. While it’s just a thought in my head, though potentially there is research out there, some part of that must be touch. These devices that are essentially just screen have captured babies and the elderly, teens and their parents, college-aged kids and those who are calling themselves adults for the first time.

Historical sites can cause a notion of something else just by setting foot at the location. Touching a device or artifact adds another layer. Just imagine how different museums would be or could be in the future where sculptures and paintings could be felt through some type of holographic projection.

In the end, I’m left with another curious thought: does Cypher’s speech in The Matrix:


You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious.

align with Dumbledore’s parting words to Harry Potter:

Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?


Image copyright Paramount Pictures, 1996.

Monkey Gone to Heaven

When the rumor mill exploded last week with news that Apple may (or may not) have acquired Beats Electronics to add executive talent, a new streaming music service, and of course, headphones, to Apple’s already strong music business, a spotlight on the changing face of the music industry was lit up once more.

For a long time, artists stayed away from allowing their music to be used for advertising purposes. Commercials featuring an artist’s music were considered to be “selling out” for decades. Until somewhat recently when the trend reversed.

What started as a small sample in the 1990s turned into a boom for musicians in the post-Napster era when alternative revenue streams – outside the labels – were in demand.

Apple itself ran a series of successful ads for iPods and the iTunes music service – the ones featuring dancing silhouettes wearing the iconic white earbuds – that were received quite well. Advertising a music service and player with popular music seems like a no brainer, but it’s possible that Apple considered this ad campaign even more seriously. Steve Jobs himself is believed to have had individual control over the song selection. That’s a power both equal parts kingmaker and tastemaker.

Their latest effort uses Gigantic by the Pixies and highlights the iPhone as a tool for creativity as a musician, rocket launcher, and indoor astronomer. The Apple spot debuted on April 22, just before interest in the Pixies shot up on Google Trends.

Google Trends   Web Search interest  pixies  gigantic   Worldwide  Past 90 days

As I write this, one of the most well known commercial songs, Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”, which featured in this Volkswagen commercial plays in the background at the Starbucks. Referenced in the Time piece linked earlier, this seemed appropriate to include. I only know the song from the commercial, but as soon as I heard it, I thought back to the ad. It’s a poignant spot with four (teenagers?) kids driving through picturesque scenery to a party only to decide it’s just not their scene when the journey ends…and they set off again. I recalled the entire ad in a second.

Music is a powerful motivator and suggestion. It’s a companion at the gym, a friend on a long commute, and a background presence during many events of our lives. But wait, there’s more! All of these qualities make songs powerful components of advertising campaigns.

The Guitar Hero and RockBand franchises were built on this foundation.

If Apple buys Beats, it would be a high-profile acquisition of a brand that has recognition comparable to Apple itself. It’s not Lala, the fledgling music service, or PA Semi, the chip designer. Beats has customers, loyalty, product spotlight and recognition. It has music executives and musicians. It’s crazy, but for a company that has put so much into brand and commercials, right down to the artists it featured for iPods at the time when that was the biggest stage anyone could hope for, this might work out in ways no one can foresee yet.

Apple TV and Gaming

For a man so prolific, complicated, and of course secretive, it should be no surprise that Steve Jobs left behind one quote in his biography which has intrigued readers like no other: “I’ve finally cracked it.”

In some way, shape or form Steve Jobs had solved television, Apple’s role in bringing television and the Internet closer together, or maybe (but not likely) the secret to smellovision.

Many words have already been spilled analyzing this uncharacteristically specific hint, but I had a moment today which made me think.

I have been dabbling with using a standing desk for the past two years. After getting an external monitor to hook up to my laptop and give myself a little more breathing room I converted back to a sitting desk. But today I rearranged my desk again and set the monitor up high once more. And then did something curious: I picked up the Magic Trackpad to resume a video as I was organizing my things.

Standing a few feet away from the desk I held the trackpad in both hand, thumbs on top, like I would an Xbox or PS3 controller. Two thumbs together will scroll, one thumb or the other acting alone will more the cursor, and tapping will select anything selectable.

To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Magic Trackpad is not as clumsy or random as an air mouse (or even a Wii remote at times).

There have been critics of Apple’s current remote arguing that it has too few buttons to be useful and is, in fact, too minimalist. Anyone who has had to type more than a few characters on an Apple TV with it will agree. While there is an app available for iOS devices to control the Apple TV, $200 for an iPod Touch is high price point for a remote control with more than barebones functionality.

But what if Apple is working on a Magic Trackpad 2.0? Cheaper than the current $69 version. Maybe closer to the $50 price of a new Xbox controller. If Apple builds a full television set, one of these would come with it. If that TV can play iOS games…multiplayer games…well, others can join in if they have an iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad or their own touchpad-esque, Xbox-like, Apple Controller.

