Louise Duncan on the ACU Connected Summit

Louise Duncan:

The ACU Connected Summit on February 28th and March 1st had over 500 participants from around the world. I was surprised to be the sole representative from Australia, as this event rallied together best practice and thinking for the future of mobile technology in education from across the globe.

Great write-up and a fine summary of my talk.

Of 3G iPads and MiFis

Today I asserted on Twitter that a 3G iPad is far superior to a WiFi iPad paired with a MiFi device. To save myself answering the "why do you say that" question twenty times, here's the tl;dr version.

Let me say that a MiFi makes perfect sense if you have multiple, WiFi-only devices that you want to get online. If you take issue with my claim, please save yourself time and stop reading now, happy in the knowledge that I have not been Wrong On The Internet.

My computing life consists of an iMac, an iPad and an iPhone. That's all I own. I also have a 3 MiFi. Let me explain why I vastly prefer the integrated 3G in the iPad over a WiFi iPad with a MiFi (hereinafter referred to as an iPad/MiFi for ease of typing).

Reason 1: call it User Experience, or Connectedness or Ceremony.

When using the 3 MiFi, there is too much setup involved for casual use. A lot of this is down to the poor design of the 3 MiFi. Here's what you do to get online:

  • Power on the MiFi
  • Wait for it to acquire the network (20 seconds, in my absolute-best-case experience - usually much, much worse)
  • Turn on the WiFi radio - another 10 second operation
  • Turn on the 3G radio - 10 seconds to turn on, another 10 to get to 3G status
  • Unlock the iPad, get it associated with the MiFi, get an IP address - another 10-15 seconds

The MiFi will power off after a period of inactivity, so you're talking about a total of around a minute or so every time you want to connect. 56k dial-up modems didn't take that long to get you connected. When I was using an iPad/MiFi, I found that there were times when I wanted to use the iPad online but would just fall back to using the iPhone because it was already online.

Compare to the 3G iPad: you unlock it, you're online.

Reason 2: Battery Life

It's true that the iPad 3G doesn't quite achieve the stellar battery life of the WiFi model, but you'll still get many, many hours of runtime.

With an iPad/MiFi you're only working online for as long as the MiFi can stay alive - in my experience, about two hours of continuous use. With a 3G iPad, your internet connection is hooked up to the iPad's impressive battery and you're online as long as your iPad is alive.

Reason 3: Less Stuff

Perhaps a minor point but in this new world of lightweight, minimalist computing perhaps relevant. With an iPad 3G, you just keep that baby charged and you're good. With a separate MiFi, you're taking an extra charger on holiday and you've got one more thing to remember to keep charged.

Reason 4: On-board Status

My MiFi is on the 3 network and that's not a great network around here (despite what the coverage checker says grumblegrumblegrumble). The MiFi has an incredibly poor signal strength indicator: green for "good" (not, surprisingly, always equivalent to "actually working" in my experience); yellow for "not that good" and red for "bet you're glad this is Pay As You Go, sucka!". At the same time as the MiFi is fluctuating all over the place, the iPad is still convinced that it's on a super-solid five-bars WiFi network.

Tricking the iPad into thinking its on WiFi does have some benefits, though: all the "you can only download this over WiFi" restrictions from the App Store and iTunes are lifted because all of those restrictions depend on the radio status of the device itself.

The downside is that, when the network goes away, the iPad doesn't know about it. All it knows is that packets aren't coming back. Instead of failing immediately because there's no IP, apps will keep trying and trying until they hit their timeouts. This sounds trivial but it's incredibly frustrating in practice.

On balance, I prefer to have the network status up there in the status bar on the device - with more than three guesswork colours to distinguish them - and to have the OS and apps know more about the network.

Everything Changes

Today everything starts to change. None of us know yet whether it all changes for good or for bad but I feel fairly certain that the discussions we have about computing won't be like the discussions we had last year. The change won't be overnight, but it will come.

Amit Gupta wrote an interesting post comparing laptops to point-and-shoot cameras. His point being that the rank amateurs for whom they were intended are gravitating towards camera phones and the serious amateurs are being creamed off by low-end DSLRs.

