Geoffrey Long
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The nebulous case for a netbook/notebook.

For the past week-and-some-change my old brother-in-arms Nick Bastin has been hanging out at our place, taking an extended vacation here in Boston. In between marathon sessions of Rock Band, Lego Rock Band and Beatles Rock Band (see a trend emerging here?) Nick and I have been debating the issue of netbooks. For the Black Friday-Cyber Monday weekend, a number of vendors have been slashing their prices on netbooks, bringing them down into impulse-buy range. The one that I was eyeballing, Dell's Mini 9, is the same beastie that another old brother-in-arms, David Seitzinger, had some luck hacking into a usable 9" Mac netbook, and although he had a few cautionary words on the experience, I was all set to pull the trigger and order one of those beasties to use as a small word processor when the damn thing sold out. Rats.

Still, it's just as well – since Apple is apparently doing their best to crush the of-questionable-legality practice of installing Mac OS X on non-Apple hardware, I should probably wait until Apple does release a similar piece of hardware. I could also just use Linux or Windows, but really what I want is something smaller and lighter then my MacBook Pro (or a 12" MacBook, for that matter) and yet more feature-rich than my iPhone that I can carry around with me and take some of the strain off of my back. For the last few weeks I've been limping around due to a pinched nerve of some kind in my leg, and one of the underlying causes for sciatic nerve pain is something wrong with one's back. This is making me reconsider the wisdom of my shoulder bag – and what it is that I really need.

A Portable Toolkit

For the longest time, I lugged around an absolutely ridiculous amount of hardware. The general idea was that my bag contained a mobile media studio – camera, videocamera, audio recorder, some video game equipment, art supplies, laptop, etc. As I've gotten older, I've traded portability for power: my digital SLR camera largely sits unused, replaced by a tiny digital Elph; I usually use my laptop more than either desktop machine (and, in fact, my desktop machine at home hasn't been functional in months); and my portable game devices are getting more use than the ones hooked up in my living room. Unfortunately, I think my back is paying for it.

That's why I've started eyeballing the netbooks. For the next little while, the major thing I need a machine for will be word processing. I'm not using Photoshop anywhere near as much as I used to, and I'm not even using Microsoft Word so much as I am using BBEdit or Scrivener. What I'm considering is using a netbook as a simple portable typewriter, and I'd like to have something super lightweight and super tiny that I could still use my preferred workflow setup on – hence the desire for a Mac netbook, to run BBEdit and Scrivener.

What I really, really want to do is store my documents in the cloud and then access those files from anywhere with a small, yet fully-featured, device. If I could hook a keyboard up to my iPhone and run a Scrivener or BBEdit client on that, I would – but we're not there yet.

The Best Is Yet To Come?

It's entirely possible that the best thing for me simply doesn't exist yet. I'm still absolutely enthralled by the Microsoft Courier prototype tablet that's been making the rounds. What I love about it is that this monster is essentially a digital Moleskine, replicating the functions of a pocket notebook (note taking, scrapbooking, mindmapping and/or to-do list management) while slotting neatly in between the phone and the primary computer. Although there's no evidence to support it yet, my suspicion is that the device can be turned sideways and one of the screens becomes an iPhone-esque virtual keyboard. Even if it doesn't, though, I'd still love to get my hands on one and discover how ti fits into my workflow.

Another experiment I've been considering is what kind of a computer could fit into a camera bag. I've considered building such a device ever since being squeezed behind a big fat guy on the gruesomely-long plane ride back from Singapore, using either a netbook or a phone of some sort as the CPU and hooking it up to a rollable keyboard and a set of goggles for the visual interface. I'm not sure I'm ready to get all Johnny Mnemonic in public yet, but it would be a neat thing to try out.


Another thing I've considered is hauling one of my dead laptops out of storage and attempting to Frankenstein something out of that – I have an old PowerBook 1400c that's begging to be put to some use, and a Lombard that I still consider to be the prettiest chassis Apple's made in decades – but none of these satisfy the 'smaller and lighter' requirement. There's some real appeal to using something really antiquated and figuring out how to make it suit my needs, but the weight thing is a deal killer. Even a MacBook Air isn't quite what I've got in mind yet.

Something's Gotta Give

I suppose Apple will have something to announce in 2010, since they've got to be feeling the recessionary hurt in their computer division if not the iPod and iPhone divisions, but we'll see. As I was saying to Nick this week, we're in the middle of another hardware lull, which is bad timing for the industry. Although nobody's buying a lot of hardware right now, I suspect I'm not the only one who would find the money to spend if there was something obviously worth spending it on.

Until something gives, though, this is likely to remain just a thought experiment. The problem is a pain but not enough of one yet to warrant spending a ton of money or time to fix it; in another 6-8 months, hopefully something will come a little more clearly into focus. Perhaps the Courier will finally reach the market, or perhaps Apple's long-brewing entry into this field will be another game changer. In the meantime, I'm keeping an eye on the super sales.


