Leaving the Day Behind (Tablets Re-Reconsidered)

I have been on a kind of device-consolidation kick for a couple of years now, shedding gadgets that I feel overlap in their use-cases a bit too much to justify keeping around. Last year, I wrote about how the tablet was being made redundant by the big-screen phone and the super-light laptop, and, becoming a phablet convert myself, I sold my beloved iPad, and my Kindle to boot. My creativity/productivity stuff was covered by the laptop, and the reading/kicking-back stuff was covered by the phone. What did I need a middle device for?

What I’m coming to realize, or at least be reminded of, is that there is a lot to the psychological baggage of a device (and really, all objects). I work all damn day on my laptop, and it is particularly tweaked and arranged and fussed over to serve that purpose. It is an optimized and remarkably powerful tool for getting my job done. But when it comes time to pursue some kind of creative endeavor or hobby, or just relax and browse, all the distractions and stresses of work carry over. It’s like trying to read a rich novel in the middle of a noisy office. That stuff stays in my head.

The phone is a little different in that it’s the device I use all damn day for, well, almost everything. It’s always at my side or in my hand, getting used. (I do adore it.) Achieving a switching of gears becomes difficult, because that object you wish to lean back and read something on is also the same object that you were just doing texts, emails, calendar checks, and (of you’re me) Angry Birds 2 on. The tactile sensation as well as the visual data of the display size make it harder for me to get away from all of that.

So I can see, once again, why it’s nice to have a middle device that can take on the lean-back tasks and for shits-and-giggles activities that the laptop and phone can also do just fine. It’s about leaving the other stuff behind intentionally.

Photo by me.

I was spurred to think more about this thanks to this piece at Medium by Tiago Forte (hell of a name) about the benefits of read-it-later services. He points out that other apps and services can serve the same functions as Instapaper and Pocket, but they bring with them their own baggage:

A common response when I recommend people adopt yet another category of apps is “Why don’t I just use Evernote?” Or whatever app they’re using for general reference or task management. Evernote even makes a Chrome extension called Clearly for reading online content and Web Clipper for saving it.

It is a question of focus. Why don’t you use your task manager to keep track of content (i.e. “Read this article”)? Because the last thing you want to see when you cuddle up with your hot cocoa for some light reading is the hundreds of tasks you’re not doing.

On a laptop, and on your phone as well, all your tasks are literally a click or tap away. Indeed, they may be blinking at you without input needed. And both of these devices invite you to act on those distractions. That’s what’s so great about them: they allow you to do so much. Sometimes you don’t want to do “so much,” though. You want to do very little.

That’s good territory for tablets and e-readers to cover, I think. I don’t know that it’s territory that’s worth, say, top-of-the-line-iPad money to cover, but something more affordable? More modest? Yeah, I can see that. Now. Again.

How I Learned to Love the Chromebook

Photo by me.

I’ve been singing the praises of Chromebooks for some time, but none of that praise has come from direct experience. The utility and potential of these devices have been starkly obvious to me, though I’d never had occasion to test them on myself. I’ve always had a perfectly good laptop, a phone, and sometimes even a tablet (I don’t have one of those right now, and I kind of miss it), so having yet another device was not something I could justify. Financially. To my wife, mostly.

Then, like a superhero bursting through the clouds to come to my rescue, my former theatre colleague Tom Loughlin suggested I borrow his old Dell Chromebook 11 and try it out. He knows I’ve been bullish on them, and he wanted me to do some writing about what it was like to actually use one, and I was all what? and he was all yeah! and he shipped it to me.

But this was weeks and weeks ago, and other than start the thing up, I did essentially nothing with it.

Because what was I going to do with it? Like I said, I’m already fully decked-out tech-wise. There never emerged an impetus to bust it out, no need arose. So it sat in the box Tom had shipped it in, and I felt guilty.

And then in one day it dawned on me, weirdly, twice.

I work from home, and my office is upstairs in a big walk-in closet in the back of our bedroom. When my MacBook Pro is in full “work mode,” it’s on my desk, hooked up to power, hardwired to the Internet, and connected to my backup external hard drive. Sometimes it’s also got a microphone hooked up (for the podcast usually), and has at times also had a monitor, mouse, or what have you. And this is how it was a few days ago.

