Category Archives: WiFi

Handhelds for the Rest of Us?

Ok, it probably shouldn’t become part of my habits but this is another repost of a blog comment motivated by the OLPC XO.

This time, it’s a reply to Niti Bhan’s enthusiastic blogpost about the eeePC: Perspective 2.0: The little eeePC that could has become the real “iPod” of personal computing

This time, I’m heavily editing my comments. So it’s less of a repost than a new blogpost. In some ways, it’s partly a follow-up to my “Ultimate Handheld Device” post (which ended up focusing on spatial positioning).

Given the OLPC context, the angle here is, hopefully, a culturally aware version of “a handheld device for the rest of us.”

Here goes…

I think there’s room in the World for a device category more similar to handhelds than to subnotebooks. Let’s call it “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU). Something between a cellphone, a portable gaming console, a portable media player, and a personal digital assistant. Handheld devices exist which cover most of these features/applications, but I’m mostly using this categorization to think about the future of handhelds in a globalised World.

The “new” device category could serve as the inspiration for a follow-up to the OLPC project. One thing about which I keep thinking, in relation to the “OLPC” project, is that the ‘L’ part was too restrictive. Sure, laptops can be great tools for students, especially if these students are used to (or need to be trained in) working with and typing long-form text. But I don’t think that laptops represent the most “disruptive technology” around. If we think about their global penetration and widespread impact, cellphones are much closer to the leapfrog effect about which we all have been writing.

So, why not just talk about a cellphone or smartphone? Well, I’m trying to think both more broadly and more specifically. Cellphones are already helping people empower themselves. The next step might to add selected features which bring them closer to the OLPC dream. Also, since cellphones are widely distributed already, I think it’s important to think about devices which may complement cellphones. I have some ideas about non-handheld tools which could make cellphones even more relevant in people’s lives. But they will have to wait for another blogpost.

So, to put it simply, “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU) are somewhere between the OLPC XO-1 and Apple’s original iPhone, in terms of features. In terms of prices, I dream that it could be closer to that of basic cellphones which are in the hands of so many people across the globe. I don’t know what that price may be but I heard things which sounded like a third of the price the OLPC originally had in mind (so, a sixth of the current price). Sure, it may take a while before such a low cost can be reached. But I actually don’t think we’re in a hurry.

I guess I’m just thinking of the electronics (and global) version of the Ford T. With more solidarity in mind. And cultural awareness.

Google’s Open Handset Alliance (OHA) may produce something more appropriate to “global contexts” than Apple’s iPhone. In comparison with Apple’s iPhone, devices developed by the OHA could be better adapted to the cultural, climatic, and economic conditions of those people who don’t have easy access to the kind of computers “we” take for granted. At the very least, the OHA has good representation on at least three continents and, like the old OLPC project, the OHA is officially dedicated to openness.

I actually care fairly little about which teams will develop devices in this category. In fact, I hope that new manufacturers will spring up in some local communities and that major manufacturers will pay attention.

I don’t care about who does it, I’m mostly interested in what the devices will make possible. Learning, broadly speaking. Communicating, in different ways. Empowering themselves, generally.

One thing I have in mind, and which deviates from the OLPC mission, is that there should be appropriate handheld devices for all age-ranges. I do understand the focus on 6-12 year-olds the old OLPC had. But I don’t think it’s very productive to only sell devices to that age-range. Especially not in those parts of the world (i.e., almost anywhere) where generation gaps don’t imply that children are isolated from adults. In fact, as an anthropologist, I react rather strongly to the thought that children should be the exclusive target of a project meant to empower people. But I digress, as always.

I don’t tend to be a feature-freak but I have been thinking about the main features the prototypical device in this category should have. It’s not a rigid set of guidelines. It’s just a way to think out loud about technology’s integration in human life.

The OS and GUI, which seem like major advantages of the eeePC, could certainly be of the mobile/handheld type instead of the desktop/laptop type. The usual suspects: Symbian, NewtonOS, Android, Zune, PalmOS, Cocoa Touch, embedded Linux, Playstation Portable, WindowsCE, and Nintendo DS. At a certain level of abstraction, there are so many commonalities between all of these that it doesn’t seem very efficient to invent a completely new GUI/OS “paradigm,” like OLPC’s Sugar was apparently trying to do.

The HftRoU require some form of networking or wireless connectivity feature. WiFi (802.11*), GSM, UMTS, WiMAX, Bluetooth… Doesn’t need to be extremely fast, but it should be flexible and it absolutely cannot be cost-prohibitive. IP might make much more sense than, say, SMS/MMS, but a lot can be done with any kind of data transmission between devices. XO-style mesh networking could be a very interesting option. As VoIP has proven, voice can efficiently be transmitted as data so “voice networks” aren’t necessary.

