A New Year, A New Phone

This year I’ve decided to make a foray into the future by finally getting myself a proper smartphone. I’ve had an iPod Touch for a while but also had a simple Nokia not-smart phone to make actual phone calls. It’s always been somewhat annoying to have to manage two devices: a real phone for calls or texts and the iPod for any Internet and data-related work. A large part of my resistance to getting an actual smartphone was that I simply didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a cell phone plan when I was surrounded by wi-fi all the time and barely made actual phone calls. But now that there are finally both reasonably cheap unlocked smartphones and contract-free data plans I decided to bite the bullet.

The unlocked iPhone 4S would end up costing me a tad over $800 after tax and Applecare. I was also getting bored of the iOS ecosystem and its closed, silo system for apps. So instead I got myself a much cheaper unlocked Android phone – the Google/Samsung Nexus S. I’m pairing that with a $30 a month T-Mobile data and phone plan. I’m still waiting for a new SIM card to show up but till then I’m making use of the ample wifi coverage that’s a side-effect of living in a college town. For now, I’m only going to talk about my first impressions on the Nexus S itself.

Google Nexus S

Google Nexus S (via Wikipedia)

The Nexus S is Google’s previous flagship phone. Its current flagship is the Galaxy Nexus which Google is also selling unlocked. However it’s almost twice the price I paid for the Nexus S and in my opinion, isn’t sufficient of an upgrade to justify the price. Even though it’s about a year old by now (and technically running the old version of Android), I haven’t had a problem with it so far.

It looks pretty different from the iPhone and the plastic feel takes some getting used it. I also think it slips more easily, but that might just be a personal problem. The back of the phone has something of a ridge at the bottom which I guess is supposed to make it easier to hold. Though the build quality does feel inferior as compared to the iPhone, I like it and have no major complaints.

The Android sofware feels like a breath of fresh air as compared to the iPhone. It is considerably more customizable and I like the presence of both tradiiontal apps as well as “widgets” that add functionality directly to your home screens. I’ve found widgets great for quickly looking up data like the weather, Twitter mentions or what system services are currently running.

The tinkerer in me loves how customizable the Android system is. Changing the look and feel is just the beginning. There are a lot of bells and whistles and options and sometimes it can be a rather confusing. For now I’ve only stuck to the usual set of apps (Twitter, Foursquare, Camera) but I’m looking forward to trying out new and interesting apps in the future. More than that I feel like Android would be a really good platform if I decide to get into mobile dev anytime soon.

There are a few things about the Nexus S that I’m concerned with. I think the battery life is a tad too short, especially with the geolocation services on all the time. Luckily, the battery monitor widget makes it simple to turn off services with a touch so maybe some manual management might make it better. While the Google apps are really well integrated (especially Google Voice) and apps from large companies are well done, third-party apps seem to be of considerably less quality than iOS equivalents. I don’t really blame the developers given the multitude of devices but it does mean that finding good apps for simple things like RSS is more difficult than it should be.

Despite the glitches and minor annoyances I really like the Nexus S. The hardware is pretty solid and I like Android so far. Right now having a fully functional smartphone is still pretty new to me, but I’m hoping that when the novelty wears off I’ll dive into actually programming the powerful computer in my pocket.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year Everyone! Hope you all have a great year ahead of you. Apparently the world is supposed to end sometime this year but I’m sure there will be enough time for crazy hacks, awesome technology and interesting new happenings before then. Personally I’m looking forward to branching into serious functional programming, learning more about networks and networked applications, experimenting with cool new programming languages and maybe even making a few forays into mobile development. I hope there’s going to be a lot of learning, lots more programming and even more personal projects that I can release to the public. Glad to have you all along for the ride!

Sunday Selection 2011-12-11

Around the Internet

More shell, less egg It’s alway a joy to see two masters at the top of their craft engaged in a respectful, but determined duel. This is a short commentary on Donald Knuth and Doug McIlroy’s approaches to literate programming. Worth reading even if you’re not a big fan of literate programming.

Selective use of technology I firmly believe that science and technology is a good thing and that our world is better because of them. However I also understand that technology cannot do everything for us. In particular there are a lot of decisions it cannot make for us (yet). I also tend to get a lot of my best work when I am least partially disconnected and can hold at bay the full force of the Internet. All things in moderation.