And I wanted to make my lunch. Downstairs.

But still be able to work. Because I’m just like that.

As you can imagine, I didn’t want to unhook everything (and of course “safely eject” the hard drive) and bring my MacBook downstairs, only to run it back upstairs and hook it all up again.

That’s when I remembered the Chromebook.

And here’s the amazing part. I had the idea to use it, I opened it up, logged in with my Google Apps credentials, and that was it. Everything was there, and I could just work. I could do everything that I would normally do for work, too. It was almost entirely frictionless.

But of course I didn’t only want my work account set up! I wanted my personal Google account up and running, too. And it took me literally a couple of minutes to figure out how to have two “instances” of Google accounts running on the device at the same time. So now I could work in one account, click an icon at the bottom of the screen and instantly switch right over to the other account. Again, almost entirely frictionless.

That’s how I worked for a little while. And when I was ready, I closed it, and went back to my office.

That was one. The other happened later that evening. We don’t do cable at our house, so we had to get CNN’s live stream of the Democratic debate, and watch it on our living room TV. CNN wouldn’t allow the video to be cast over to our TV, so to do this I had to connect my MacBook via HDMI, which also meant that my computer would be physically tethered to our TV, which meant that I couldn’t use it do the one thing I love more than watching presidential debates: tweeting presidential debates.

And then I remembered: the Chromebook.

Usually, in this situation, I’m stuck tweeting on my phone, which isn’t nearly as easy when you’re doing so in a rapid-fire manner as I do during events like this. But this time, all I had to do was open up the Chromebook, sit back, and knock out my HILARIOUS tweets in a full-function instance of Tweetdeck, just like I would have done on my Mac. No beats skipped. (I also wrote and published this post using only the Chromebook.)

So this is what the Chromebook is to me, right now: a lightweight extra computer. In many ways, it’s what I’d always wanted out of an iPad; a casual computing device that asked very little of me, was smartly limited in its functionality, but could still do the basics without any friction. The iPad was great for, say, reading and browsing, but not for working. The Chromebook is not my reading device of choice by any stretch of the imagination (my phone is now), but for simply getting shit done without being laden with all the computer cruft, it’s great.

That doesn’t mean I can now justify getting one. I still don’t need it, the same way I don’t need a tablet, and yet would still like to have one. But now its utility for someone like me is much clearer. Simply put, it’d be a great second, kicking-around computer.

And truly, if I didn’t have some particular media-creation needs, a Chromebook would serve as my main computer without a problem.

So right now I’m in a mode of “it’d be nice to have one” for Chromebooks, but there’s still some evolution that needs to happen before it crosses into “oh man I really need to sell off some of my valuables to get one.” I think what I’d really like is for the Chromebook to get closer to absorbing more tablet use-cases, where the keyboard goes away (either by detaching or flipping around or whatever) and the laptop becomes a single slate that can be used as more of a casual reading and browsing device; lean-back instead of lean-forward.

Asus’s Chromebook Flip is the right idea, actually, but there’s one problem I have with it: the screen resolution. I’m spoiled by, and now married to, Retina-level resolutions, and especially if I’m going to use something to read off of, it’s got to be crispy. If Asus were to put one of these out with over 300ppi, I’d be all in.

This, really, was my only real problem with the 2013 Dell Chromebook 11: the display is garbage. Utter shit. Not only is it low-resolution, but it’s washed out, with colors rendered, well, vaguely. The rest of the laptop’s hardware was fine. It’s plenty zippy, the trackpad was acceptable, and the keyboard was fine. But that screen, blech.

The point is, however, that even though I was already a Chromebook booster, I’m now a fan. This is a great category of device, and I can’t wait to see it get better, and then to get my own.

(And sincerely, thank you, Tom!)

“Apple Released a Surface, a Roku, and a Samsung Phone.”

