The Process and the Platform

The effort required to actually publish that last post was… considerable. Several factors contributed to this:

  • I have slow internet access at my hotel;
  • Currently, my only (full) computer is my work laptop;
  • This doesn’t have iPhoto installed (this is mostly for reasons of simplicity, I’d probably get it if I asked).

In the end, I wrote the text of the post in Evernote on my iPad (using an external keyboard), since I’m supposed to install an absolute minimum of third party software on the laptop. Next, I did a copy paste into BlogPress, a blogging app which lets you insert images inline. In theory the official WordPress app also does this, except that the upload always fails for me. As you may have gathered, I inserted the images here. This also rescales them, so you don’t need to upload all 12 megapixels. Next, I uploaded it to my actual blog as a draft, and used the web interface to fix any formatting errors and add any extra formatting, since BlogPress doesn’t allow bold or italic text (that I’ve found). That done, I hit the publish button, and: presto!

Needless to say, this is not an ideal workflow. I like using Evernote for writing the actual text (on both iPad and Mac) because it has about the right amount of functionality and it backs everything up and synchronises it between all of my devices. I like having that always available record which I can look back over and search as I see fit. I also like being able to drop one device, pick up another and keep working on the same document more or less seamlessly.

Digression: I also like that I can use it as a permanent record of my notes. Before I moved down to London I was part way through scanning my notebooks from my PhD into Evernote. Evernote runs OCR on the images, finds the text (when my handwriting makes this feasible) and make it searchable. Brilliant. It’s like being able to carry all of my old note books around with me, all of the time.

What Evernote doesn’t allow you to do is freely mix text and images, however. The WordPress interface does (obviously), but that leaves me with the problem of uploading the images. This is where the low bandwidth and lack of iPhoto were became problems. I suspect the cleanest workflow would be to immediately upload an album to Flickr (or other photo sharing site) and then use the appropriate URL to include the image in the blog post. Searching through the iPhoto library manually sure as hell isn’t ideal, and that’s the only real option for doing it image by image in the web interface.

The most pleasant experience I’ve had for putting together blog posts with both text and pictures was actually iWeb, and by a metric mile. iWeb uses the built in OSX controls and lets you select images according to meta-data and what they look like, rather than their file name, as though you were working with a file system specifically designed for serving you images. The iPad does more or less the same thing, in fact, so that part wasn’t actually too bad. Using iWeb leaves you with very limited options for your blog, however. It’s made me think I should look at using a dedicated program, such as MarsEdit, for writing my posts, or at least for the final stages.

Ideally, I need to find a decent workflow, which doesn’t break down when I’m away from home and likely to actually have semi interesting things to blog about, but doesn’t restrict me when I am at home. Ideally, it should allow me to jump between different machines with a minimum of effort, and not require me  to always add the final touches from the same machine. The workflow should also not break down when no internet connection is available. Text is fairly easy. Images make things more difficult, especially if the images were recorded using my own camera.

Lastly, I’m giving some consideration to porting this blog over to Blogger (only if I can transfer all of my posts and comments, however). It’s not a coincidence that I now work for the company responsible for Blogger’s infrastructure. Becoming more familiar with that platform can only really be a good thing for me here. Blogger also gives me a couple of options which WordPress doesn’t, though. Thoughts?

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The Journey Home

Authors note: This post was actually written on Sunday. As it turns out, writing it on the iPad was no problem at all, but actually posting it (with the picture and links) was a different matter entirely.

You know, the train journey from Edinburgh to Doncaster is really quite beautiful, for the most part. A reasonable amount of it happens within sight of the sea and most of the rest passes through open country. The Yorkshire dales is a landscape I find quite pleasing to look out over, unless I’m driving through it, in which case I find to to mostly feel endless. Some of the towns you pass through have more charm than others, of course. Newcastle isn’t without its fans, and Berwick-Upon-Tweed is gorgeous, but I can’t see anyone wanting to put Doncaster on a postcard any time soon.

