Lost in a world of IT choice – Not.

I have a confession to make.  For some time now I’ve been indulging in an illicit, subversive, un-seemly behaviour – very much out of keeping with my persona and belief system as an IT hip type person (did I just use the word hip? Sorry, must be stress/guilt).

I’ve been doing this despite having a regular series of RSS feeds, podcasts, pre-defined Google News searches, regular e-mail subscriptions from a variety of sources related to the various fields of interests that I hold from time to time ranging through IT, Current News, Aviation, Aspergers, original thinking and several more. Yes, I have no life. Despite even looking through Twitter regularly and even occasionally reading Facebook … sometimes, about once a month, I buy a computer magazine. Yes, a physical, paper-with-disk-inside honest to goodness magazine. I hope Marty isn’t reading this.

I’m writing about it because yesterday I descended into the unthinkable. After years of this unthinkably legacy behaviour, instead of seeking to correct this weirdness, I succumbed to the economic reality of my addiction and subscribed to the magazine I most commonly purchase, for a year, hoping to save some cash.

By the way Maximum PC – if you’re reading this, how come the first magazine of my subscription came looking like someone had already, with no DVD? Is that normal?

Why is this bad? You have to ask? Magazines are static! Like most other mainstream IT media,  the content is out of date when it’s created – which is weeks (if not more) before I get anywhere near it. Trees die to produce them – completely un-necessarily in this day and age, in my opinion. The damn things are 50% adverts – 50% of which I have absolutely no interest in, even if there’s a genuine babe in the ad, much like some of the content of the magazine itself.  Print Media is dead, it’s only a matter of time, whether they realise it or not. This absolute truth is evidenced by the fact that the New Your Times is now charging for online content – something Rupert Murdoch has been bleating about, but now it’s here. Watch out Google News, your stealing paid content.

Now that it’s done, and I have my first magazine in hand, I’ve been thinking deeply about it and realise that this heinous act is a reflection of the shocking state of affairs we find ourselves in vis-a-vie the PDA/Smartphone/e-book reader/tablet market. It’s only technology dragging it’s heals that has allowed print media to last this long.

Let me explain. Two years ago I had a phone, a PDA and a laptop, and I was happy. Yes, yes I also had (and still have) a wife and family I love, a fulfilling work environment, divergent interests that kept my brain busy, a job that paid me enough and gave me enough time off to satisfy my family and divergent interests – but the point is, I was happy with my PDA/Laptop/Mobile combo. In a world of convergence, I felt I had the perfect solution for me – non-convergence. Then my PDA broke.

Since then I have been wandering in the wilderness without a replacement. Everything has been a compromise. I’m on my fourth phone, my second laptop, no PDA at all. My needs would appear to be simple, and for the most part common to your slightly above average savvy computer user (that excludes most Mac users I guess and by association, most iPhone users as well) who travels the world, yet with all my IT expertise (I’ve been buying computer magazines for a very long time – did I mention that?) – I can’t fulfil them with one device.

I want and need something that can REALLY browse the web, through Wifi and 3G, and do it on a decent screen – online and offline please. Something that REALLY does e-mail, multiple accounts easily managed (not like the iPhone), proper html mail. Something that will REALLY sync correctly with Outlook – Contacts, Calendar AND Tasks, without placing at risk the data that I (at times painstakingly) create and collect – thank you Nokia PC Suite for converting years of timed calendar events to all day events, almost instantaneously, bastards, that took me hours to fix.

What do I mean by REALLY? Well, that would be landscape and portrait browsing. Multi-touch zooming (one for Apple). Flash Support (one away from Apple). Being able to receive e-mail in one account and reply through another. Syncing through something works at least as well as MS Activesync has for about 5 years. Google synchronicity would be nice as well.

Good news on the horizon for Nokia sufferers though – Nokia have completely re-vamped PC Suite into Nokia Ovi, with a mac/iphone like interface. They’ve also completely removed the ability to sync your calendar and contacts with any other folder in Outlook other than your main ones. The day I sync my 1500 or so contacts across to my trusty old e51 is the day it stops working. Thanks Nokia.