Photo credit: Brett Jordan / Foter / CC BY
Summing up the latest Apple event in which a slew of new products were introduced, including a giant-ass iPad, a better Apple TV (low bar), and new iPhones–6 with some odd gimmicks in them. The Verge’s Nilay Patel said on Periscope (and I’m paraphrasing), “Today, Apple released a Surface, a Roku, and a Samsung phone.”

And yeah, they kinda did. I think that’s fine, though, I’m not one of those folks who think Apple or any other company has to be 100% original with every product they produce. I’m glad they rip each other off and learn from each other’s good ideas. It makes all the products, in the aggregate, better.

That said, Patel’s joke was funny because it was largely true. The iPad Pro is Apple’s answer to the Microsoft Surface, which, despite some genuine confusion of what it was for, now seems to be a well regarded device for folks in particular fields and with particular needs. (Anecdotally, I’ve seen a number of them with college students who get a lot out of the tablet-PC combo as well as the stylus.) I’m glad they copied the Surface! Since the Surface was introduced, I hoped Apple would make something like it, and they finally have. I’m glad they took the stylus as an input device very seriously. Is any of this any good? Who knows.

I do know one thing: It’s way too goddamned expensive for me. Baseline $800 without the stylus or keyboard cover, which kick you over $1000. Nope. I’m sure that’s very worthwhile to a great many people, but not me. Halve that, and I’d consider it.

(Kyle Wagner at The Concourse writes of the tablet-PC combo: “I have no idea why you’d try to marry the two, outside of blithe cowing to other people’s dumbass ideas. It is profoundly dumb. They will sell 500 million of these.”)

The Apple TV looks nice. And it does a lot of things other folks already do, but probably very well. That’s about it.

And then the phones, the iPhones 6S and 6S Plus. The big changes here are “3D Touch” and “Live Photos.” Until I use one of these devices myself it’s impossible to know just how useful or interesting either of these new features is, but I’m a tad skeptical. 3D Touch, where additional information can be gleaned about something on screen by pressing harder on it. I’m less interested in the hardware aspect of this, where the device knows how hard you’re pressing, and more interested in the UI side, where the user can now “peek” underneath things, or get quick access to actions or items without opening a full app. That could be pretty cool if done well. Will it be? I thought Apple had answered my prayers when they added third-party keyboards to iOS, but they turned out to mostly do it poorly, so who can say.

Live Photos strikes me as the Samsung-y move here, a kind of Harry Potter move where a photo also gets a bit of video recorded around it. It’s cute, no doubt, and will probably yield a few cool items, especially with kids. But Google, of course, auto-animates a series of photos into GIFs, which is similar in idea but very different in the actual output. And other Android manufacturers have had the photo-as-short-video feature before and no one really cared, including me.

(I’ll have more to say about the ups and downs of Samsung’s approach to iteration in another post.)

So it’s not a reason to buy a phone. Neither is the 3D Touch for that matter. But Apple will expect you to, and chances are, “you” (meaning the general smartphone consumer) will.

So, yes, Apple is (finally?) doing some of the things its competitors have done, and it pretended not to be interested in (like the stylus). That’s good, and they’ll likely do it very well, it’s all in the execution for them, as Josh Topolsky wrote at The New Yorker (I know, I was surprised to see him there, too):

That’s part of the reason why Apple’s “me-toos” end up feeling like “me-firsts.” In the age of digital, execution is staggeringly important, and there isn’t a single company in existence that can pull off polish and simplicity like Apple. While other companies struggle just to get all of their devices and services talking to one another, Tim Cook and friends are worrying over the details that actually make consumers pay attention. The products don’t just work the way they should; they feel the way they should. Reducing friction, even a single click, can change the way a user perceives an entire product.

