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Friday, January 11, 2008

One more thing...

Since it's only a few more days until MacWorld, with its highly anticipated SteveNote, that means it must be time for the traditional wanton speculation! Seriously, MacWorld is like geek Christmas. It's Geekmas!

The Mac users at my office are running a pool to see who makes the most accurate (and fun) predictions about MacWorld announcements (the winner gets bragging rights and the knowledge of a job well-done, so obviously the stakes are high!) And, yes, we're a Windows software company where a third of the staff use Macs -- take a moment to ponder the implications of that.

My humble predictions are as follows:
  1. Tablet Mac (basically a big iPod Touch with USB/bluetooth keyboard options) designed for media playback and remote computing via Back to My Mac.
  2. iPhone SDK support for the tablet
  3. MacBook and MacBook Pro redesigns to bring their looks more in line with the iPhone, Touch, and iMac.
  4. Higher end Mac Mini or lower end Mac Pro, probably just called a Mac.
But every SteveNote watcher knows that what we all tune in for is the mythical One More Thing -- the thing that Steve Jobs waits until the very end of the keynote to announce, the "last but not least" show-stopping grand finale. So here's my prediction:

Steve nears the end of the keynote, he recaps all the great new products, then he pauses dramatically and says:

"But there's one more thing. Our users have been asking for a two-button mouse for years, but we don't think that's the right way to go. Instead, we're eliminating the mouse completely."

Yeah, that's right: no more mice. Instead they will be replaced by mousepad-shaped multi-touch panels that attach to Macs via USB or bluetooth.

Quit gaping and close your mouth, it's not as crazy as it sounds. Lots of people are already happily using touch pads on their laptops with nary a mouse in sight, and simple external touchpads have been around for years. Some quick searching on Google and YouTube will turn up all sorts of experiments into touch interfaces, and if you have the time I highly recommend watching a few. So like most other things, Apple isn't inventing something new here, they're just doing it right. The big changes in the Apple Multi-Touch Panel are that it's bigger, it's multi-touch like the iPhone, and support for it is built directly into OS X.

Now, before I proceed, I have to make one thing perfectly clear: I have no sources or inside intelligence or direct evidence for this whatsoever. I'm merely making a swag based on current products, extrapolated trends, and wishful thinking.

What I predict is something about the size of a mouse pad or Wacom tablet. Users will put their hand on it very much as if they were using a mouse, and drag a finger around to point with. Putting two (or more) fingers on the surface will activate multi-touch features very similar to the iPhone (pinching and pulling to zoom, spinning to rotate, flicking to scroll, etc.) Perhaps more interestingly, it will open up new avenues for the long-neglected field of gesture interfaces.

I know this sounds crazy, but take a moment try to imagine what such an interface device might feel like. Move your mouse out of the way and rest your hand on the desktop where it usually sits. See how it rather naturally assumes the same position? Now imagine that your desktop is touch sensitive like the touchpad on a laptop, and try moving a finger around as if you were controlling your pointer with it. That doesn't seem so bad to me. Clicking could be handled the same way it is on touchpads. Dragging could be handled by having two fingers on at once.

Right-clicking could be handled by...wait! That's not a problem because you don't need to right-click on a Mac! Oh, ok, I'll admit that I don't really buy that. I use a two-button mouse all the time. But Command-Clicking could still work unaltered, or using three fingers could activate a right-click, or tapping a finger to the right of your pointing finger, or.... Well, really, once you eliminate the hardware, the user interface can take whatever form you want.

I think it would still stink for most gaming (at first), and I don't think I'd want to do heavy-duty Photoshopping with it, but mice and pen tablets will still work just like they do now, so I don't see those programs being an issue.

So what evidence do I have?

Well, first there's Cringely's cryptic prediction that "Apple will introduce...its replacement for the mouse" -- I have to pause here to give him credit for setting me off thinking in this direction to begin with. That statement merged with the laptop touch panel rumors to form the crux of this concept.

Second, there's Steve Jobs' purported dislike of buttons. If he truly hates buttons, what could be better than eliminating them entirely?

Third, there's also the somewhat inexplicable delay of the iPhone SDK, which obviously exists, since that's what Apple's own developers are using to write iPhone apps. One possible explanation for the delay is that it would reveal too much about upcoming OS X and Mac maybe system-wide touchability.

Fourth, of course, we have the iPhone itself, along with its cousin the iPod Touch. Apple has obviously invested a great deal of time and money into developing really nice touch interfaces, and even as successful as the iPhone has been (and may well be in the future), that alone seems insufficient to justify that kind of R&D effort. Apple has to be making other plans for that technology.

One benefit of the Multi-Touch Pad, and the fifth reason to expect it, is that it would provide a single interface method across all of Apple's OS X systems. Right now, we have touchpads on laptops, touch screens on phones/iPods, clickwheels on iPods, and mice on desktops. None of those are going away overnight, of course, but they'll exist alongside the new interfaces indefinitely.

And, finally, we come to my least-supported but most-compelling reason: it's just time. Looking at a brief history of computer interfaces, it appears that input paradigm shifts come along every 15-25 years. There were about 23 years of punch card dominance, followed by 14 years of command line (keyboard) dominance, and now we've had 24 years of mouse dominance. Obviously, those are approximate dates, and old methods lingered for years after. Command lines are still with us today (and are superior to GUIs in some respects).

