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How technology changes our behavior

13 May

I’m a technology aficionado – the latest device, the newest toy, the cool new technologies appeal to me. I subscribe to technology magazines and enewsletters so I know what’s coming next, and am happy to debate the virtues of HDMI over WiMax, Blueray over Bluetooth and why 3G is just too slow! I don’t have to own every new gadget (just most of them), but I make sure I know about them.

Despite this I have always treated computing technology as just a tool – I describe a computer as “just a really fast pencil” and that’s how I’ve lived. Yes, we have four computers and two printers at home (one of the computers is a server), and I’ve had an email address since 1983 (unfortunately not the same one all that time), but the technology has not substantively changed how I run my life.

That changed in August last year when I got a Tablet device (an iPad) – insidiously this book-sized tool has significantly changed my behavior. I purchased it mainly to be a book reader – I’m a avid reader and travel a lot. On a recent trip to the USA I came home with 10kg of new books, and decided that maybe an ebook reader would be a good way to go. I researched the available devices, and decided that the iPad would probably suit me best as it opens up additional possibilities beyond just reading.

I had no idea just how much of a paradigm shift this device actually is. Yes, it’s a pretty good book reader, and you’re not limited in the format of what you read – I have five different reader apps on the device, and can read pretty much any format available today. At last count I had just over 150 books in my mobile library – saves a fortune in excess baggage charges :-). But the book reader has become only one of the uses for the device, and not the driver of change.

What has driven the change in the way I work is the ubiquitous phrase “there’s an app for that” – think of something you are interested in, or want to do, and there’s bound to be an app available to help you do it. Want to convert feet-per-second to Kmh – I use PC-Calc Lite (a fully fledged scientific calculator with over 30 conversions built in). Want to write a WordPress blog entry while traveling at 30000ft, use the WordPress app; want to know the current time in New York, or Bangalore – I use Worldclockr. Want to read today’s newspaper – The NZ Herald app let’s me download the news when I’m in a WiFi zone, and read it later (some of the other news apps use a live Internet feed, I like the offline capability of the Herald). Want to watch a Ted Talk – yep, there’s an app for that too, and this one let’s you download talks for viewing later (a really great way to get value from those endless hours spend in airplanes and airport lounges).

The beauty of these apps is the price – they range from free (most of those I mentioned above) to a few dollars. I think the most expensive apps I’ve purchased are Apple’s Pages and Keynote – and they were less than $20 each. At these prices you don’t bother with “try before buy” – just buy it and see if it does what you want. If it doesn’t do what you’re looking for the write-off is trivial.

This is the secret to the change in behavior – finally the promise of ubiquitous mobile computing is becoming a reality, and it’s affordable. I can check my email in an instant, no waiting for a boot up process. If I want to find directions to somewhere I tap on the Maps icon, type in the address and a comforting blue line shows me where to go, and estimates (pretty accurately) how long it’ll take to get there. If I want to chat with a friend in Israel, or a coworker in Dallas I load Skype and we can talk for hours (almost) for free. Yes, I can do these things on my laptop, but the instant on nature of the tablet means I can do so at a moment’s notice, and the lightweight form factor means I carry it with me without bother, there’s no need to stop and think, I just pick up the pad and am immediately productive, or entertained wherever I happen to be.

The tablet also has some capabilities that the laptop lacks – a built in gps and accelerometer tell me where I am, what direction I’m going in and (one of the best apps I’ve found) Star Walk let’s me hold the device up to the sky and shows me the names and descriptions of the constellations that are visible right now. Yes – I’m a geek, but you’ve got to admit that’s cool.

I remember the first “mobile” computer I worked with – the Osborne One Sewing Machine (they didn’t call it that, but those of us that lugged them around sure did) – I think it weighed 19kg, needed mains power, had 256KB of RAM, a tiny orange & black screen, a keyboard that folded down in the front and dual 5 1/4 floppy disk drives. And it was a steal at a mere $12000! Despite the weight (it was more “lugable” than portable) the freedom to take work to the customer site was liberating. Since the 1980s we’ve gone from lugables to laptops to netbooks and they have all been improvements, but the shift to the tablet factor, accompanied by the availability of a vast range of apps at affordable prices has really triggered a change for me.

I still use my laptop, mainly for work stuff, for bulk storage (150GB of photographs, backed up in 3 places), for presentation delivery and for writing long documents, but I’m finding more and more that I can use the tablet most of the time.

The tablet isn’t perfect, and I’m sure there will be significant improvements over the next few years. Mine hasn’t got a camera (almost reason enough for me to shell out for an iPad 2), and “battery anxiety” is a term I’ve become familiar with, if the battery level drops below 30% I start to get nervous, but I do get a solid 10 hours out of a full charge, plenty enough for a trans-Tasman flight; a USB port would be a good thing, so I can access external storage (those photographs on a portable hard drive). The competing operating systems mean that once you’ve chosen a device you are locked into that manufacturer’s offerings as the apps aren’t compatible between them.

We’re starting to see the low-price app model migrate to other form factors as well, and I wonder what impact this trend will have on the software development industry?

Music companies are having to adapt their business models to cope with digital distribution, and losing control over how their customers consume their music, are software companies facing the same challenge?

Are we going back to the days of the individual software craftsman building a product for a small audience that exactly meets their need, or will software development remain a teamwork activity. Will the software industry split into those building apps and products for the corporate environment using teams of people (probably using Agile techniques) and the solitary developer building a couple of apps, hoping that one will become the next Angry Birds? You can be sure large software organizations are looking at the app marketplace and drooling, will their business models cope with selling an app for $2.99, where they have been used to charging $2999.00?

What do you think, will tablet computing be a new paradigm or is it just the next small step in the evolution in computing?

“Live long and prosper” the tricorder is almost here!

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Posted by on May 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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