Mr. Bezos or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kindle Fire

There has been a series of “iPad killers” and alternatives since the Apple announced it in January 2010. Windows tablets, the HP TouchPad, Blackberry PlayBook and, of course, a number of Android-powered  tablets from a large pool of manufacturers. Some of these devices were launched with great hopes and hype but failed to catch on with consumers for one reason or another. When faced with an array of products similar in price to the iPad but without the platform Apple has built around iOS the other tablets have been a tough sell to the general public.

Consumers specifically looking for an Android tablet or who snagged a TouchPad in August can be perfectly happy with those devices as touch-based netbooks with a bit more customization than Apple will likely ever offer. But in many cases this is a niche market: the big bucks (not to mention market share) will be won by the company that targets the masses. The Kindle Fire wants to be that marquee non-iPad product.

For those who just cannot stand Apple products, the Kindle Fire is not an iPad killer. For those who want a tablet to replace most of what a laptop or netbook can do, the Kindle Fire will be a disappointment. While the hardware in the Kindle Fire is quite similar to the BlackBerry PlayBook and it runs Android as the underlying OS, the Kindle Fire is not a full-featured tablet and it’s implementation of Android is a heavily skinned Gingerbread, not Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich. It is however very interesting for what it is: a portal into the Amazon marketplace.

The Kindle Fire is first and foremost a Kindle. Amazon has expanded the Kindle brand from e-ink reading devices to include a color LCD content consumption device that can run audio, video, apps, and the web in addition to text.

As an iPad user for more than a year I have begun to rely on the tablet as an indispensable tool. It has become my primary means of using Twitter, a gaming device, a bottomless notebook powered by Evernote, a recipe book, Netflix viewer, and more. Using a bluetooth keyboard it can function adequately for typing, though primarily as an input device. Editing is still easier with a traditional computer, but is not impossible with the touch interface. After reading some early reviews of the Kindle Fire, I was afraid the iPad use had colored my expectations in a way that would make Amazon’s toe-in-the-water entry into the tablet market.

Instead, I find myself enjoying the Kindle Fire immensely. It’s the first Kindle I have owned, given my reservations concerning e-books, and has created a dilemma for me regarding what device to travel with.

The Kindle Fire provides a pleasant enough reading experience. Although it uses an LCD screen instead of e-ink I have not found myself wishing for the latter outside of battery concerns (the Kindle Fire is good for “all day” use, but it needs to be charged every day or two even if just used for a little light reading). I have read Kindle and blog content extensively on my phone and on the iPad, so the LCD is not a change from my normal reading habits when I’m paperless. With its seven-inch display, the Kindle Fire fits easily in my hand and the user experience is similar to holding a heavy paperback book. If it were a little lighter and had a bit more battery life I would probably never wonder if I could be happier with an e-ink reader instead.

Watching video from the Prime Instant Video library is painless, although like Netflix (whose app supports the Kindle Fire) the free streaming selection is limited. Of course, Amazon matches the iTunes store here with their additional selection of movies and TV shows available to rent or purchase. The screen isn’t as large as the one on the iPad, but it’s good enough for a device that can fit in a large pocket and is either used on the go or while sitting somewhere without a larger screen. The music capability is similarly functional: tight integration with the Amazon MP3 store and the ability to upload your own tracks to Amazon’s cloud and either stream them over WiFi or sync a number of tracks to the Kindle Fire for offline playback.

Audio, video, and e-books are and should be the Kindle Fire’s strengths: they are strengths of Amazon’s cloud and digital offerings. What sets the Kindle Fire apart from Amazon’s other devices is the Appstore. Given how the store has expanded over time in terms of Android phone apps, the relatively limited selection of apps for the Kindle Fire at launch is not necessarily a sign failure. As the first Android tablet aiming to catch on with a mass market, the Kindle Fire could spark developers to build tablet apps for Android in the first place. Because the Kindle Fire can be perfectly usable just with the Amazon content available, apps can be an afterthought, but are very nice to have for anyone wanting the tablet functionality in addition to the pure content consumption.

By downloading a few apps: Evernote, Seesmic, and Wolfram Alpha, in addition to the pre-loaded Pulse, the Kindle Fire feels enough like a tablet to leave home with it and still have some computing power at your fingertips. With a few productivity apps, including several office suites, a few games, and music and video content, the Kindle Fire is sitting between a traditional e-reader and a full-fledged tablet. As a WiFi-only device priced at $199 it is almost targeting iPod Touch owners more than those who have taken, or want to take, the tablet plunge with the iPad.

The Kindle Fire is smaller than an iPad, less powerful, and not really better than Apple’s device for anything outside of the e-book experience because of its size. It might be clunky browsing the web, the keyboard is good-not-great, and the document syncing and magazine experiences don’t feel as fully baked as the areas where the goal is simply “purchase from Amazon” but the Kindle Fire is primarily a device to drive sales to Amazon after all. 

When it comes down to it, when leaving the house without a bag, I can stick the Kindle Fire in a coat pocket or carry it as I would carry a single book on the train or outside the house. The iPad is a file folder of infinite capacity that can contain all your information and transform itself into a number of devices through apps. The Kindle Fire by contrast is a limitless Moleskin notebook that can do a few other things as well.