Moving into the Cloud.

(The following is a draft of an essay I'm kicking around and will probably post over at the C3 blog. I'd appreciate your thoughts and comments – it's less of a blue-sky thinking piece and more of a clarification and "this is what I'm doing in this space" piece, so it's a little different from my normal fare.)

There has been much made lately of the tech sector's newest favorite buzzword: cloud computing. Like many such newly-minted terms, there is some dispute about its actual definition; I wrote about one such permutation in a previous entry for the C3 Weekly Update when the MacBook Air was about to be unveiled at the Macworld conference in January. In it, I conflated the terms 'cloud computing' and 'ubiquitous computing', but in retrospect I should pull the two terms apart somewhat. They're still linked at a very basic level – both cloud computing and ubiquitous computing hinge on the idea of decentralization, which I'll get back to in a bit – but by attempting to distinguish these two terms, we begin to gain a clearer idea of where our digital culture is heading next.

Ubiquitous computing, or 'ucomp' for short, posits a world populated by reactive data points everywhere you look. Similar to the world put forward in Stephen Spielberg's Minority Report, these digital interfaces react to your presence and present useful information often embedded in the very objects we hold. Ucomp is a world of intelligent objects, of RFIDs and spimes, and its patron prophet-saints are Adam Greenfield (Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, New Riders 2006) and Bruce Sterling (Shaping Things, with Lorraine Wild; MIT Press 2005). This is the world where the early settlers are the Nike+ sneaker, the GPS-enabled iPhone 3G and Wal-Mart's embedded inventory systems.

Cloud computing, on the other hand, is the result of users divorcing themselves from individual computers and moving their data onto the web. In a way, this is a return to the era of the public terminals in college libraries that represented the earliest exposures to the Internet for me and others of my particular generation – only it's no longer just e-mail being stored remotely in Hotmail or Gmail or IMAP accounts instead of being downloaded to local hard drives, now it's all of our data. While we have become used to, if not addicted to, the twin pleasures of amassing vast amounts of content and working with it anywhere through laptops and smartphones, the two pleasures simply don't play nicely with each other – unless you can unshackle the content from the access device.

For example, while the initial draw of websites like Flickr was the appeal of sharing my photographs with others, now the big perk is becoming the ability to access my photo library from any machine I want, anywhere I want, anytime I want. I personally maintain a photo library that clocks in at over a quarter of a terabyte, so the idea of being able to fit said library on my laptop and pull up any photo I want anywhere I want becomes laughable. Add to that the additional bulk of MP3 collections and the staggering girth of digital video collections and the issue becomes clear.

This shift was crystallized with Apple's introduction of the MacBook Air: the initial revelation that the machine only came with a relatively tiny 80B hard drive was shocking, but once you took into consideration that said drive was only supposed to contain your operating system, applications and a bare minimum of actual data, it began to make more sense. The reinvention of Apple's .Mac service as MobileMe was even more telling – although the new name is fairly hokey, placing the word 'Mobile' in the service's name points directly to the intended unshackling of the user from any fixed location. Even more telling is the service's new iconography: MobileMe's remote disk on your desktop is represented by a purple hard drive with a fluffy white cloud on it, and the service's logo is another happy little cloud with your apps embedded in it.

That said, this cloud is obviously still forming. Logging into your MobileMe website gives you access to browser-based versions of, iCal, Contacts and Gallery that Apple happily describes as "your desktop on the web", but I have a confession to make: while I've been trying to make the move into the cloud like a good little early adopter, I have yet to ever find a use for these applications. Perhaps it's because I am so hardware-heavy that this unshackling isn't meant for me: I carry a first-generation iPhone in my pocket, I often have my MacBook Pro with me and I have one very high-powered Mac Pro in my office at work and another lower-powered but still quite hefty dual G5 in my office at home. If I were to rely more upon the public computing clusters here on the MIT campus or in public libraries, these applications might be really handy, but so far that scenario has never come up.

Instead, I've cobbled together a strange hybrid of traditional local computing and cloud computing. In my current transitional model, I've offset my paranoia of storing all my data on someone else's server by installing a 2TB MyBook Studio Edition external drive on my home G5, which I've then striped as RAID I for redundancy. (I had a hard drive fail and nearly wipe out my entire music collection earlier this year, hence the paranoia.) Onto this drive I've moved all of my archived data – old projects, photos, music, videos, and so on. I've then made that home machine accessible via MobileMe to my other two machines from anywhere. This huge amount of data is on my machine, in my office, and is (relatively) secure. Meanwhile, I've moved my time-sensitive data, all my currently open projects, onto a 25GB MobileMe iDisk, so that this 'hot' content exists in the cloud and can be, again, accessed more quickly from anywhere. This iDisk is then mirrored on the desktop machine and Mac OS X's Time Machine application backs it up to a second external 1TB drive. Once a project is done, I remove it from the iDisk and archive it on the home machine. InDesign files, Word documents, images of quick sketches, all this new stuff exists in the cloud until it's no longer active, and then gets shunted off to the archives. Meanwhile, more group-centric documents are handled through web applications like Basecamp and Google Docs. While I'm intrigued by online replacements like Mint for my old standby financial app Quicken, the only thing I've been convinced to rely upon for security reasons is the online banking suite offered by Bank of America. While it's entirely possible – even probable – that apps like Mint are perfectly safe, in some respects I'm definitely a conservative old codger, thankyouverymuch.

