Feb 11

Apple, why must you suck so?

I sometimes wonder if Apple makes its software intentionally bad on PC platforms. Here, a case in point, iTunes. This software has a truly massive footprint, 210 MB in memory, yet all I need it for is to allow connection of my iPod to my PC. And it doesn’t even do that reliably. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And even when things do work properly, you can’t do simple and intuitive tasks like dragging and dropping apps onto the iPod. Apple, really?

May 10

iPad zero dot oh

Now that the world is going iPad crazy, I’d like to give a moment of silence for Apple’s first long-forgotten crack at tablet computing: the Newton. It looks dated today but in its time this was a marvel of user-centric design.

This line of handheld tablet computers was sold from about 1993-1997. I owned the Newton 2100, which I bought — as I often do — about ten minutes before they announced they were discontinuing it.

The 2100 was incredibly light, durable, forgiving of both mistreatment and careless handwriting, practical, able to play well with your Mac or PC, able to tether to your cellphone or connect to a physical network (which at the time was a dialup phone line), structured in a way that suited business users, very long lasting on either rechargeable or AA batteries, and fabulous to use in full sunlight. In short, this was a real computer for people who actually needed to use one in the real world.

And now it’s 2010, and the new iPad appears to be none of those things. But it doesn’t matter because it’s sexy as hell and people will buy it first and convince themselves later they can use it for something. That, too, is good design.

Feb 08

World’s first laptop

The world’s first laptop (terminal, if not self-contained computer) … the Silent 700.

The Silent 700 used a built-in acoustic coupler to connect the user to a remote computer (usually a mainframe). The user entered data and commands by text, and the output appeared on thermal paper. The use of thermal printing made the terminal incredibly quiet (hence the ‘Silent’). Connections were slow — typically running 300 bps — but the quality of the acoustic interface allowed you to maintain connections for hours or days at a time. The Silent 700’s keyboard was a joy to write with, and the terminal was virtually indestructible.

The Silent 700 was the first device to make computing truly portable, though at 15 lbs, we couldn’t consider it mobile computing by today’s standards. All you needed was a telephone, a power plug, and a mainfraime computing account.  (And a paper bag to put over your head, because walking around with a Silent 700 in 1973 wasn’t quite as sexy as walking around with a iPhone in 2008.)

While it’s hard to recognize this today, the Silent 700 was a tour de force of industrial design in its day. The devices it replaced were clanky, fixed teletype units the size of small refrigerators, and heavy desktop video display terminals that tied users to their desks. The portable terminal let knowledge workers take their work into the field, and notably, into the home. The Silent 700 was the first step in the decoupling of data from location. Though now long forgotten, it launched the transformation of knowledge work into a mobile discipline.