My sense is that a multitouch interface with an accelerometer would be extremely effective. Yes, I’m thinking of Apple’s Touch devices and MacBooks. As well as about the Microsoft Surface, and Jeff Han’s Perceptive Pixel. One thing all of these have shown is how “intuitive” it can be to interact with a machine using gestures. Haptic feedback could also be useful but I’m not convinced it’s “there yet.”

I’m really not sure a keyboard is very important. In fact, I think that keyboard-focused laptops and tablets are the wrong basis for thinking about “handhelds for the rest of us.” Bear in mind that I’m not thinking about devices for would-be office workers or even programmers. I’m thinking about the broadest user base you can imagine. “The Rest of Us” in the sense of, those not already using computers very directly. And that user base isn’t that invested in (or committed to) touch-typing. Even people who are very literate don’t tend to be extremely efficient typists. If we think about global literacy rates, typing might be one thing which needs to be leapfrogged. After all, a cellphone keypad can be quite effective in some hands and there are several other ways to input text, especially if typing isn’t too ingrained in you. Furthermore, keyboards aren’t that convenient in multilingual contexts (i.e., in most parts of the world). I say: avoid the keyboard altogether, make it available as an option, or use a virtual one. People will complain. But it’s a necessary step.

If the device is to be used for voice communication, some audio support is absolutely required. Even if voice communication isn’t part of it (and I’m not completely convinced it’s the one required feature), audio is very useful, IMHO (I’m an aural guy). In some parts of the world, speakers are much favoured over headphones or headsets. But I personally wish that at least some HftRoU could have external audio inputs/outputs. Maybe through USB or an iPod-style connector.

A voice interface would be fabulous, but there still seem to be technical issues with both speech recognition and speech synthesis. I used to work in that field and I keep dreaming, like Bill Gates and others do, that speech will finally take the world by storm. But maybe the time still hasn’t come.

It’s hard to tell what size the screen should be. There probably needs to be a range of devices with varying screen sizes. Apple’s Touch devices prove that you don’t need a very large screen to have an immersive experience. Maybe some HftRoU screens should in fact be larger than that of an iPhone or iPod touch. Especially if people are to read or write long-form text on them. Maybe the eeePC had it right. Especially if the devices’ form factor is more like a big handheld than like a small subnotebook (i.e., slimmer than an eeePC). One reason form factor matters, in my mind, is that it could make the devices “disappear.” That, and the difference between having a device on you (in your pocket) and carrying a bag with a device in it. Form factor was a big issue with my Newton MessagePad 130. As the OLPC XO showed, cost and power consumption are also important issues regarding screen size. I’d vote for a range of screens between 3.5 inch (iPhone) and 8.9 inch (eeePC 900) with a rather high resolution. A multitouch version of the XO’s screen could be a major contribution.

In terms of both audio and screen features, some consideration should be given to adaptive technologies. Most of us take for granted that “almost anyone” can hear and see. We usually don’t perceive major issues in the fact that “personal computing” typically focuses on visual and auditory stimuli. But if these devices truly are “for the rest of us,” they could help empower visually- or hearing-impaired individuals, who are often marginalized. This is especially relevant in the logic of humanitarianism.

HftRoU needs a much autonomy from a power source as possible. Both in terms of the number of hours devices can be operated without needing to be connected to a power source and in terms of flexibility in power sources. Power management is a major technological issue, with portable, handheld, and mobile devices. Engineers are hard at work, trying to find as many solutions to this issue as they can. This was, obviously, a major area of research for the OLPC. But I’m not even sure the solutions they have found are the only relevant ones for what I imagine HftRoU to be.

GPS could have interesting uses, but doesn’t seem very cost-effective. Other “wireless positioning systems” (à la Skyhook) might reprsent a more rational option. Still, I think positioning systems are one of the next big things. Not only for navigation or for location-based targeting. But for a set of “unintended uses” which are the hallmark of truly disruptive technology. I still remember an article (probably in the venerable Wired magazine) about the use of GPS/GIS for research into climate change. Such “unintended uses” are, in my mind, much closer to the constructionist ideal than the OLPC XO’s unified design can ever get.

