Dreaming of an Apple Tablet

With all the reports of an Apple tablet, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about what it might be and how it might work. Last night, pathetic as this might sound, I even had a dream about it.

I should clarify… my dream wasn’t of the unicorns and rainbows and angels sort. I didn’t dream about the joy of owning an Apple tablet. Rather, my brain seemed to be trying to figure out what Apple would do with a tablet. It’s my belief that Apple under Steve Jobs generally tries to solve computing/media problems through elegant design, instead of just coming up with cool (and sometimes lame) products. For example, Apple’s routers are all about making them super easy to set up. Sure, other routers work just fine (often with more features and a lower price), but Apple’s routers are pretty and easy to use. Same with Apple TV. Same with the iPhone, iTunes, iPhoto and more. (The Apple speakers are a glaring exception.)

In fact, Apple often doesn’t create the best products in their class, when comparing features and price. But, they create the best experience and they solve problems by making it easy to do what you want. And in that regard, their products are the best.

So, back to the purported tablet. The first question that one must ask is, what’s the point of a tablet? What can I not do now on my iPhone or MacBook or iMac that a tablet would solve?

Honestly, I can’t think of much. For the most part, I like how quickly the iPhone responds and it is sized appropriately for what are essentially personal functions — phone calls, listening to music, watching short pieces of video, playing casual games. But, I can’t multitask. And, the iPhone is a terrible text input device. The MacBook takes longer and is a bit less convenient for simple tasks, but I can work on my MacBook in ways that the iPhone is simply incapable of (writing long bits of text; editing audio/video, etc.). A bigger/faster iPhone could close that gap, I suppose. Perhaps that is what the tablet would be.

At 10 inches, a tablet could still serve as a personal device, but one that creates a bigger social barrier than the iPhone does. Watching videos on that screen might be nice, but it’s also far more antisocial than the iPhone. What, my wife and daughter and I are all going to watch different movies on our tablets on the couch? I don’t think so.

Playing games is somewhere in between. Sure, I like to play games on my iPhone, but I prefer playing games with other people.

Reading, though, is still a personal endeavor. So is working on a document. And both could benefit from the larger screen. So, a tablet could be useful for reading text, especially if it was as fast to respond as my iPhone is. I could totally pull a tablet out of my bag for reading the latest New Yorker while waiting at the dentist’s office. Is that enough? Perhaps only when you consider the larger ecosystem.

If Apple incorporates .me, iWork and iLife, and takes full advantage of the media ecosystem Apple has built, it could work. Furthermore, if that ecosystem were to be expanded to include more text, be that novels, graphic novels, comic books, textbooks, repair manuals, cookbooks and more, and could allow access to one’s content from anywhere (think the recent LaLa acquisition plus “Back to my Mac.”) I think that’s one of the possible killer features. Whereas the Kindle is really just about text (with some lousy graphics) from Amazon, Apple’s tablet could serve up any text-and-graphic-based material from any source. For example, I could see having complete access to one’s iPhoto library and then using the tablet to create slideshows on the fly. Or access to my home media library.

To accomplish this, the table would require:

  • an incredible high-resolution display for video and text
  • mobile internet connectivity
  • a simple interface
  • a long battery life
  • unparalleled thinness and lightness
  • a modicum of Flash-based storage

Several things it would not require:

  • a removable battery (Apple has already shunned this concept)
  • an input device
  • optical media
  • ports, other than mini-USB

The mini-USB port would take care of charging the device. Everything else would be wireless. Heck, even the charging could be wireless, if they employed conductive recharging technologies.

The interface is the most interesting aspect of such a device. Apple’s not likely to include a keyboard or any other input device. But what if they did something totally radical? What if they used eye tracking? This is already in wide use as an observation tool for studying usability. Could it be used here, too? Just wild speculation, but it could be pretty cool.

But, here’s the thing: my iPhone and laptop are both capable of doing those things now. And that gets me back to the core issue: what would the Apple tablet solve for me? I don’t know, but I’m excited to see what Apple can imagine that I can’t.