Yes, but! I’m not so sure Apple is all-in on “execution” like it used to be. If it were, Apple Music wouldn’t be driving people nuts, iTunes wouldn’t be a software shitshow, and the new generations of iPhones wouldn’t start at 16GB. That’s right, those “Live Photos” you’re taking, those iTunes movies you’re downloading, and that 4K video you’re shooting will have more or less no room on that expensive new device. Matthew Yglesias gets why this is a huge mistake, because it sacrifices the quality of experience for short-term monetary gain, which it doesn’t even need:

Killing the 16GB phone and replacing it with a 32GB model at the low end would obtain things money can’t buy — satisfied customers, positive press coverage, goodwill, a reputation for true commitment to excellence, and a demonstrated focus on the long term. A company in Apple’s enviable position ought to be pushing the envelop forward on what’s considered an acceptable baseline for outfitting a modern digital device, not squeezing extra pennies out of customers for no real reason.

The fact that this is still around shows a degree of cynicism and greed that should worry the Apple faithful. As more of a Reformed Apple-ist, I can appreciate and wonder at how well they’ve executed on so many things. But I can also take a step back and ask if they really sweat the details like they say they do. Not giving customers a sufficiently capable device is a big detail to miss.

Magical Thinking Won’t Make the iPad Rise Again

Photo credit: plynoi / Foter / CC BY-NC
A few months ago I made the case that iPads and tablets generally were a product category in crisis. Ever-larger and more powerful phones with ever-slimmer, lighter, and simply more pleasant laptops means that the use-case for tablets severely dwindles. And I say this as a genuine fan of tablets, but also as someone who no longer owns one because of their functional redundancy.

A few days ago, Neil Cybart at Above Avalon, an Apple analysis site, made more or less the same case, but focused as much on sales numbers as on use-cases. (I’m maybe a little peeved that my post was ignored and this one is getting serious attention from the tech punditocracy, but I’m nobody, so whatever.) Cybart emphasizes how tablets are primarily used for watching video, and therefore don’t require frequent upgrades or high-end hardware.

He’s right. They are mostly passive devices, thin little TVs. They are largely not being used for high-end productivity or for the advancement of the humanities. Of course there are exceptions, as power users can certainly make incredible use of tablets, but the mass market is buying them to watch Netflix, check Facebook, and look at the email they don’t want to respond to.

Where I differ from Cybart is in his vision for iPad success and growth:

By selling a device that is truly designed from the ground-up with content creation in mind, the iPad line can regain a level of relevancy that it has lost over the past few years. In every instance where the iPad is languishing in education and enterprise, a larger iPad with a 12.9-inch, Force Touch-enabled screen would carry more potential.

He goes on to lay out potential use-cases in education, enterprise, and general consumer computing, all of which hinge on Apple heavily focusing on making it easier to manage and juggle multiple applications and windows, and more pleasant and ergonomic to type.

I think he’s wrong. I think this particular vision is an example of a kind of Apple-is-magic thinking in which Apple grudgingly stuffs complex functionality into the constricting parameters of its platonic ideal of a “simple” computing device. Geeks like me cheered when Apple added things like third-party keyboards and improved sharing capabilities to iOS, but many (including me) quickly grew frustrated as it became clear that Apple’s efforts were kludgy, a series of half-realized solutions that prioritized Apple’s sense of preciousness over consistent usability.

I feel like this is what Cybart is asking for when he prescribes these more powerful capabilities for a hypothetical iPad Plus or iPad Pro. Barring unforeseeable and massive leaps in input and UI technology, even a big, powerful iPad will remain a rectangle displaying pixels, used by two-handed primates with 10 digits. There’s only so much complexity, and so much productivity, such a thing could ever realize. We’ve almost certainly not seen tablets hit a ceiling in terms of what degree of productivity they can eke out, but I bet we’re damned close.

(And for that matter, why is it so important to envision scenarios of revived success for iPads at all? Why be invested in this? Could it be because some of us are more concerned with identities as Apple aficionados than we are with actually having the best devices for a given need?)

Meanwhile, high-end, slim laptops get lighter and nicer to use, and still maintain all the functionality we’ve been conditioned to expect from PCs. You don’t have to connect a Bluetooth keyboard, you don’t have to buy a stand or a special case to do any of it. You just open your laptop, and there’s your screen, keyboard, and trackpad. And lots of laptops also allow for touch input, in case you really want that too. Even though it’s a more or less “old” idea by technology standards, it’s damned convenient when you think about it.