Though a camera seems to be a given in any portable or mobile device (even the OLPC XO has one), I’m not yet that clear on how important it really is. Sure, people like taking pictures or filming things. Yes, pictures taken through cellphones have had a lasting impact on social and cultural events. But I still get the feeling that the main reason cameras are included on so many devices is for impulse buying, not as a feature to be used so frequently by all users. Also, standalone cameras probably have a rather high level of penetration already and it might be best not to duplicate this type of feature. But, of course, a camera could easily be a differentiating factor between two devices in the same category. I don’t think that cameras should be absent from HftRoU. I just think it’s possible to have “killer apps” without cameras. Again, I’m biased.

Apart from networking/connectivity uses, Bluetooth seems like a luxury. Sure, it can be neat. But I don’t feel it adds that much functionality to HftRoU. Yet again, I could be proven wrong. Especially if networking and other inter-device communication are combined. At some abstract level, there isn’t that much difference between exchanging data across a network and controlling a device with another device.

Yes, I do realize I pretty much described an iPod touch (or an iPhone without camera, Bluetooth, or cellphone fees). I’ve been lusting over an iPod touch since September and it does colour my approach. I sincerely think the iPod touch could serve as an inspiration for a new device type. But, again, I care very little about which company makes that device. I don’t even care about how open the operating system is.

As long as our minds are open.


Free WiFi through AT&T

Starbucks ditches T-Mobile for AT&T | Crave : The gadget blog

Too bad it’s Charbucks but it’s still a bit of good news, especially for us AT&T Broadband subscribers. In fact, I even thought about going to spend a few minutes at *$ because of this news item. But since there are plenty of much superior cafés around town and that they all provide free WiFi, I just ended up bringing the MacBook to a few nice cafés, feeling all good inside (and outside: cafés have patios, here).

So, the deal is more an inspiration than anything else. Same thing about the *$/Apple deal for music distribution. The concept sounds good but the specific partnership would have been better if it had been made with places where people care about real coffee. Or about local music scenes, for that matter.

Of course AT&T’s WiFi services are much broader than this deal. I’ve already talked about my positive experience with AT&T customer service. I recently talked about configuring AT&T’s DSL to work with my Belkin WiFi router. So I probably sound like an AT&T shill, at this point. But I’m just a happy customer and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. Right?

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MuniWiFi in Rural Quebec

Municipalité de Nouvelle Miguasha Gaspésie Québec Canada

Nouvelle, a rather small village of 2000 inhabitants in Eastern Quebec, is rolling out an inexpensive plan for municipal wireless using WiMAX.

MuniWiFi has often been criticised, especially in the United States. Some plans, especially in large cities, have been pegged as anti-competitive and “bad for business.” Sprint Nextel’s involvement in WiMAX  is possibly being reconsidered. But the Nouvelle plan seems different.

In this case, the municipality isn’t competing with a private provider since wiring up the region wouldn’t be profitable for a private provider anyway. According to a short report on a tech podcast over at Radio-Canada, the plan is to integrate the WiMax plan as a utility on residents’ tax bill. Apparently, the plan would cost 50$ (CAD) a year for each household.

Given the current economic conditions for remote parts of Quebec, this could easily be the beginning of a new trend. Not that a small village would suddenly be transformed into a hub of tech expertise. But opportunities for telecommuting can eventually reverse the trend toward “rural exodus.” Some comment writers on the Radio-Canada piece mention the possibility to bring young people back to rural areas in Quebec. In fact, there’s currently a government-sponsored campaign to get young people to move away from urban areas back into rural areas. Similar campaigns exist to get newcomers (immigrants and migrants) to move to those areas. Much of these campaigns might have more to do with employment than with anything else and the notion seems to be that the best way to attract anyone to those regions is to have good employment opportunities.

At the same time, some urbanites are moving to those regions. Gaspésie, where this WiFi-savvy village is located, is one such region which attracts increasing number of wealthy urbanites who move there to avoid the stresses of city life. The result is often that real-estate prices are going up for the most desirable places, making it more difficult for young locals to get their own propriety. It also seems that some urbanites fail to engage in the local communities to which they moved, thereby creating some tension between individuals in those communities.


Montreal Coffee Renaissance?

Just posted a message about my Caffè in Gamba, a new café in Montreal.

CoffeeGeek – Regional: Eastern Canada, Caffè in Gamba (Montreal Intelligentsia)

Because this café’s website isn’t online yet, I would need to repeat the info. The café is located in a new building at 5263 Park Ave., between Fairmount and Bernard. It’s first claim for fame is that it’s the first place in Montreal to have Intelligentsia coffee on its regular coffee menu. But I think it’ll become much more than this.