Some wicked multimedia tools…

At the Online News Association’s annual conference last week in San Francisco, I showed a few cool tools journalists might find uses for.

The first tool I showed was Swivel. This is a great and easy tool for taking data and creating interactive graphics from them. Here’s an example:


Swivel is free, though if you want to keep the data private, you have to pony up some cash.

The second tool I showed was AudioBoo. This is a nifty podcasting app for the iPhone. Not for listening podcasts, but for making them. Here’s how it works:

  1. Download the app
  2. Create an AudioBoo account
  3. Use the app to record audio
  4. Snap a photo to go with the audio
  5. Title the audio and tag it with keywords
  6. Publish the clip

The result is both a file and an RSS feed that one can subscribe to through iTunes. One can also automatically publish the audio to Twitter, Posterous, Tumblr, and more.

Here’s an example of the embedded audio player:


Those were the two main tools, but we had some extra time, so I offered two bonus tools.

The first bonus tool wasn’t really a tool, so much as just something too damn cool not to show. Specifically, Yelp!’s secret “Monocle” augmented reality tool. Basically, it works by layering information over a live camera image. Here, watch this YouTube video to better explain it:


And here’s the last one: regular expressions, also known as grep, or pattern-matching search.

Basically, this is a method of search or find-and-replace that uses wild cards and variables. Say, for example, you have a list of names, like this:

  • Jefferson, Thomas
  • Washington, George
  • Adams, John
  • Franklin, Benjamin
  • Lincoln, Abraham
  • Hancock, John
  • Jay, John

And, you want to change the order of each name to make it first name, space, last name. That is, instead of “Jefferson, Thomas” you want “Thomas Jefferson.”

Without grep/regular expressions, you’d have to cut/paste a bunch of names or retype them. (Or, you could find the comma and replace it with a tab, copy the lines to an Excel spreadsheet, change the orders of the columns, then copy the lines back to a text editor and then find/replace the tabs with spaces.) But, there’s a far easier way.

If you have a grep-enabled text editor, like TextMate, TextWrangler or BBEdit (among others), simply search for this:

(.*), (.*)

and replace with this:

2 1

So, how does that work? Simple. The period is a wild card for any character. The asterisk means “repeat.” So .* means “any character followed by any character, followed by any character, etc.” Because .* is followed by a comma and a space, that first set will find all the characters until it reaches a comma and space. And the parenthesis assigns that text string to a variable. So, it will find “Jefferson” and assign it the variable “1.” (The first set of parentheses gets the variable “1,” the second set of parentheses gets “2” and so on.)

After the space, another .* will find the remainder of the line and, thanks to the parenthesis, assign it the variable “2.”

Finally, it replaces what it finds with the value of “2,” followed by a space, followed by the variable “1.”

See? Yeah, I know it’s kind of obtuse. But, play with it and check out this awesome grep reference site.

Mac problems solved! (And more…)

For some reason, I’ve had a number of Mac issues lately. As anyone who knows me knows, I’ve been a Mac user since 1987, when I was introduced to it by my high school English teacher, Mr. Davis, showed it to us and said all our papers had to be created on it. (By the way, I promise to finish The Odyssey soon, Mr. Davis.) I had long used The Apple ][, but the Mac was new to me back then.

So, Mac issues aren’t usually a big deal. This past week, though, I had several of them.

Where’d the Apple TV go?

First, my Apple TV wasn’t showing up in iTunes after upgrading to Snow Leopard. iTunes acted like the Apple TV was connected, but it wouldn’t show it in the devices list. After restarting the computer with the shift key down to put the Mac in “safe” mode, iTunes saw the Apple TV just fine. Upon further review, I discovered that Intego NetBarrier was the culprit. I removed all traces of it from the computer and Apple TV has been happy ever since.