Why sugar makes us sleepy (and protein wakes us up) As much as many of us would like to live as if we disembodied brains surviving on anything that barely resembled food, that is definitely not the case. Since we are stuck with our flesh-and-blood physical bodies for the foreseeable future, it is a good idea to figure out how it all works and make the most of it.

From the Bookshelf

Do the Work While I’m not entrely a fan of Steven Pressfield’s use of vaguely “spiritual” ideas and terms, this book is still worth reading for everyone. It’s especially useful if you have that big project you’ve been thinking about but never got around to actually starting. At $1.99 for the Kindle edition, it’s a steal.

Video

What we actually know about software development Despite the importance of software development, most developers are acutely unaware of the scientific studies in the area and rely mostly on anecdote. Luckily there is an increasing amount of research in software development (not to be confused with computer science) and it’s worth knowing what we actually know about the field and what is myth.

The Interface Paradox

As much as I love programming and good old-fashioned text-based command lines, I have an interest in ergonmics and futuristic interface. A few days ago a post entitled “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design” made the rounds on the Internet. It opens with an old, but interesting video and goes to make the argument that our current obsession with flat touchscreens and simple gestures is doing our us all as disservice. Our hands are capable of complex gripping, grasping and touching motions and having all that expressivity confined to a small, two dimensional surface with a limited number of motions is self-defeating. The article makes the damning statement: “Are we really going to accept an Interface Of The Future that is less expressive than a sandwich?”

The article helped me express an uncertainty that’s been floating back and forth in my mind for some time. I use my iPod Touch on a daily basis and I’ve been loving the multitouch trackpad on the new Macbooks. I love the swiping motions for window management and moving things around. At the same time I’ve started drawing by hand again (I loved drawing as a kid) and I realize that putting a pencil to paper is a rather complex but very fulfilling activity. Strangely enough I think that both the pencil and the touch-based iOS interface have a lot in common. In both cases, the actual physical device almost disappears letting you focus on the underlying application. The iPad or iPhone itself is just a thin frame around whatever app you’re using. The pencil is basically just a simple pointer but allows us to create an infinited range of images with it.

However in both cases, the expressiveness offered by the device is not enough. Pencils are not enough to express all the images we might want to create. That’s why we have pens, brushes, chalk, crayons and a variety of papers and canvases. The flat touch interface is also not enough, especially if we are confined to a small surface that fits in one hand. The question then is how we can take the simplicity of our current touch interface and extend them to a larger set of expressions and interactions?

Case in point is the camera interface on the iPhone. For a long time there was a software button that you had to touch to take a picture. But that meant sticking your finger in the middle of the picture. Normal cameras have a better interface: there is shutter button on the top that keeps your hands far from the actual image (even if you’re using a LCD screen instead of a traditional viewfinder). This deficient interface on the iPhone led to the Red Pop, a giant red shutter button and now iOS 5 turns one of the hardware volume buttons into a shutter button.

The Red Pop camera interface for the iPhone

The Red Pop camera interface for the iPhone

Having a fluid, upgradeable, customizable software interface is nice and I like smooth gradients and rounded corners as much as the next guy. But our hands evolved to use actual physical matter and before computer interfaces we built a lot of interesting physical interfaces. Apple has hooked us on the idea of sleek, smooth devices with no extraneous. While it’s great to lose unnecessary knobs and edges the Apple design philosophy might not be best in the long run, especially if your device’s UI doesn’t neatly fit into the touch-drag-swipe system of gestures.

Ultimately it would be great to have “smart matter” physical interfaces – the flexibility and programmability of software with the physical usability that solid matter offers. Imagine some sort of rearranging material (based on some form of nano- or micro-technology maybe?) that can be be a simple smooth shell around your interfaces but can change to form buttons, sliders, knobs or big red shutter buttons as your application requires. But in the years (decades?) between now and then we need other solutions. The range of accessories and extensions available for the iPhone (including the Red Pop, tripods, lenses etc.) seem to suggest that enterprising young device maker could use the iPhone (and it’s successors and competitors) as a computing core to which they can attach their own physical extensions. With a more open and hackable platform (an Android-Arduino hybrid perhaps) we might see a thriving device market as well as an app market. Am I a dreamer? Hell yeah, but as the projects I’ve linked to show, I’m certainly not the only one.