Owner J.F. Leduc is surprisingly soft-spoken for a passionate coffee lover. But I think he prefers it if the coffee “can speak for itself” instead of him having to hype coffee enjoyment out of existence. In fact, he has a bit of the same humble attitude you would notice in an actual barista in Northern Italy. They know what they like but they remember that they’re in the service industry! 🙂

I think Leduc can become a key player in the broader movement to make Montreal a real coffee destination.

Granted, I tend to be overly enthusiastic about such things. And I’ve been disappointed in the past. But I have a good vibe, especially after I got a chance to chat it up with Leduc.

I also notice something bigger, happening in town. There’s a number of Montrealers who really care about coffee. And Montreal’s ready for a new phase in its coffee history.

Veritas, in Old Montreal, is home to Anthony Benda, whom I consider the best barista in Montreal. They sell the Epic blend from Vancouver roaster 49th Parallel. My hope is that Veritas can help people understand the beauty that is West Coast style espresso in a culinary context.

Gamba has a different role, in my opinion. It may become a local hangout and certainly has the potential to educate people about the pleasures of espresso drinking. But my feeling is that it may spread other aspects of café culture and/or be part of something more specific to Montreal.

I’ll certainly go back to Caffè in Gamba in the near future and, as soon as they have their site up, I’ll link to it from this blog as well as other online venues.

In the meantime, maybe somebody can help J.F. set up his wireless router? 😉


OLPC WiFi?

Intel modifies Wi-Fi to add mileage | CNET News.com

The system isn’t designed for the U.S. or Europe. Instead, it is part of the chip giant’s efforts to bring computing technologies to people in emerging markets. The communications infrastructure in most of these countries is fairly anemic and most of it is concentrated in cities. Villages, where a large portion of the population lives, are effectively cut off from the outside world except by car, bus or footpath.

Glad to see as much emphasis on “emerging markets” from tech sectors. Either the OLPC trailblazed for this to happen or it embedded itself in a broader process of acknowledging the needs of those societies with lesser GNPs…


Apple Video Conference Phone???

I’m probably reading way too much into this. So I’m just speculating on rumours. But the implications could be huge. Apple’s main site currently has a teaser “The First 30 Years Were Just the Beginning,” in preparation for MacWorld San Francisco. What if the big announcement on Tuesday was more than a mere iPod-based phone. What if this were about a true camera phone, one which could be used for video-enabled chat?Two ideas from PiperJaffray’s Gene Munster, republished by Apple rumour site AppleInsider:AppleInsider | Apple seen launching new iPod, iTV and iPhone at Macworld

6. iSight camera, 4GB or 8GB storage on the iPhone (7 out of 10). Recent rumors point to an initial release of two iPhone models: a 4GB version for $249 and an 8GB model for $449. Both models are rumored to feature two separate batteries in the handset, one for the phone and one for the music player. Also, Apple has successfully branded the iSight cameras on the MacBook and MacBook Pro portables and it is likely that they will eventually extend the brand to the iPhone line. With music, photos, and video from iTunes, the iPhone will be a media-rich device and an iSight camera would add to the eco-system of media/communications on the device.

10. iPhone to feature ‘iChat Mobile’ video and instant messaging (2 out of 10). Again, we believe that the iPhone will be a media-centric communications device and messaging features would work nicely with such an ecosystem. While it is unlikely that the first iPhone will feature video conferencing, this is certainly a feature the company could add to future models, including a possible smartphone model.

The second part is, according to Munster, very unlikely. But how cool would it be?Quite cool indeed. Revolutionary, almost. Just think about the impact picture phones, coupled with Flickr and YouTube, has had on the world in the recent past. The move toward citizen journalism, user-created content, the YouYear…And the technology is largely there. Apart from ubiquitous WiFi to make it practical, of course, but that’s almost a detail for the world in which Apple visionaries tend to live. As for battery life and other technical issues, it shouldn’t be so much of a matter if the rumoured specs for the phone (with two batteries) are to be believed.What is more likely to prevent Apple from coming out with such a device is the fact that Apple has strong ties with “content companies,” especially in movies and music. Surely, these people would have a hard time getting past the idea that these are mostly meant to be bootlegging tools (as if bootlegging was the main intention of most people, at this point). So, even if Apple does come out with a mobile iChat AV on Tuesday, it surely will be somehow crippled so that people can’t use it during shows by commercially established artists (independent artists and “up and coming” artists already know the value of fan recordings and would find ways to promote them). In the end, even artists might benefit as people would use the devices to do cool video mashups (using Apple’s iMovie and other iLife apps, of course) but, in the meantime, Apple will still play it cozy for “content companies” and media conglomerates.Ah, well…