Now, since NetBarrier is designed to block unwanted intrusion into your computer, it makes sense that it would block Apple TV by default. And I’m sure that I could have mucked around in the NetBarrier settings to allow the Apple TV through, but honestly, I’m already protected by a NAT router (Airport Extreme), so the extra caution seemed not to be worth it.

Active Directory blues

As it happened, I was also having a problem connecting to Active Directory at work from my laptop. For some reason, the computer refused to bind to the service. Again, after much exploration (and the aforementioned Apple TV discovery), NetBarrier again seemed to be the culprit. I removed it and Active Directory is singing again.

Quicken resuscitated

I’d also been noticing a problem with Quicken 2007. It had stopped downloading transactions from my banks for no apparent reason. I tried resetting passwords, rebuilding the PIN Vault, turning off online banking and turning it back on again, changing financial institution names (like from “zWachovia” to “xWachovia” or just “Wachovia” — the funky names, by the way, are vestiges of past banking mergers. As a former First Union customer, I’m under “zWachovia” these days. I’m sure it’ll eventually become “qWells Fargo” or something.), but nothing worked. I kept getting OL-249 errors and notices that Chase had changed its online banking schemes. Finally I came upon the solution. I had to download a special security update from Quicken. After running that update on Quicken, my downloads worked again. Why this critical issue isn’t better addressed on Quicken’s site is beyond me.


Now, on to other matters technological. On the iPhone front, allow me to highlight some recent additions to my app collection:

AppBox Pro: For just $0.99, this app will replace dozens of others and do it with more style than what it replaces. It sports a level, currency converter, date calculator, flashlight, random number generator, tip calculator, translator, unit converter and more. I mean, really, this is great not just for what it packs in, but for everything else you can get rid of.

Boxed In: This puzzle-like game is fast and tons of fun. Basically, you have to move boxes to clear a path to a door. Sounds easy. And for a while, it is. But then it gets really challenging. Level 44 baffled me for days.

Navigon: This turn-by-turn GPS navigation software is my favorite that I’ve seen/tried. Yeah, it’s pricey, but they keep making it better. It announces road names, it allows you to control the iPod functionality without leaving the navigation app, and soon it will include live traffic information. It does expose the flaw in the iPhone not allowing parallel processing, but so it goes.

DoodleJump: This deceptively difficult game is all about orienting the phone to cause this little guy to jump from level to level. Hard to explain, easy to learn, impossible (?) to master.

Madden NFL: Fun football game, but really, does anyone have a fucking clue what all the offense and defense plays are? Those names make no sense to anyone but John Madden.

Yelp: You gotta love the augmented reality Easter Egg. If you’re on a 3GS, start up Yelp and then shake it three times. That enables “monocle.” Once that’s enabled, you can select it and point your phone (like you’re taking a picture) at some shops. Yelp will tell you what each building is. This, my friends, is the future.

That’s good for now.

Some tools I use…

This might or might not be of interest to folks, but I’ll share anyway. There are a number of third-party apps I use that many people might not know about. Some of you might already use them, others might not. Here are a few of them with links and a brief description. I suggest you check them out.

1Password: This manages (and creates) passwords and auto fills them from any browser. Syncs across computers and devices. Extremely handy way to auto-enter information and maintain security. http://agilewebsolutions.com/products/1Password

A Better Finder Series: This makes it super easy to batch rename files in complex ways. For example, you can easily change a bunch of files that are named “FirstName LastName.jpg” to lastname-firstname.jpg” and more. http://www.publicspace.net/ABetterFinderSeries/

Adium: This is a multi-client instant messenger program. http://adium.im/

AppFresh: This will automatically alert you to updated software. http://metaquark.de/appfresh/

AppZapper: This will delete applications and all of their associated files. http://www.appzapper.com/

Audio Hijack Pro: Super easy way to capture and record audio from any source, such as a video stream or iTunes. http://rogueamoeba.com/audiohijackpro/

Automator: A super-easy way to create automated workflows. http://www.apple.com/downloads/macosx/automator/