This is still a relatively new experiment, and anyone interested in following its progress should let me know. It definitely has its drawbacks – for one thing, keeping massive photo and music libraries on a RAID-striped external drive can add some serious time drag to read/write speeds because it's essentially writing everything twice, and for another, I'm still running into serious issues syncing simple things like Safari bookmark files between multiple machines. Still, it has the electric tingle of What's Next about it, which is certainly a lot of fun, and the promise of someday upgrading my relatively heavy MacBook Pro to a MacBook Air has an appeal all its own.

Like I said before, though – this cloud is definitely still forming. In his terrific lecture to the 2007 EG Conference (made available online in a terrific TED podcast), "Predicting the Next 5000 Days of the Web", Kevin Kelly describes the future of computing as shifting away from a mass of individual machines and towards a horde of tiny portals into one singular machine: the Internet. This is another linking node between both ucomp and cloud computing – as both our iPhones and our Nike+ shoes become I/O ports for this one singular machine, and all of this data is combined and made interchangeable, some very exciting shit will be going down. Right now, though, my iPhone doesn't do a great job of doing much computing – but the promise is there. It's possible the greatest buzzword of the 21st century so far is abstraction: the abstraction of content away from presentation through XML and XSLT, transmedia stories and shifting media formats, data and computing hardware. These ideas are all connected, just like these terms, just like this one machine – and that's where our culture is most definitely, yes, converging.

Bring it on.


Take good care of my baby...

For months – actually, since almost when I first got it – I've had issues with Remiel, my MacBook Pro. It's emitted a high-pitched whine whenever the brightness has been turned up past the halfway point, but that I could at least deal with. Earlier this summer, though, its mouse key started to stick, which quickly sent the machine sliding down a slippery slope from kludgey to unusable.

So, today, I finally took it into the shop. As it turns out, the extended AppleCare I bought for it covers all the repairs (YAY!) but it'll take about five days for it to get turned around and get Remiel back into my eagerly-waiting hands (BOO!). As Laura so helpfully pointed out, I still have Magellan (my three-headed dual G5 tower) at home and Yujinaka (my Cintiq-headed Intel Mac Pro) at work, so this shouldn't be that big a deal. Still, it feels weird to not be able to tinker with something on the laptop while watching TV. Shoot, I blew most of Saturday catching up on work and personal projects while watching the entire second season of Heroes on Blu-Ray. Tomorrow I'll be in my home office for most of the day, I suspect, continuing to chew away at the backlog of emails, putting the "labor" in Labor Day. I have got to get an air conditioner back into that room.

Friday. I'll have my baby back by Friday. I can make it that long, sure I can...

In other news, many of the reports flitting about the web following the film's release were absolutely right: 21 wasn't bad, but it didn't include nearly enough Asians in the MIT scenes.


I love this thing!

Today I started out kind of excited but also kind of ambivalent. Really, how cool could the iPhone possibly be?

Now, after only one day's worth of playing with it, I'm convinced, Laura's convinced... This thing is amazing! It's about half the thickness of my Treo and easily ten times as powerful, not to mention a hundred times more fun and elegant. Further, I think I'm getting the hang of this keyboard - I'm starting to think that maybe, just maybe, I can use this instead of my laptop when I'm hoofing it around campus. Earlier today my friend Josh called me an Apple fanboi - and you you know what? I am, and I'm proud. Thanks, Apple - this thing rules!

Testing the iPhone.

Man, posting to my blog using my iPhone is going to take some getting used to! The keyboard is definitely easier to use when it's horizontal but it's still tricky as all get out!


Keynotes getting worse?