Phones are getting bigger, with higher-resolution displays, and as I just noted, more and more they’re even being used to read books. They’re great for video watching (as are laptops), for games, for checking Facebook, and for ignoring emails (as are laptops). Oh, and it’s already in your pocket or bag, and goes everywhere with you. No tablet needed. When people derided the first iPad as “a big iPhone,” it turns out that’s really what people wanted, not a replacement for their PC, but a bigger phone.

But even if we assume that iPads will reach the kind of functional threshold that Cybart predicts, they’d still have to be better suited for productivity than laptops, which they can’t be, and perhaps more importantly, be demonstrably better than things like high-quality Chromebooks and Chromebases that can deliver most or all of the features and conveniences of laptops and tablets, including touchscreens.

Chrome-based devices, I think, are the products that are truly on the verge of breaking through to mass adoption in the very areas Cybart sees as fruitful for the iPad. Cheap Chromebooks are already growing in education, and as they become more obviously of a higher quality, there’s no reason to think they won’t make inroads into the consumer and enterprise spaces. And perhaps the biggest irony there, with Chrome more or less being a browser, is that they’ll be simpler to implement and use than an iPad. That’s not the Apple narrative, Apple is always supposed to be simpler and more intuitive, but I think it’s easy to see that their devotion to simple-as-defined-by-us has largely just made things clunkier for their products.

I should note that I really do love iPads and tablets. I certainly wouldn’t turn one down. They’re often pleasant to use, beautifully made, and convenient.

Just not enough to keep dropping over $500 on them. Maybe once, and then not again for a long, long time. (I got my wife an iPad Air for Christmas, and she was happy but a little confused because her old iPad 3 was more than fine for her.) I don’t think Apple finding a way to snap two apps’ windows together on the screen, or vibrating under your fingers, is going to change any of that.

People Are Discovering that Reading on Their Phones Doesn’t Suck

Dou,_Gerard_-_Astronomer_by_Candlelight_-_c._1665
The publishing industry has noticed that a lot of us are reading on our phones. Not just BuzzFeed listicles and Facebook statuses, but real, wordy books. Many years ago I thought it was quite the novelty that I had managed to read all of Frankenstein on my iPhone 3G, and didn’t hate doing so. Today, I read almost all my books on my phone.

This is to the exclusion of tablets and e-readers, and very intentionally so. A while ago it dawned on me that owning three remarkably similar (and expensive) devices that all performed widely overlapping tasks seemed decadent and redundant. At the same time, I had become enthralled by phablets, a.k.a. big screen phones. With quad-HD displays boasting over 500 pixels per inch, and phone screens not too different in size from a mass market paperback, the phablet easily replaced my iPad and my Kindle for book reading.

I’m not alone! In a piece in the Wall Street JournalJennifer Maloney reports:

In a Nielsen survey of 2,000 people this past December, about 54% of e-book buyers said they used smartphones to read their books at least some of the time. That’s up from 24% in 2012, according to a separate study commissioned by Nielsen.

And tablet and e-reader use is down as well. And it’s not just phablet people, even normals with their smaller iPhones 6 are reading full-length books on their phones. (Maloney says that both iPhones 6 are “sharper” than previous models, but that’s not correct, as only the iPhone 6 Plus has a higher resolution.)

There obvious concern is that deep reading will now be lost to the universe of notifications our phones provide:

With all their ringing, dinging and buzzing, smartphones are designed to alert and distract users, notes Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.” Even when a phone’s alerts are turned off, your brain is still primed for disruption when you pick it up, she said. That could make a phone worse for reading than an e-reader.

But “could” is not the same as “will.” Sentient people have to decide for themselves what they are going to prioritize. During a busy day, one might grab snippets of reading, but leave their notifications fully armed, because life does go on. But at night, say, the pings can be disabled, the display backlight can be dimmed, and you have a wholly different reading experience.

And of course there’s still dead-tree books, which I’m trying to read more of in order to go easier on my eyes at night before bed. The biggest problem with them, of course, is that they don’t sync. The book I read in a codex format is stuck inside those leaves, and I can’t dig into it at will from my phone wherever I am. Thus, some books become relegated to the bedside table, and that’s more or less fine.