Amit draws the parallel between desktop computers (DSLRs), laptops (point-and-shoots) and the iPad (cameraphones). The only wrinkle, I'd say, is that laptops aren't as squarely aimed at amateurs than P&S cameras, but I am aware that everyone I know who owns only one computer owns a laptop.

The analogy works for me because the power of desktop computers is edging downwards in price. Witness the 27" Core i7 iMac that I use daily for all my development work. People who provably need computing power can get it in a cheapish desktop machine. Those who need serious computing power can move up to the Hasselblad of desktop machines, the Mac Pro.

I'm a photographer of sorts too and, for years, I scoffed at camera phones. I was even more contemptuous of those who seriously claimed that a camera phone was "all they wanted". How could that be, when you couldn't fix colour balance, crop, retouch, etc.

It wasn't that cameraphone users didn't care, they didn't even care to learn enough about photography to know that such things were available to care about.

Today, I shoot more pictures with my iPhone than my EOS 30D.

An example which, I argue, may generalise quite well

At the moment, my family stock of computer hardware is as follows:

I use a 27" Core i7 iMac for development, photography and most of my computing life. I have a 15" MacBook Pro that I take to school and on trips and an iPhone 3GS.

The MacBook Pro is little more than a data cache: it has a copy of my Dropbox, a few cloned Git repositories, my synced OmniFocus database and that's it. I could recreate that setup in under 10 minutes on any Mac.

Carolyn, my wife, uses a 20" Core 2 Duo iMac and an original iPhone (her 3G met, shall we say, a watery end). She uses it for using the web, email, watching BBC iPlayer and producing the occasional flyer for her Mothers & Toddlers group.

April (age 5) has an iPod touch. I didn't exactly give it to her - it was at one time a development device - but it seems clear that it's now regarded as hers. She adores audio books and is quite partial to a game of Pickin' Time.

I can easily see us becoming a one-Mac, three-iPad family by the end of 2010. Carolyn's iMac will be gone. My 15" MacBook Pro will be gone. We'll both have iPads.

At School

When I go to teach, what do I use? The tools are surprisingly simple. I use Pages, Keynote, Safari, Preview to read PDFs. The only big thing I'll miss on the iPad is Apple Remote Desktop, but I can find an admin machine for that.

It'll be fascinating to see where the rough corners show up in using the iPad as a day-to-day teaching tool. I'll be writing it up here for sure.

On The Road

The iPhone has already changed my entire travel experience. In the Olden Days, the laptop was the most important thing to take, and everything was geared around finding ways to hook it up to power and internet during layovers between Glasgow and San Francisco. Those days have been gone for a while.

In the past year, I've found that I carry the laptop "just in case something happens", where that something rarely does.

I've needed a laptop in cases where I have to give a presentation. The iPad will handle that.

I've needed a laptop in cases where I have to reply to a lot of email. It certainly seems like the iPad will stand up to that better than the iPhone.

I've needed a laptop in cases where I have to code on the road. The iPad definitely won't handle that.

In all honesty, as my children have grown up, my trips are growing shorter. As my products and development processes have matured, I'm doing fewer emergency bug fixes. When I'm travelling, I'd really rather spend my time relaxing, hanging out with My People and occasionally keeping up with the world than holed up in a hotel hacking away.

The only time I've done Serious Work on the road in the past four years was during WWDC '08 when I was rushing to get Darkslide 1.0 finished for the opening of the App Store.

The one thing that I didn't have an answer about until today was The Photography Question. It turns out, though, that the iPad supports RAW images from digital cameras (I presume the same files as Mac OS X supports).

My most data-intense photography trip of the year is when I shoot the Scottish Ruby Conference. This year - last weekend - I came home with 873 RAW images from a Canon 7D and 30D. The 7D at full-bore produces RAW images around the 24MB mark. That's about 21GB of RAW images. That's not a huge chunk out of a 64GB iPad, and many modern DSLRs will now record a reduced-resolution RAW file that's more than fine if you're just going to Flickr (where 99% of my photos end up).

Assuming the iPad can actually handle that kind of load, performance-wise, then it could become a serious tool for review in the field.