Why the sudden reflection? I’m on the way down to visit my parents for a couple of days and for the first time in years I’m not taking a “real” computer with me. The implication here, of course, is that I’m taking something which is not a real computer, or at least something which some don’t consider to be one. I picked up an iPad on my recent work trip down under (AU$ was doing quite well against USA$ at the time, which knocked a considerable amount of the price as far as I was concerned) and that’s a gadget I have with me. Yes, I’m typing this on an iPad. I actually typed the majority of this post on it as well, using the on-screen keyboard, and it wasn’t too bad at all. The biggest problem was that it reduced to effective screen area so much. Right now, though, I’m using a bluetooth keyboard for the typing. The iPad itself is resting on the crappy little shelf  attached to the seat in front (angled using one of these cases, which I highly recommend), while the keyboard is sitting on my knee, actually under the shelf. All in all, this setup is one hell of a lot more comfortable than a laptop would be in these circumstances. So that’s definitely a win.

I didn’t buy this thing to replace a laptop exactly, though. That would be silly. Nor did I intend to replace a smart phone with it. That makes no sense. What, then, is it actually for? This seems to be the number two reaction to seeing the thing in my experience. Number one being “cool!” and “it looks just like a giant iPhone!” being quite high up the list, as well. No, what I intended to replace with this gizmo is one of these:

As a general rule, I need to write thinks down more. I should probably make more notes of ideas and such which occur to me when I’m not in a position to do anything about them, and I find that todo lists are basically a necessity when it comes to keeping myself organised. Paper is pretty good for this, as a general rule. I’m pretty fond of my squared paper moleskin journal and when it comes to just scribbling things down I’d say it’s pretty much unsurpassable. But, and there’s usually a but, carrying it around at all times isn’t exactly practical and it doesn’t have an erase (or move) function, which isn’t ideal when you suddenly realise that the diagram you’ve been working on for the last half an hour really needs to be about an inch to the left if you’re actually going to fit the whole thing on the page.

If you’re using Evernote for your notes, though, then jotting things down with a phone (which I do carry at all times) becomes an option. Throw in a couple of other applications and scribbling, brainstorming and generally playing with ideas does become a legitimate possibility. A possibility contained in something no larger than a Moleskin, which does have an erase, and indeed a shift-a-bit-to-the-left, function. Todo lists are a different matter, though, and I’m going to come back to those later.

As a final note here, it should probably be quite obvious that I’m not going to be doing any clockwork aphid related work in the next couple of days, as hacking is not currently a legitimate possibility on the iPad. Someone really needs to write an app which interfaces with Eclipse (or any other IDE) on your desktop and turns it into a context sensitive programmer’s assistant keyboard type thing, though. Expect good things to show up towards the end of the week, however.

…and another (couple of) thing(s)

Something I forgot to mention in my last post was my trying to look at the iPad from a developer’s perspective. I talked before about a programming side project that I’ve had bouncing around in my head for a while. Previously, I mentioned that I wasn’t sure if it was a website, an application, or some combination of the two. Then again I could see some use cases in which a laptop might be a bit cumbersome and a smart phone too small and underpowered. In which case neither the application of the website is entirely satisfactory. I’m actually now starting to think that the iPad could be the exact right platform for it. Perhaps I should actually start working my way through the Objective-C text book I’ve had sitting on my shelf for over a year now…

I have another couple of side projects, some programmery and some writery that have me giving the thing a more than slightly critical glance.