Because there are plenty of books waiting for me on that big phone. The very device I wrote this post on!

Adapting to Reading on Screens (or, Nostalgic for the Smell of AMOLED)

Turns out that the young folks these days prefer to read longform material in print, not, as one might expect, on the screens of their devices. In fact, they seem to be the demographic that most prefers print to digital reading. I find it a tad baffling, but as one of the subjects of Michael S. Rosenwald’s piece in the Washington Post notes, unlike a smartphone or a tablet, a print book asks nothing more of you than to be read. No Twitter streams or YouTube distractions to be found there. I do get that.
I’m sympathetic to a lot of the warm feelings people have about print books. I share many of the attachments to dead-tree books, probably none more so than the smell of old mass market paperbacks. I also completely understand that there is (apparently) greater comprehension and engagement to be had from reading on print versus screens, but it seems that much of that comes from raw physical and visual associations that are more or less incidental artifacts of the form. (E-ink devices like Kindles fall somewhere in between these paradigms, not being as built for distraction as phones, but lacking the individual physical quirks of books.)

So what I’m wondering is whether we’ll just adjust. We’ll find other associations and hangups about our digital reading, maybe even nostalgia! Instead of the feel or smell of paper books, we’ll miss the eye-scratching low-res displays of our first devices, or the feedback (or lack thereof) of a physical button a previous device had that the new one lacks. (Maybe there’s a smell to AMOLED versus LCD?) I don’t think that kind of thing will improve comprehension, but I do wonder if our brains, individually and societally, will just adapt to the pixels.

Because it’s not as though we are evolutionarily optimized for ink-on-codex. There’s nothing about humans biologically that would favor reading in print versus reading electronically. We’re not “designed” to read it all! (Reading is kind of the ur-lifehack.) So as one form of reading becomes less ubiquitous, I don’t see why we won’t simply glom on to the newer way. It may take a couple of generations to shake off all the old baggage, but reading off a screen is no more “unnatural” than reading off a page, a scroll, or a (stone) tablet.

Just Let People Use Their Damn Gadgets

Here’s Federico Veticci on iPads as cameras:

And yes, I think I’d look silly shooting photos with an iPad in public. But, to put it bluntly, whatever. At the end of the day, any device that facilitates memories is a welcome addition to our computing lives.

I’d always been put off by the hostility from tech elites about people taking pictures with their iPads’ and tablets’ cameras. (Excepting of course at events like concerts where they rudely obstruct others’ views.) People own tablets, they want to take pictures, and they take a picture with the tablet they have on them. So what? The civil peace is not being disturbed, social order is not being upended. It’s just a big, flat camera. Get over it. And good on Viticci, who is perhaps the iPaddiest person alive, for having a little humanity about it.

It’s the same kind of tech snobbery that provokes a huff of moral indignation about people shooting video with their phones in a portrait (up-and-down) orientation. What neanderthals! What boors! How dare they pollute the Internet with their vertically-oriented pseudo-cinema! Forcing us to look at all that wasted black space on either side of the footage of their toddler dancing to “Gangnam Style” in their diaper! Built in to Android’s stock camera app is now an animated prompt to strongly suggest a user change to landscape should they be about to record video in portrait. No doubt put there some by Google engineers who feel grossly offended by the practice, harming their delicate aesthetic sensibilities.

It reminds me a little bit of the way so many in the tech sphere thought that using a large phone or phablet looked ridiculous, particularly when up against someone’s face being used as a telephone (and note how, as with the tablets-as-cameras, it’s more about how it “looks silly” than anything substantive or practical). Of course, now Apple’s released a phone much bigger than those early “big phones,” so now it’s okay. It’s what people wanted all along, it turns out, of course.

I don’t know. Just let people use their gadgets the way they want to. If they want to use big tablets as cameras, or hold giant phones to their ears, or if they really want physical BlackBerry style keyboards, you know, just let them be. No one shooting portrait-oriented video is going to come and take your $500 messenger bag or your AeroPress. You’ll be fine.