Ubuntu should zig to Apple’s zag

It’s another October and that means it’s time for another Ubuntu release. Before I say anything, I want to make it clear that I have the utmost respect for Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical and the Ubuntu project in general. I think they’ve done wonderful things for the Linux ecosystem as a whole. However, today I’m siding with Eric Raymond: I have deep misgivings about the direction Ubuntu is going, especially in terms of user interface.

I’m not a UI or UX designer. I’m sure there are people at Canonical who have been studying these areas for longer than I have. But I am a daily Linux user. In fact I would say that I’m a power user. I’m no neckbeard, but I think that by now I have a fair grasp of the Unix philosophy and try to follow it (my love for Emacs notwithstanding). The longer I see Ubuntu’s development the more it seems that they are shunning the Unix philosophy in the name of “user friendliness” and “zero configuration”. And they’re doing it wrong. I think that’s absolutely the wrong way to go.

It seems that Canonical is trying very hard to be Apple while not being a total ripoff. Apple is certainly a worthy competitor (and a great source to copy from) but this is a game that Ubuntu is not going to win. The thing is, you can’t be Apple. That game has been played, that ship has sailed. Apple pretty much has the market cornered when it comes to nice shiny things that just work for most people irrespective of prior computer usage. Unless somehow Canonical sprouts an entire ecosystem of products overnight they are not going to wrest that territory from Apple.

That’s not to say that Canonical shouldn’t be innovating and building good-looking interfaces. But they should play to the strengths of both Linux the system and Linux the user community instead of fighting them. Linux users are power users. In fact I think Linux has a tendency to encourage average computer users to become power users once they spend some time with it. I would love to see Ubuntu start catering to power users instead of shooing them away.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Apple does not place its developers above its customers. That’s a fine decision for them to make. It’s their business and their products and they can do whatever they like. However as a programmer and hacker I am afraid. I’m scared that we’re getting to the point where I won’t be able to install software of my choosing without Apple standing in the way. I’m not talking about just stuff like games and expensive proprietary apps, but even basic programming tools and system utilities. That’s not something that I’m prepared to accept.

Given the growing lockdown of Apple’s systems, Canoncial should be pouring resources into making Ubuntu the best damn development environment on the planet. That means that all the basics work without me tinkering with drivers and configurations (something they’ve largely accomplished). It means that there’s a large pool of ready-to-install software (which also they have) and that it’s possible (and easy) to install esoteric third-party tools and libraries. Luckily the Unix heritage means that the system is designed to allow this. Instead of trying to sugar coat and “simplify” everything there should be carefully thought-out defaults that I can easily override and customize. Programmability and flexibility grounded in well-tuned defaults should be the Ubuntu signature.

It makes even more sense for Canonical to take this angle because Apple seems to be actively abandoning it. A generation of hackers may have started with BASIC on Apple IIs, but getting a C compiler on a modern Mac is a 4GB XCode download. Ubuntu can easily ship with a default arsenal of programming tools. Last I checked the default install already includes Python. Ubuntu can be the hands-down, no-questions-asked platform of choice for today’s pros and tomorrow’s curious novices. Instead of a candy-coated, opaquely-configured Unity, give me a sleek fully programmable interface. Give me a scripting language for the GUI with first-class hooks into the environment. Made it dead simple for people to script their experience. Encourage and give them a helping hand. Hell, gamify it if you can. Apple changed the world by showing a generation the value of good, clean design. Canonical can change the world by showing the value of flexibility, programmability and freedom.

Dear Canonical, I want you to succeed, I really do. I don’t want Apple to be the only competent player in town. But I need an environment that I can bend to my will instead of having everything hidden behind bling and “simplification”. I know that being a great programming environment is at the heart of Linux. I know that you have the people and the resources to advance the state of computing for all of us. So please zig to Apple’s zag.

PS. Perhaps Ubuntu can make a dent in the tablet and netbook market, if that’s their game. But the netbook market is already dying and let’s be honest, there’s an iPad market, not a tablet market. And even if that market does open up, Android has a head start and Amazon has far greater visibility. But Ubuntu has already gone where no Linux distro has gone before. For most people I know it’s the distribution they reflexively reach for. That developer-friendliness and trust is something they should be actively leveraging.