Sunday, May 17, 2009

The unseen face of Wolfram Alpha

I haven't had much time to play with it yet, but I did run across this. Someone at Wolfram has a sense of humor.

Netbooks, Kindles, and iPhones, Oh My!

With the release of the Kindle 2 and the Kindle DX in the last few weeks, I've been thinking seriously about how E-Ink machines compare to netbooks and smart cellular phones. This article by Hadley Stern does a comparison and says the following about one syncing service, .Mac:
.Mac and other technologies is the first step in this vision. It allows my iPhone and my other Macs to stay in sync with bookmarks, keychain items, email accounts, and more. But what I'm talking about is a quantum leap beyond the closed and limited experience of .Mac.

In this new world my digital world follows me around from device to device completely. Whether I am using a public computer at a hotel, a computer in a hotel room, or watching TV at a friends house, flying on a plane with a screen in the seat, these devices will adjust for who I am just by walking in the room. My user profile, documents, desktop, everything will just appear.
Or, as I would state it, with cloud computing, the actual device I use to view the cloud doesn't matter: so I can use anything and just keep my information in the cloud, sync'ed with a few devices.

Here's my analysis, using Hedley's as a starting point. It seems people want the following feature sets on their "smart devices":
  • Color screen
  • Access to cellular service
  • Access to the Web
  • Ability to play some form of entertainment: movies or music or games
  • Ability to type to send emails, write up notes, etc.
Can one device do all these things and not require a lot of power?
  • A color screen requires an LCD right now. Everyone agrees that until E-Ink has color it won't be widely adopted. But it sounds like researchers are starting to make headway on this problem. If color E-Ink comes down the pipes for a reasonable price, the various devices may merge. The key here will be: what size screen do you feel comfortable with?
  • Cellular service is starting to be ubiquitous with Internet service, so we may get to the point that having one means having both, automatically. Skype service on an iPod Touch may cover everything you need. But speed is still an issue.
Entertainment options may be the limiting factor.
  • Movies on the Apple Store, Amazon, Netflix, etc. to rent or buy limit the need for an external DVD player or the need to hook up your device to a desktop machine that has one. But:
  • If you want to watch movies, downloading them over the 'net isn't a viable option without a high-speed connection, so that would require a DVD drive on most devices (or, in the case of an iPhone, a desktop machine that can read the DVD and move it over to the phone).
  • Music can now be delivered via Pandora or Imeem, so you don't necessarily need a large drive to hold your music on your favorite device. You do want a place to plug in ear phones, though.
And what about text issues?
  • While today's twenty-somethings are comfortable texting on cell phones, those of us in the older generations aren't. So that means a QWERTY keyboard, and that automatically requires a specific size.
  • Email is a nonissue now, it appears. You can get email anywhere.
  • The one thing most people don't think about doing on their desktop computers is reading text. Often that was a problem with eye strain. But would you jump for the chance to carry 80 pounds of books on a machine that weights under 20 ounces? Maybe in college, but there seems to be little need for it outside of education except for a few fields: medicine, law.
But I fear that we may see pressure from another venue that hasn't exerted much force on the computing world until now: the environmental movement. I'm seeing a lot of professional rags starting to talk about "green computing," and this may force our hands away from devices that suck a lot of electrical juice and move us to E-Ink where the power usage is minimal.

And it doesn't seem to be the habit of some people to simply stop and plug in their cell phones each night--so something that doesn't require that power connection constantly will be a welcome change. Would government get into the act and require that these devices use less power? If we continue to have brownouts and power dropoffs, we may be forced to adopt serious changes to the devices we use.

Right now, I'm seeing the following model evolving further: most people will have a computer for use at home, either as a laptop or a desktop machine, which will continue to be the hub of the digital life. Then they will have one, and just one, device to provide access to the digital world away from home. Both devices will be expected to be smart energy-saving tools.

Today, some folks may be willing to carry a laptop, a work cell phone, a personal cell phone, a portable DVD player, and a digital camera and all the power cables to power these devices. But people are going to get tired of this and will want one device to handle these needs when they are not home.