The fact remains, though, that since Apple popularized the mouse with the original Mac in 1984, we've really had only incremental improvements in input devices. I think (and hope) that it's time for the text paradigm, and I can't think of any company better positioned to promote it than Apple, which controls the entire user experience, from OS to software to hardware.

At the very least, I think it's time to finally move beyond what Xerox PARC did in the 1970s...even if that just means moving forward to what they did in the 80s and 90s. :-)

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Cockeye Cauci

Ok, they weren't really all that cockeye, I just couldn't resist using that title. I'd say they were actually pretty predictable to anyone who was paying attention. Congrats to Huckabee and Obama. But don't get cocky kid: Iowa hasn't been a great predictor in recent years. (Hat tip to Instapundit - my favorite political blog.)

I had actually forgotten my three year-old 2008 prediction until someone posted a comment to it the other day. Rather than hiding the evidence of my prediction as I jokingly threatened to, I'm going to refine things a little.

I think I was (sadly) pretty much right about the fate of the Democratic Party between 2004 and now. What I didn't predict was that the Republicans would be in about the same state after the 2006 mid-terms. Both parties have gone out of their way to earn their congressional approval ratings.

I still think that when all is said and done Hillary will be the Democratic nominee. What I'm no longer certain about is her ability to win the general election.

The main reason is that she is likely to be far too polarizing. Her base will love her, but so will her opponents, who will line up overnight for the chance to vote against her. Between the 45% who will love her and the 45% who will hate her, that leaves only 10% of the electorate for the candidates to fight over. Her best chance to break out of that scenario is for a moderate or far-right candidate to split the opposition. That may be difficult, though, because it seems unlikely that her opponents would not consolidate against her.

The other reason I'm uncertain about her general election appeal is general distrust of political dynasties. Not much has been made of that so far, but I think it could turn into a genuine issue. If Hillary is elected for two terms, then by 2016 the White House will have been held by two immediate families for 28 years. That's over 10% of our country's history...consecutively.

Food for thought: Although obviously less bloody, that's only 2 years less than the Wars of the Roses.

Regardless of my political persuasion, I find myself being intensely uncomfortable with that prospect. Dynasties are not healthy for democracies and republics, and I would very much prefer for my country to not be gently lulled into that trap. I would feel the same way about Jeb Bush running, and when you consider that a whole new generation of Clintons and Bushes could be old enough to run in 2016, the prospect becomes even more disturbing.

I'm completely willing to concede that I may be in the vast minority on that issue, though. I hope that voters will have enough historical perspective and respect for the dangers of hereditary monarchies to at least look askance at simply alternating between two dynasties. Even if they ultimately decide that it's a non-issue for them personally, they should at least consider the implications.

The Dynasty Factor might not be a major issue for very many people, but when you start thinking in terms of only 10-20% of the electorate really being in play, even minor issues become major.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Year of Less of Me

In my last post I promised "more later." Well, it's later.

Aside from the obvious meaning of the post title marking 2007 as "The Year Ryan Hardly Blogged At All," this was also the year that I finally started getting in shape. Without going into excessive detail, I'll just say that I now weigh 24% less than I did at the beginning of May.

I'm afraid I have no great secret to share. I haven't gone on any kind of exciting, cutting edge diet, I've just adjusted my lifestyle to eat less, eat healthier, and exercise more. We did do a month of Nutrisystem to kick things off, and although I don't think I could've done it for much longer than that, it served very well to help me break bad eating habits.

Everyone's first comment is that I must feel so much better. Well, I guess. You know how you don't really notice yourself growing up or changing over time until you see an old picture because you see yourself every day? It's the same principle: I lived in my body every day, so I couldn't notice the gradual changes. I only noticed improvements when I exerted myself without getting winded or when I had to move down to a smaller clothing size.

Speaking of clothing, that has been my biggest problem. Since I was trying to avoid buying clothes (especially pants) in sizes that I expected to only move through temporarily, I've been having trouble dressing. Well, I've really only had trouble on the rare dress occasions, but that was enough. At any rate, I think I've just about leveled out at a good weight/size, and since I got a good supply of clothing-related gift cards for Christmas (at my emergency request) I should be adequately clothed as soon as I have a chance to go shopping.

Heather Marie gave me a great book on men's fashion for Christmas, so I'm planning to use this opportunity to really plan my wardrobe. I'll basically be starting from scratch, and one of my main goals is to cover all the essentials as minimally as possible while eliminating lots of the clothes that I don't actually wear.

So, since I have the weight thing under control, what are my resolutions for 2008? I think my main one is to make 2008 the "Year of More of Me," in the sense that I want to be much more active and visible in my blog and projects. The first part of that will entail more frequent blog posts. In the interest of convenience (and catch-up), I'll probably start primarily by finishing posts I've been working on or putting off for a long time, intermingled with new posts.

In the spirit of NaNoWriMo's Big Scary Fun Things, I've got several ideas for year-long projects I'm considering -- with varying degrees of public visibility and scariness. I'll post about them soon. For right now, we need to go practice our ballroom dancing.

Yes, that's one of my BSFTs for this year....

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