The Future's Bright

As a user, I'm extremely bullish on the iPad. The iPhone turned into more than we ever thought it could be. The iPad will be the same.

Reflections on dConstruct 2009

In another attempt to implement the career pattern I call Get Out of Your Subculture, I attended dConstruct 2009 in Brighton.

There were a few factors in choosing dConstruct: it's in Brighton, so it offered an opportunity to hang out with my friends at Realmac Software and meet a bunch of people from online. It's a one-day conference, so the hit to my working-time wasn't too great and the price was right. Most of all, through, Adam Greenfield was the keynote speaker which stoked my latent ubicomp infatuation no end.

dConstruct is notionally a "web" conference but, this year, the theme was "the future" and that's somewhere I've always wanted to go.

dConstruct was a slightly different crowd from most developer conferences in that there were - gasp! - actual human females in attendance. More of that later, but the other thing that struck me on a facile level was the dress sense. It goes like this: optional retro headgear, thick black-rimmed glasses, beard, suit or corduroy jacket, t-shirt possibly referencing Super Mario Bros or other retro/ironic subject, jeans, chuck taylors. Accessorise with a dSLR and iPhone.

Aaaaanyway....the actual conference.

Adam Greenfield's keynote blew my mind. People I talked to found it dense and intellectual. It certainly was but, given that I've been interested in similar topics for many years, I found it an absolute delight to listen to. I hope to heaven someone recorded the talk, because it easily contained a 1:10 ratio of "listening time" vs. "thinking time". Probably more like 1:100.

THe second talk was by two gentlemen from Stamen Design, talking about their work in Information Visualisation. The concepts they introduced were really not that new to anyone familiar with the usual InfoVis taxonomy (and they admitted such during the session), but it's good to see that kind of technology becoming more mainstream.

The final session of the morning was Brian Fling talking about how "mobile" is influencing and, sometimes, rearranging the way that design is done. I suppose I took away the message that it used to be "mobile tacked on the side" and is now - sometimes - "mobile first". That said, I thought that the example of Tweetie moving from the iPhone to the desktop was not a strong argument. Twitter, in part due to its utter simplicity, lends itself to mobile-esque design in a way that few other problem domains do.

I took quite a lot of issue with Brian's talk and found it quite unsatisfying. I know dConstruct isn't necessarily a technical how-to conference, but I felt that Brian's talk didn't contain nearly enough actual lessons from the past decade's experience of mobile design. Instead, we got a half-talk on the pop history of the '80s and '90s and then a few thoughts on what might happen in the future. The recurring "no flying cars" gag eventually wore a little thin.

After visiting Realmac towers at lunchtime, the second pair of sessions commenced with Robin Heinecke talking about "juicy feedback" in computer games in particular and designed artifacts in general. This talk went down terribly badly on the Twitter backchannel, and I'm not entirely sure why.

Much of the criticism seemed to be, on the surface, around Robin's choice of font, font colour and style. Secondarily, some people expressed dissatisfaction with the word "juicy" and wondered if there was really a point to the talk. As a Mac developer, I understood exactly where Robin was coming from.

I was surprised at the ferocity of response that this talk generated. It made me wonder if it was just coincidence that this was the only talk given by a woman. It's not as if Robin's talk was the only one that was a little vague or undirected.

August de los Reyes from Microsoft's Surface group gave a talk about emotion and user experience. As I write this, I honestly can't remember a whole lot about his talk, apart from a good dash of self-deprecating humour and references to Marvin Minsky. I think I was probably just getting a little tired by this point in the day.

One more break and Russell Davies took to the stage with a bravura performance in the finest traditions of the great British music hall. I mean, when you see a stool and a suitcase of props on stage, what else does that suggest to you? In between several hysterically funny gags, he delivered what was easily the best line of the conference, referring to a disposable coffee cup lid with an elaborate rotating levered mechanism for closing the drinking-hole in transit:

"I look at this, and it just says 'Tweetdeck' to me."

His elaboration on that line hit home (once I had stopped crying with laughter): incredibly complicated solutions to problems that we, ourselves, created.

In summary, a very worthwhile conference. I gained a whole lot to think about.