Something that intelligently handles time zone changes so that when I tell it I’m in LA (or it works it out itself from the cell provider), it doesn’t go right ahead and adjust every calendar appointment I have throughout the time/space continuum backwards 17 hours – thank you Windows Mobile Phone, idiots.

Hey – does anyone know what PDA The Doctor uses? Something tied to the TARDIS? Anyone?

Something that will satisfy my occasional need to Twitter, Facebook and IM (I acknowledge it’s wrong to call this a need and I’m seeking treatment, taking drugs and have a 12 step program, don’t worry). Something you can actually type stuff into – as opposed to the iPhone/Nexus One keyboards. Onscreen is fine but something external is preferred as soon as you get serious.

Something I can easily and practically use to read documents on – both real content which will ebb and flow gloriously across the screen like a properly constructed ebook, as well as pain in the ass PDF books and manuals that won’t morph at all, damn them. Something I can watch a movie on, listen to music on, would also be nice.

It needs a GPS of course – not so much for the maps, but to take advantage of the quiet revolution that Google is sneaking upon us in the form of search solutions that come to us with the combination of geographical as well as topical relevance.

Something with a battery life of slightly more than a day – as a pilot, some of my days are 36 hours long, at least in terms of finishing your day near a power point anyway. Phone calls would be useful as well – but it must enable VOIP calls as well (good one Apple, finally allow us to use Skype, but keep on blocking Google Talk).

And to top it all off – something that won’t cost me the best part of a thousand US dollars to get up and running – hardware AND software.

The iPhone, I hear you say? Did I mention the keyboard? What is it, not quite 2 years now since the iPhone massed the market? And how many external – blue tooth or otherwise – keyboards are there for the iPhone? Zippo. My old HP 4700 Windows Mobile 2003 device could sit on top of a $100 full sized keyboard that folded out of a container smaller than the pda itself and allow real productivity. Use the iPhone onscreen keyboard – don’t make me laugh. Onscreen smartphone keyboards are the biggest practical joke played on humanity since Chris Sholes “invented” the QWERTY keyboard, which in case you didn’t know is statistically derived to make learning to type as difficult as possible. Here we are 156 years later reproducing that keyboard on Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone. Don’t get me started on backwards compatibility or we’ll end up down the road of the Shuttle’s booster rocket diameter being based on the size of a horses ass, and that’s just not pretty.

Also, the iPhone is Apple. I have another problem right there. No, this is not a rabid, anti-Apple/anti-Steve Jobs bias, it’s a whole lot more anti-bias than that. An iPhone means iTunes. Syncing your data to Outlook with iTunes – have you tried that lately? You thought Activesync was a piece of crap? You have no idea. My kids have iTouch’s – an excellent platform, achieving just what they need it to do for them, and as far as it goes my hat’s off to Apple for the iTouch. But the iTouch means iTunes. We are now forced to put all our music and video into iTunes at my house. At last count, this is about 80gb of music and perhaps 900gb of video. After almost 2 years now of iTunes, trying to manage the music tags so you can find something, trying to recover bought music when we upgrade operating systems or computers, trying to get the library to share the content through to the media devices in the house – including other computers also running iTunes (how hard is that?), watching version after version of this bloatware crap come down through my internet connection like fat leaches through a tiny drain pipe, sucking my life’s blood away, I’m ready to buy two sticks for each of my kids and tell them to make their own entertainment. If they want to share their music, they can stand near one another and bang away.

Although I’m a PC guy (and deeply, emotionally offended at the PC Guy portrayal in the Apple ads) – I am not speaking with anti-Apple-ignorance like some. I did own one of the early iPhones. I was startled by the web browsing, initially pleased with the emailing, impressed with the growing suite of Apps, what a crappy phone. Did you catch that last bit, Steve Jobs? How is it that I can set an alarm on my 3 year old, fifty dollar Nokia, turn the phone off so it won’t wake me up (or go flat) and have it turn on and ring at the alarm time – but you can’t do that on $500 plus of iPhone?

I also support some legacy software apps that need to work with Macs, so I run a couple of virtual Macs on my PC. Let me tell you that’s no mean feat either. You want to run PC software on a Mac – Ok, you’ll need any of a number of standard virtual PC emulators that are easily obtainable and installable on the Mac and cheap to buy. Want to do the reverse, run the Mac on your PC? Now you’re in deep trouble, plumbing the depths of the enthusiasts market of hacked software and patched together open source, public licence solutions that no one in their right mind would touch. Something like my experience of playing with Linux a few years ago – no offence Linus.

