The mighty paper UI

Supermarket

I went shopping last weekend, and since my capacity for remembering things is slowly degrading (sigh) I often make a shopping list when I have to buy more than 500 items. Okay, maybe that's a bit exaggerated. I mean 50 items. Alright, alright, still exaggerated. I begin to consider a shopping list when I have more than 5 items to buy and I definitely make one if there are more than 10. So, I'm on my way with my shopping list, which -befitting my rank as a software engineer- was stored on my smart phone. Just a few years ago, this might have been considered geeky or eccentric, but nowadays smart phones are so common that it hardly catches anyone's eye. I frequently take notes on my phone, for the simple reason that I have it always with me, and it's often closer than a notepad or a diary.

So there I was in the supermarket, having to check the contents of the shopping cart against my list. No problem, of course. Take phone out pocket and switch the display on to show the main screen (2 sec). Tap on main screen to show launcher window (1 sec). Drag launcher window contents with finger to scroll to memo pad application (1 sec). Open memo pad application (1 sec). Locate shopping list on application menu and tap on it (1 sec). Mind you, that's an optimistic estimation, because something might run more sluggishly than usual. For example, the phone might have discovered a Wifi hotspot and thinks it's a great idea to tell me about it. But I don't want Wifi. Now, six seconds doesn't sound too bad, until I noticed the guy next to me. He had a shopping list, too, one written on paper. He took it out of his shirt pocket in less than a second. Swish. Just like that. Han Dynasty technology beating the smart phone.

That's when I realised, there are situations when you can't trump a paper based UI.

Pocket PCs Suck!

Pocket PCs suck! Well, they do at least suck when they don’t work as they are supposed to. …which is pretty often in my experience. To be fair, I must say that Pocket PCs are great as long as they do work. Since a Pocket PC is like a miniature computer, it offers a functional range and programmability that surpasses almost any other mobile device. Unfortunately, this leads to complexity, and complexity leads to bugs which in turn leads to malfunctioning devices. I’ve been using Pocket PCs for two years now and have developed sort of a love-hate relationship. Probably the culprit is the Windows Mobile operating system. Windows Mobile, although already in version 6, evokes bad memories of the buggy Microsoft operating systems of the nineties. Only that this isn’t the nineties. After ten or fifteen years of consumer mobile phones, we have come to expect mobile devices to work flawlessly. In fact, I am relying on my Pocket PC for many day-today tasks. I use it as a phone, alarm clock, notepad, camera, phone book, and mp3 player and more. My HP iPaq Business Navigator also has an assisted GPS, but I came to see the latter as a toy function. Due to usability issues I hardly bother to fiddle with it.

However, the question I am asking myself now is – isn’t this device just an expensive toy? Where is the robustness that should come with a “business” device . I have put in a good deal of time just to keep my pocket PC working. My HP PPC has seen the service shop twice, once because of a faulty memory chip, and another time because it didn’t boot anymore until the shop installed a firmware upgrade. In addition to that, I have spent a fair number of hours with configuration and trouble-shooting because one or another function was broken. Once I get a working configuration with all the software installed, I use Spb Backup to create a complete backup of the system. Spb Backup is a real life-saver. It backs up all configuration data, user data, applications and system data. Should the device give up its ghost or display odd behaviour (believe me, every Pocket PC will do that at some point), I can perform a factory reset and restore the backup to recreate the former status of the device easily. But even with this tool, the amount of maintenance required seems a little excessive. A gadget that carries the name “Business Navigator” should be expected to work like a business device, namely reliably. Unfortunately, I can’t say that for the HP iPaq and neither for the other Pocket PCs I’ve owned and used. As previously mentioned, I am not blaming the hardware manufacturers. The OS seems to be the crux.

Real business users would probably be better off with a smartphone that requires less messing around. A Pocket PC is more suited to -shall I put it this way- the technically inclined person.

GPS Usability

This is an addendum to the previous blog entry. The GPS functionality is less useful than I expected. Today, I went with my wife to pick up our daughter from school. After leaving the school, we encountered a detour and promptly got lost in the maze of Chiang Mai’s rural roads. “No problem,” I thought, booting up the GPS navigation software on my pocket PC. But there was a problem. In order to calculate the position, the GPS requires several satellite signals. I think the minimum is four. The process usually takes 30-60 seconds. Today, the device appeared to have problems getting multiple satellite signals. When it had acquired two it lost one, then it acquired another, lost another, then all signals were lost at once, then it acquired a new one, and so the game went on, until I gave up after a few minutes. We were back on track even before the GPS could locate us. I suppose, I will put the old low-tech magnetic compass back into the car. It served me well in the past.

