Thursday, April 28, 2011

PDA's and Tablets and Computers, Oh My!

I am writing this on my Sylvania netbook. It is a computer, regardless of what the box says. If I so choose, I could replace the operating system, add or remove software, do pretty much everything that you can do with other small computers (with the understanding that, by its nature, it is somewhat limited).
Still, it meets the qualification; it is a computer.
The term computer, though, is being used and misused in interesting ways these days, especially where mobile devices are concerned. Much of this goes back to the early days of these devices and the divergent evolutionary courses they took. One of the best examples is the Apple Newton. Quite a ways into its development, the deliberate corporate decision was made to cut back on its capabilities; it had the potential to cut into Apple's flagship, the Macintosh computer line. In 1992, then Apple CEO John Sculley coined the phrase "PDA" to describe the Newton. With that, a whole new genre was born, satellites for your main computer. Now, a device that held much promise as a stand alone unit is relegated to secondary.
The first Newtons were amazingly powerful little devices, though they could hardly be considered satellites (even though they were). The first Message Pads were as powerful as the early Macintosh computers and has as many features. The problem was that they were too powerful for their size.
They were also too big. The original Message Pads could not fit easily in shirt pockets, unlike similar devices of the day (the Tandy Zoomer, for instance; we'll cover that shortly). It needed a case. In the early and mid 1990's, it was not unusual to see professionals with Newton cases hanging from their belts.
The Newton was, in fact, a tablet computer.
Not so the first true PDA's, though like the Newton they were not originally named such. Various companies had in fact been making digital assistants in various forms since the early 1980's. There was software that would allow some of the early notebook computers such as the Tandy Model 100 series to even act as large digital organizers. The first devices that truly fit the name PDA, even in function, were much smaller though in no way less powerful. One such line was the Tandy Zoomer.
The Zoomer was developed in the early 1990's, partly by the team that would go on to release the even more successful Palm line. When the Zoomer was being developed, the term PDA didn't exist; it was a handheld computer that relied on pen or stylus input. The operating system it ran was a variation of the PC-GEOS desktop running on top of a very lightweight DOS. While it was not as powerful as the Newton, it was in many ways a kindred spirit.
It was also a commercial flop.
And sadly the Newton did not do much better. It's biggest problem was that it was orphaned. It was not a "PDA", even if Apple's CEO coined the term. But it had been deliberately crippled so as not to interfere with their flagship Macintosh line. It never really fit either category.
In reality, the Newton wasn't a PDA. It was a tablet computer, more or less.
So, for that matter, are almost all PDA's.
For instance, I have a GoType keyboard for my Palm IIIxe that turns it into a more powerful computer than my old Macintosh Plus. The Palm OS, though, is interesting in that it really is just a fancy GUI on top of a database, and aside from some fancy applications, doesn't really have a file system like most other operating systems. It's still a computer, as it fits all the classic definitions of one. It's just a small one.
When Microsoft came up with the Windows CE and the Pocket PC concept, they didn't hide behind fancy terms; they were computers, are computers. Some are PDA-like, some are clamshell, some are regular computers, laptop and otherwise.
So you see this becomes a real mess in a hurry.
Okay, we can safely assume that they are all computers. Then why can't we just say that they are all computers? We're letting the corporate powers that be decide? Of course we are! That makes it easier for us to pigeon hole the devices, and it certainly makes it easier to dispose of them when the time comes. After all, they aren't computers.
But they are computers. and capable of a lot more than they want us to think. All of the essentials are there; processors, RAM, storage, methods of input, displays.
You can call it a wireless tablet, sure, go ahead. That little Windows CE laptop can be called an Internet device. And the thing in your pocket? Sure, it's a PDA.
Rest assured, though, they have all the power found in computers that we coveted just a few years back.
Ergo, computers.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


For me, a netbook really represented a satellite computer, one that would work with a larger computer, that would be easier to carry but would not be left with the burden of the work.
Many viewed the early laptops as just that, satellite computers. As each successive generation of computer became smaller, so did our satellite machines.
Now we enter a period where satellites have the potential to be our primary devices. This arises as the nature of computing is changing. Quite a bit of work has been done to create an environment that these devices interact with, the Internet. At its heart, the very essence of cloud computing is making it easier for the user to do day to day task.
The trouble is, quite a bit of the creativity that defined the Internet is also vanishing as a consequence. Personal web pages have given way to blogs, and the information contained therein has likewise diminished. Social networking sites allow us to share a few hundred characters of information at a time. Concurrent with this is a surge in netbook and tablet sales. Meanwhile, the desktop computer has begun to disappear, relegated more and more to business and various institutional uses.
We live in a time when our phones can do more than our laptops did just a few years ago.
But there appears to be a price to pay for this.
Many have noted that mobile and personal computing have become more consumption and less creation. While there are still many places that allow us to be seen and heard, the focus of many of these newer devices seems to be consumption. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. However, market forces, always working in their cold, methodical way, are shaping our choices for us, and if left unchecked, will continue to erode the ability to create, collaborate and contribute.
Which brings me to my initial point. As I play with my mini netbook, I've discovered that with some simple modifications, it can create content adequately enough to be almost ready to be used on its own; it is its own machine. The satellite becomes a world.
The tools to do this are very basic; really, just a light word processor and a better browser. Software for tasks such as image manipulation can be found, and is perhaps a long way off in its basic, Windows CE, form. However, just the addition of a means to create text and move that up to the Internet is powerful enough.
To that end, I am planning on trying a little experiment. I am considering trying to live off the netbook alone for a few days. Currently, I have not set a date for this, but it will probably run for a period of a few days or a week. If I'm right, it may open doors for those who cannot afford larger, more powerful machines. It may, indeed, put the Internet back into the hands of those who use and depend upon it.
It certainly is worth a try.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Control & Usability

Ease of use versus level of control. This is a bit of a conundrum. While I'm a believer in open source and free software, I am also concerned about how to make it easy. Make no mistake, easy to use software is seldom free. There are exceptions, of course. The Sugar interface found on the OLPC XO-1 laptop is very easy to use. However, installing it requires certain skills, namely a better than average knowledge of Linux. Perhaps this will be addressed soon. In the meantime, however, we are left using the lightweight operating systems that come on our various devices, and this makes for some strange bedfellows.

For instance, While I am not a particularly big fan of Microsoft, I will say that I like Windows CE, though the lack of true productivity applications concerns me. This operating system is the standard on most of the current batch of lightweight, inexpensive netbooks coming out of Asia, such as the one I am currently using. There is plenty of potential here.

Then there are all the Android tablets that are appearing on the market. They are exceedingly easy to use. What they lack are productivity applications; whereas Windows CE has relatively few, the Android field is almost non-existent.

Yet both operating systems are easy to use.

The alternative is always Linux, which has the trade-off of being harder to learn yet comes with plenty of applications. This could be resolved in two ways -

make Linux easier to use


create more Windows CE/Android productivity applications.

This is surely something that needs to be revisited, time and time again.