So you can easily do PC-On-Mac – but it’s seriously not fun trying to do Mac-On-PC – what does that tell you? Which group of consumers has it right again? Would that be the 12% Mac market share? Hmmmm.

But on one level at least, I’m pleased that there are Macs in the world. When I’m struggling to fix some 5+ year old, crappy PC computer of a friend who invited me over on the pre-text of good coffee and cake to bang my head (both metaphorically and physically) against his corrupted Windows ME installation – it is music to my ears to hear them say “I think we should we buy a Mac – I hear Mac’s don’t have the problems of PC’s?” At this point my internal reaction is “Could you have told me that BEFORE I spent 90 minutes just trying your crappy Pentium Three computer to boot in Safe Mode? You’re gonna buy a Mac? – Piss off, I’m not going to fix your computer NOW.

At this point, one of two things would happen. Externally, I would either say, ”Yes, I hear that as well – go buy a Mac”; or I would still like them at this point (good coffee/cake) and say “Yes, I hear that as well – go buy a Mac. It will cost you not quite twice as much, you will need to buy and re-learn all your software again unless you are very plain vanilla users who genuinely only want to email and browse.” (how many times have you hear that? Then they go and buy Halo and want to know why it runs slow) ”Your kids won’t be playing games on it and – oh yes – I won’t be around to fix it – I don’t do Macs”.

In spite of good coffee, I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut at these times, and we’re all much happier now – or at least I am, because I only ever hear once more from my friends who buy Macs … “Hi, want to come round for a coffee – we bought a Mac and we’re having trouble with …” … “That would be great, but unfortunately I don’t do Macs … This is a  recording … please leave a message you don’t mind me deleting.

But I digress.

I played with a Sony e-book reader for a while. Slow and ugly, it does an ok job of handling those properly formatted e-books I mentioned before; and a shocking job of dealing with the crappy PDF non-flowing text books and manuals I’m forced to deal with as an Aviation professional (and an IT amateur). If you have time, patience and some expertise, it would be barely acceptable I suppose. No solution there – besides, buying ANOTHER device JUST to read e-books is insane.

Google has released it’s Nexus One (sue, Philip K. Dick, sue), on the back of 12 months of Android phone releases by other providers. I have yet to play with one, and will do so as soon as I can, but what I read gives me some pause. Initial lack of multi-touch is an issue, only 512k of ram for apps another. In some ways, the Nexus One is like the iPhone mark one. Intriguing, but not there yet. I could be an enthusiastic Nexus Three user two years from now.

Apple is soon to release the iPad. While it’s early days, and damned expensive for a device that won’t replace my phone, it does looks very promising with a larger screen that may just revolutionise the e-book reader market, at least until Apple pairs it with e-books in iTunes. Goddamned iTunes. Of course no multi-tasking, iphone operating system, no external USB/Card access, no GPS/Camera/Flash Support … In the very least the iPad will herald a series of PC devices that will bring real functionality to the market.

Because tablets are the future. I’ve been watching Star Trek for years and know this to be true. Two years from now we’ll have tablets up the kazoo, reading the daily newspaper, downloading books from Amazon (and Apple), watching movies on them, controlling your Hifi with it, navigating in your car, listening to music, on top of the usual email, browsing, etc. You’ll even be lowering your expectations a little and gaming on them (although not Halo 5). Hell, perhaps the iPad will have an external keyboard by then. Probably not the iPhone though.

*    *    *

I have a magazine subscription. They say the first step to a cure is admitting your problem. In this case I realise what I have actually now done is to put the rest of the world on notice – guys, you have a year to get off your tails and fix the PDA/Phone/EBook reader market with a device that actually works. You have been warned – don’t make me renew. In the meantime – I’m going to lash out and buy a …

Ken



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About Ken

Ken has flown numerous Boeing and Airbus types. He is currently a Boeing 777 Check and Training Captain with a major international airline serving as the Fleet Standards Manager (and formerly as the Training Manager). Connect with Ken on Twitter.

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