HP iPaq 612c – Toys For Boys

According to a recent survey conducted by Spb Software House, 93% of Windows Mobile handheld device users are male. – I found this quite surprising. – It sounds a bit like the demographics in the physics department of my university. There must be something that women don’t like about these gadgets.Granted, the design of HP iPaq 612c Business Navigator probably appeals more to male clientele, but I am quite certain that the functionality of this feature-packed PDA-phone would be useful to both sexes. For example, the word “navigator” stands for Assisted GPS navigation system which is integrated in the device. Who wouldn’t love to have one? Never get lost again, always know where you are…, or could it be that women prefer to ask for directions rather than to fiddle with a GPS? If the GPS doesn’t take the biscuit, then how about the built-in 3 megapixel camera, ladies? (The “c” in 612c stands for “camera”)

HP iPaq 612c Business NavigatorI bought this PDA just a week ago and I have already found multiple uses for it. It wakes me up in the morning; I read the news on it; I am using it as a mobile phone, address book, notepad, MP3 player, and occasionally for a game. I imagine the GPS function would be useful on field trips and holidays, but I have yet to go on one.

The vendor threw in a free 4 GB micro SD memory chip and a Bluetooth headphone (which he promised to deliver next week). 4 GB is probably generous enough to carry around a decent music collection along with the GPS data, photos, backups, etc., etc. – what can I say? You can never have enough memory, but 4 GB seems fair. That’s 1024 times the memory of my first computer which -less than 20 years ago- took up half of my desk space.

The HP iPaq 612c has a bright 2.8 inch QVGA display that performs well even in the brightest midday sun, as I found out today. It’s most distinctive feature is a touch-sensitive “smart wheel” that replaces the typical directional pad on Pocket PCs. It can be used for navigation, similar to the centre wheel on iPods. Unfortunately, the manufacturer forgot to put an “Enter” button in the centre of the wheel, which makes some thumb acrobatics necessary in order to execute complex functions. Instead of the centre, the “Enter” key is located on the right edge of the pad. These ergonomics probably need some rethinking. Otherwise the keypad is great. It’s easy to handle for people who are used to a standard mobile phone pad. I prefer to use a stylus, anyway.

With a 520 MHz processor and 128 MB RAM / 256 MB ROM, the device performs nicely under Windows Mobile 6.0. I haven’t encountered any problems with applications, not even with computation- and memory-intensive games. Connectivity is simply fantastic. The phone is a GSM quadband with GPRS. In addition to GSM and GPS, the device offers 3G, EDGE, HSDPA, Bluetooth, and WPE/WPA-enabled WiFi connectivity, and of course a USB port. Especially the WiFi comes is opportune, since it’s a low cost connection that allows me to go online anywhere at home and at public hotspots. HP provides a neat proprietary connectivity manager application for all of this. All radio connections can be switched on and off with a single tap, which is handy on the plane.

The only thing found fault with is the speaker which is on the back of the device. Why is that bad? Because the sound is absorbed when you put it with its back on a smooth surface. You can hardly hear the phone ringing. However, I have solved this problem simply by leaving the PDA in its leather case, so it’s not really a big issue. In summary, this is a neat device with lots of features and an attractive design that continues the iPaq tradition. Now, if only more women would buy it to balance the statistics.

Mobile future

Pocket PCAfter the dust from this year’s 3GSM fair in Barcelona has settled, it’s perhaps time to reflect on the more long-term issues in mobile computing. Undeniably, we are living in a time of mobile network escalation. More and faster wireless networks are being installed by the day. For example, the island state of Singapore has taken measures to provide free WiFi connectivity to everyone, nation-wide full coverage. And this is only one example. Worldwide, bandwidth is increasing incrementally with mobile networks approaching DSL speeds in a few years.

Applications are starting to shift from traditional voice and text services to a broad spectrum of IP based data services, including email, web, graphics, video and audio transmission. Simultaneously, we see more and more versatile devices being released, from the current explosion of camera phones and smart phones, to high-end PDAs and Pocket PCs. Large companies are spending large sums of money to prepare their attacks on the mobile market. Obviously, it is a very dynamic and promising market. What does it all mean? Where will it all go? What will the market look like in ten years from now?