Default Folder X: This utility allows you to set default open/save dialog box folders and simplify the navigation of open/save dialog boxes. http://www.stclairsoft.com/DefaultFolderX/

Dropbox: This is a Web-based tool for synchronizing folders across the Web and devices. You can create a drop box on your machine and create a Web interface so that others can easily upload files to it. Sort of like FTP but easier. http://getdropbox.com/

Komodo Edit: This is a cross-platform text editor, like TextMate, TextWrangler and BBEdit. This is particularly useful for PC users. http://www.activestate.com/komodo_edit/

LittleSnapper: This is a great screenshot utility and manager. That is, it will take and manage your screenshots, including full Web pages with Flash on them: http://www.realmacsoftware.com/littlesnapper/

MacFuse: This is an add on that allows you to use Mac OS X file handling on non-native volumes (i.e., Windows, etc.): http://code.google.com/p/macfuse/

NeoOffice: This is an open source version of Microsoft Office, including a database that can link to SQL, like Access. http://www.neooffice.org/neojava/en/index.php

OmniGraffle Professional: This is an awesome flow chart and wire framing tool. I can’t speak highly enough about it: http://www.omnigroup.com/applications/OmniGraffle/ Be sure to also check out their other offerings.

OpenOffice.org: Like NeoOffice: http://www.openoffice.org/

Path Finder: This tool replaces your standard Finder. One great attribute (and there are many) is that when you copy a file, it copies the entire path: http://www.cocoatech.com/

Perian: This is an awesome QuickTime components utility to make all kinds of video files work on the Mac: http://perian.org/

RipIt: Great DVD ripper: http://ripitapp.com/ (Also check out MacTheRipper (http://www.macupdate.com/info.php/id/14414), VisualHub (no longer downloadable) and Handbrake (http://handbrake.fr/) for ripping and encoding video.)

Saft: This is a Safari add on that remembers your open Tabs and lots, lots more: http://haoli.dnsalias.com/Saft/index.html

SuperDuper! This is a data backup and copying utility. Has saved my butt many times: http://www.shirt-pocket.com/SuperDuper/SuperDuperDescription.html

SWF and FLV Player: This will play SWFs and FLVs directly, and will also tell you their dimensions: http://mac.eltima.com/freeflashplayer.html

Switch: This is audio encoding software. Takes your audio and makes them MP3s. http://www.nch.com.au/switch/ (Max is another: http://sbooth.org/Max/)

TextSoap: This is a multi-step text cleaner. In other words, you can link multiple find/replaces in one step and clean up text automagically: http://www.nch.com.au/software/index.html

Transmit: The best FTP client out there with drag-drop interface, droplets and more: http://www.panic.com/transmit/

TweetDeck: A great Twitter client with multiple panes for direct messages, searches, etc.: http://tweetdeck.com/beta/

WireTap Studio: Very similar to Audio Hijack Pro: http://www.ambrosiasw.com/utilities/wiretap/

Xmarks: This will synchronize your bookmarks (and passwords) across platforms and computers. So, your FireFox and Safari bookmarks will always be in sync.: http://www.xmarks.com/

YouSendIt: This is a way to e-mail somebody giant files.: http://www.yousendit.com/

OpenID: This isn’t an application, but a service that will unify different profiles under one ID. For example, you can link several Basecamp accounts under one OpenID. http://www.myopenid.com/

Regular expressions: This isn’t an application either, but rather a way of doing complex pattern-matching search and replace. Let’s say you want to search “Josh is a buffoon” and change it to “What a buffoon Josh is!” You could do that by searching “(Josh).*(buffoon)” and replacing it with “What a /2 /1 is!” It’s easier to demonstrate.

Concatenation in spreadsheets: Also not an app, but a way to take columns of data and turn it into XML. More here: http://www.hatchomatic.com/2009/02/18/simple-xml-template/

Batchgeocode: Need to get lat/long for a place, or a bunch of places?: http://www.batchgeocode.com/

There are more, but this is a pretty good list. I hope it’s helpful to folks.