That’s not the point of this post, though. The fact of the matter is that, although it might sometimes seem that way, Apple does not have a monopoly on multi touch user interfaces. If you want to see a particularly impressive example that neither you nor I (nor the governments of some small countries, I suspect) can afford, look no further than the Perceptive Pixel website. Another cool example showing someone playing with a multi-touch implementation of the Warcraft 3 real time strategy game can be found below:

That’s the sort of thing Apple should have shown at their event, in my opinion. There’s also another tablet doing the rounds called the “Joojoo,” which is apparently African for “magic.” You should be impressed already. I bet you didn’t think “African” was a language, did ya? That was news to me, too. This tablet looks one hell of a lot like the iPad, but is has a 12.1″ multitouch screen and features a flash supporting web browser. It costs about the same as the starting price of the iPad, also. Sounds like a better deal, you say? Unfortunately I just listed its entire feature list. Web browsing is all it does and it doesn’t seem to have any capability for offline use. It also has a seriously dodgy past and it’s makers are being sued as a result. What? You want to see it? Oh. Here:

The Joojoo

Clicking on the image will take you to the website. I think this device is kinda cool, but way too limited. Like the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch it features an onscreen soft keyboard… but now I very good one from what I’ve seen. There’s a video of the company’s CEO demonstrating the device and having a bit of trouble working the keyboard. Not a good sign. The hardware looks pretty cool though, the sort of thing a person might be tempted to buy with the intention of hacking. Not me though. I don’t like having to act as my own tech support when it comes to the hardware and operating system.

Perhaps I’m done talking about the iPad and it’s ilk, and I’ll soon find something else to prattle on about… or perhaps I’ll be back soon with a bunch of use cases the think will have to fulfil in order for me to consider buying one, perhaps in the context of these side project I seem to refuse to go into any detail about. Alright, here’s a clue which might have meaning to about one person reading this: Bad Penny.

That iPad thing

Originally, right after I got around the watching the keynote presentation which launched the iPad, I was going to write a blog post about how disappointed I was. I thought they’d screwed the pooch and I, for one, was seriously underwhelmed.

Needless to say, I didn’t quite get around to writing it. Since then I’ve read all the criticism by the naysayers and Apple haters, all the gushing praise from the fanatics and all the stuff in between from the more sensible people*. Now, after some reflection, I find myself somewhere in the middle. I flip back and forwards between thoughts of “that could be awesome,” and “that’s far too much of a compromise.”

Ironically, the thing that’s bringing me around to the idea is the very thing which people seem to be complaining about the most. Specifically: “It’s just an iPod Touch with a bigger screen,” which, in fairness, is exactly what I was thinking. It’s not a bad thing, though. The iPod Touch (and iPhone) have a spectacular interface. The touch controls work well enough and the device is responsive enough to make you feel is though you’re interacting with your music or the internet or your emails in a very direct manor. As a matter of fact, the main limitation of the interface is the small size of the screen. Ah hah…

I think what actually happened is that Apple made a mess of the keynote. Yes, the first person shooter was very pretty, but not really ideal for the interface. A real time strategy game, something like command and conquer, could really sing on this thing. The iWork apps look pretty cool, but a multi-touch version of iMovie or GarageBand could have been seriously impressive. They really didn’t make me believe that I could comfortably read a book on this thing… but if they’d announced text books for the iBooks store and placed an iPad next to the pile of books you usually need each year… well, then we’d have been talking. If they’d have shown how you could search the contents of a text book, spot light style, I might have been sold. Instead they left me to have to think of these things by myself.

I still not 100% certain I know what it’s for, though. Does it replace my laptop? Does it go alongside my laptop? Would I use on the sofa? Probably. On a short journey? Can’t see me getting it out on the bus. A long journey? Yes, I think so. Sitting in a coffee shop? Maybe. It would take up less room on the table. Sitting in the park? A tad more risky. But still, I don’t know. I’m disinclined to spend £500+ on something which is just a toy. I think I can live without multi-tasking, but there needs to be a better system to allows different apps to work together. What use are great OmniGraffle and Pages apps if I can’t insert a diagram from the former into the latter?

Bottom line: I’ll go and have a play with one after they come out. Then we’ll see.

PS For my parents, though, the damn thing is almost perfect.

*Well… I say “all”… what I actually mean is “some.”