Obviously, I cannot tell you what the mobile market will look like in 2017, since I am not a fortune teller. I could provide an analysis of emerging technologies and make educated guesses about them. But that is rather boring, probably the sort of article you read every day. So, instead let us use our imagination and picture the mobile future. Actually, let’s make two rational assumptions before we do that, namely (1) that wireless high-speed networks will be ubiquitous in a few years, and (2) that future mobile devices will be as powerful as today’s computers.

Mind you, it’s almost a no-brainer. Today’s PDAs are already as powerful as yesterday’s PCs, and there are countless companies from Microsoft to Motorola working towards phone/computing convergence. But there are of course physical size limitations which will continue to present a challenge. So, traditional computing is unlikely to disappear because of mobile devices, however, mobile device will surely become more intelligent.

In the future, we will have something that I call Personal Mobile Computer (or PMC just to make up another useless acronym), which descends from today’s lines of smart phones and PDAs. You can still make phone calls with it, but these will be VoIP-based calls with integrated voice, IM, and video communication. A typical PMC will have camera, GPS, microphone, antennas, and everything built in that we have now in notebooks, but there will be low-end models as well as ultra-compact wrist-worn models which may lack some of these components. There will also be consumer-style devices with simple interfaces as well as sophisticated high-end devices, so term the PMC will more likely apply to a a whole family of different devices.

Your PMC will offer you a plethora of functionality from portable music, TV, gaming, to personal banking. You will have the option to equip your PMC with a digital identity. If you have a digital ID, then you can use your PMC to pay your groceries, interact with your government, place orders, or just pay for the subway ticket. You will be able to choose which types of applications and vendors/organisations may know your digital ID. You will also be able to choose to disclose your positioning information to certain applications and groups. This will enable a whole range of completely new types of interactions.

Let’s say you are a book collector and you are looking for a certain rare book. Several weeks ago you posted a book query to a GPS query database on the Internet. When you walk through the streets of your town, a local bookshop might pick up nearby PMC signals with book queries, such as yours. The bookshop’s computer will then look up its inventory. If it has the book in store, it will send you an instant message: “Hello, we are RareBooks Inc., which is 2 blocks away from you, and we got the Shakespeare Folio Edition you have been looking for!”

Once at the book store, you receive a phone call from a customer. It is a call that was automatically forwarded to you from the office. Your PMC has previously informed your office’s call routing system that you are currently outside. Your PMC has also decided your availability based on caller group privileges and current privacy mode. While you are talking to your customer, a terminal session to your office computer is automatically established in the background. The terminal connection allows you to use your office computer from your PMC, and just in case the customer asks for the latest delivery schedule, you can send it with a few taps on your touch sensitive screen, which now shows the contents of your office desktop.

Having purchased a nice antiquarian volume and made a customer happy, you are finally heading home by train. On the train, although you planned to read the newspapers on your PMC or watch the train’s free video offerings, you cannot fight the temptation to use the public WiFi in a less productive way. You log into the portal of OtherWorld, the latest multi-player virtual reality game, and while the train is racing through urban landscapes, your PMC takes you on a journey of a different kind. In OtherWorld you are controlling a medieval kingdom which you must defend against invaders. The invaders, as well as your allies and trade partners in OtherWorld, are of course other players with PMCs who interact in realtime.

Unfortunately, your PMC displays an alert before you have a chance to immerse yourself into OtherWorld. It informs you that a member of your local parenting community group is near you. This is part of the GPS-based friends-locator software that can -monitor the geographical distance between your PMC and that of friends and relatives. This type of software is used by all kinds of communities from dating websites to reader circles and sport clubs. You decide to interrupt your gaming session and call your friend who is probably on the same train. It turns out that she is in another compartment, so you decide to establish a video chat over the local network to discuss next week’s parents meeting.

Once you get off the train, you walk through the subscriber’s clearance gate. In a matter of seconds, the short-distance radio signal of the gate connects to your PMC, retrieves your ID and credit status and charges your subscriber account for the cost of the train ride. Since this has become daily routine, you don’t even notice the acoustic confirmation signal any more. And so another mobile computing in the future day draws to a close.