Is it just me, or are the Apple Keynotes getting more and more disappointing? Today's WWDC keynote featured the following:

  • EA returning as a Mac game developer
  • Stacks, folders in the Dock
  • Translucent menu bar and a 3-D dock
  • "Back to my Mac" .mac feature, which is essentially iDisk
  • Cover Flow in the Finder, which is useless eye candy
  • Quick Look, a moderately useful enhancement of Preview
  • 64-bit Finder, which might be useful but I'm skeptical
  • Core Animation, which might be useful but is more likely to be useless eye candy
  • Boot Camp built-in, which is already out in Tiger and admittedly done better by Parallels or VMWare
  • Spaces, which is pretty cool
  • Movie Time Dashboard widget, which is okay but nothing new
  • WebClip technique for widget building, which we saw last year
  • iChat Theater, which will be useful
  • iChat Photo Booth effects, which totally won't
  • Time Machine, which is just a built-in backup system
  • Safari for PC, which will be great if it catches on
  • AJAX apps for the iPhone, which was a given

Seriously. No new hardware, no really jaw-dropping revelations for Leopard, a promise of 300 new features but nothing truly revolutionary demonstrated today, which suggests that the other 290 are all things like "changed the icon for the Canon printer driver".

Apple computers have gone to suck. The iPhone could be cool, but they're totally neglecting their original market. The writing was on the wall when they dropped 'Computer' from their name and just became 'Apple, Inc.' – where's the Blu-Ray drive or HD DVD drive? Where's the real increase in .mac value? Where's the new hardware? Where's, well, anything new for the Mac people?

It's tragic that of all of this, the thing I'm the most excited about is a translucent menu bar and some new desktop photos. This keynote sucked, and so does the outlook for Apple's computers. What a disappointment.


First iPhone photos in the wild?

It would appear that the first pictures taken with an iPhone have just surfaced, courtesy of some EXIF data and some rabid Flickr-searchers. There are two photos, one of which isn't that great (largely due to some horrible backlighting) and one of which clobbers my little Treo's snapshots six ways from Sunday. I'm a little surprised there's no mention of any videocamera capacity in it yet; even my dinky little Treo can take video clips. Or maybe activation of the videocamera capability will come as a free upgrade...?


New Apple upgrades?

Word on the street this morning is that Apple just bumped their top-of-the-line Mac Pro to an 8-core system, meaning each one sports two 3GHz quad-core Intel Xeon processors. It's been a while since I've been in the market to upgrade my tower – it's a dual 2-GHz PowerMac G5 – but I'm waiting to see how well it handles CS3 and Leopard. Part of me wonders at exactly what the power increase would be; if Leopard and CS3 really destroy these old processors I might consider it, but as superficial as it sounds (hey, I am an Apple designer junkie) I honestly doubt I'll upgrade until they redesign the exterior. The Mac Pro is still essentially a G5 tower, which is feeling really, really dated by now. Well, to me anyway. I'd love to see Apple do a complete surprise at their next unveiling and reveal cherry wood cases or something completely bizarre for their next iteration, but I get the feeling Ive's gang has its hands full with the iPhone
and the rumored iMac redesign and views the Mac Pro as more or less a 'perfected design', which is kind of sad. Resting on one's laurels is almost always fatal in this industry.

Also of note, Apple also lowered the prices of their Cinema Displays, which brings the 23" down to $899 from $1299, which is impressive, but not as impressive as the bargain-basement prices for ACDs in the refurb department: $550 for a 20-inch, $749 for the 23-inch and the 30-inch for $1599. $1599 for the 30-inch behemoth that debuted at three grand! Of course, this is probably just an attempt to clear out this stock before the new revised line of displays drops this summer, which will likely sport HDCP, integrated iSight cameras and potentially a thinner bezel (they always seem to sport a thinner bezel). If Apple were clever, they'd also add some additional ports – my old blue-and-gray Studio Display had video-in ports on the side and a toggle switch to choose between the Mac and my VCR or game station or whatever. To get that same functionality back, I'm now eyeballing a $350 HDMate adapter to plug in my Xbox 360. Not cool. Apple giveth and Apple taketh away...


Put some color on?

So Apple just launched new colors for the iPod shuffle – the same palette, mostly, as the iPod nanos. Mostly – for some reason there's an orange shuffle but no orange nano, and (annoyingly) a black nano but no black shuffle. I myself would only be interested in a silver or black shuffle, so if I buy a new one, it'd be the silver one. The question to my mind, though, is why would I want one? After all, not buying a 1GB shuffle is essentially a $79 discount off an iPhone, and an iPhone is an 8GB iPod. True, this is a big step down from my current 60GB iPod video, which is sad, but the addition of the phone is pretty sharp. The question is whether to buy a first iteration iPhone or wait for a while until the dang thing actually has enough capacity to carry around more of my (increasingly growing) video collection...


Apple changes everything again.

If you've missed the news, you've been under a rock – Apple just stitched up the online video market. Between the new video iPod and iTunes 6 (which lets you buy and download music videos and ABC TV shows for $1.99) it's a brave, brave, brave new world.

I can't get over how huge this is. We independent content creators should soon be able to distribute our TV shows, movies, whatever straight through the web to our audiences. This is going to be amazing.

More on this very soon. I need to finish watching the Counting Crows videos I've been wanting to own for years.