Why I probably won’t be upgrading to Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion

With the impending release of Mountain Lion, Apple’s new version of the OS X operating system, I’ve been giving some thought to whether I’ll bother upgrading or not. I am, or at least I used to be, what many would refer to as a Mac Fanboy. I still think Apple builds the best consumer computer hardware on the planet, and, so far anyway, OS X is probably still the best desktop/laptop operating system currently available. A few years ago I would not have included the “probably” qualifier in that last sentence, but lately I’m feeling more and more disenfranchised with Apple and their litigious nature and walled garden approach to creating customer lock-in.

It’s not that I don’t like their products. I do. I have several Macs, iPads, iPhones, and Apple TVs. Walled garden or not, they build beautiful products that –  for the most part – do exactly what they claim… they just work. While I don’t always approve of their proprietary attitude to the way they build their products, I understand the design goals that such a hardware and software symbiosis achieves, and I would still rather use a Mac than any other machine. However, just lately I’m feeling more and more disconnected from my “fanboyism”.

Maybe it’s because I had to recently downgrade my home iMac from Lion back to Snow Leopard because it was just consistently running like crap… constant hard drive spinning, excessive memory use and disk activity, and just general poor performance. Now I’m back at Snow Leopard and it runs a lot better. I admit it’s an older iMac, and maybe I never should have taken it to Lion in the first place, but the new features like full screen mode and gestural interactions were tempting me to try them so I upgraded to Lion anyway. In return I got generally sluggish performance, some weird buggy behaviours and several UI features that I thought were rather broken.

So I’m pondering what to do about Mountain Lion. Several people I know who’ve been running the Gold Master tell me it’s quite stable and runs very nicely. While I do usually like to be on the latest versions of everything, I don’t want to go back to lousy performance on a machine that is admittedly probably a little old and lacking in RAM to truly get the best out of 10.8.

But even for my much newer MacBook Pro that should be just fine to run Mountain Lion, as I read through the list of new features and benefits, I can’t say I’m feeling compelled by any of them, even at the bargain price of $19.99.

iCloud Integration: While it’s a nice idea in concept, I have nearly all of the iCloud features turned off. My mail, calendars and contacts are all stored on Gmail and sync directly to my devices from the Google Cloud. It took a little more time to set it up this way using Google Sync, I find it far more reliable than the iCloud way of keeping things in sync.

Notification Centre: I’m not sure I want that big panel of notifications interfering with my workflow. Maybe it’s not as bad as it appears in the screenshots I’ve seen, but it looks very intrusive. I have Growl. It works fine and already gives notifications for most of the things that matter to me, so I’m not sure why I’d want more.

New Safari: I use Chrome almost exclusively. I think it’s a great browser that is actually far more than a browser. The Chrome App Store is amazing, and I really don’t even feel the need to have Safari on my computer at all.

New Mail: I use Gmail at both home and work. I like the web interface. I like that it’s the same on every machine I use, even the ones I don’t own. The last thing I want is all my mail sitting on my hard drive, and I find mail.app to be a bit of a nuisance so I’d be happy to not have it at all.

Gatekeeper: I really don’t want Apple telling me (even more than they do now) what software I can or can’t have on my machine. From what I’ve read about Gatekeeper I would most likely be turning its security settings right down anyway, so I don’t feel compelled by it very much.

Twitter and Facebook integration: I guess this might be useful to have, but I don’t think it’s a deal breaker. I know how to cut and paste.

Game Center: I Just. Don’t. Care.

There’s other features in the list, but honestly, none of them really jump out and grab me as must-haves. In general I’m not terribly excited at all about the “iOS-ification” of my desktop environment. I like my iPad, but I don’t feel the need for my desktop machines to be dumbed down and made more iOS-like.  I’d rather Apple (and Microsoft too for that matter) focus more on operating systems where security, stability and usability, were the real features rather than trying to make my MacBook Pro behave more like my iPad.

Of course, my rebellion comes at a price. As I write this on my iMac, my other machine is completely rebuilding its Aperture library because the version of the Aperture database that ran under Lion is not backward compatible with the earlier version, so on Snow Leopard I could no longer access my photo library. Annoying. I’m sure that I’ll also have problems with Final Cut X if I don’t upgrade eventually too. No doubt there will be further incompatibilities with other applications (yes, remember “applications”… that’s what they were called before everything became just “apps”) and at some point in the future I will probably have to buy new hardware and move to the most current version of OSX if I plan to to stay on the Mac platform.

I’ve been using personal computers for a long time. I’ll happily admit to being a “power user” and I rather object to Apple’s insistent belief that they need to dumb down my computer because they think I can’t cope with a file system, or that I should suddenly start scrolling in the opposite direction because it’s more “iPad like”, or that I should have fewer choices available because I need to have the software decide what’s best for me. I still think that, in terms of general usability, OS X has an edge over Windows and Linux, but the gap is getting much smaller. I even bought an Android Galaxy Nexus phone recently  to compare it to the iPhone and, while I still prefer the iPhone overall, it’s not by a very big margin. This monkey has definitely got a gun, to quote Andy Inhatko.

I have to also admit that my impression of Apple might be coloured by the outrageously stupid patent disputes they insist on engaging in. I’m appalled at their puerile and childish behaviour, apparently preferring to litigate rather than innovate their way to more success. Apple, you are better than this. Stop wasting your creative energy worrying about what the other guys are doing, because they are going to do it anyway. You can’t continue to take out injunctions against every other product that looks vaguely, kinda-sorta like your precious iPhone. Just build a better iPhone and stop whining that other people “stole” your ideas, because, let’s face it, you’ve done your own share of stealing ideas over the years. “Slide to unlock” should not be a patentable idea. Active links in an email should not be a patentable idea. Get over it and just build something better.

Taking control of your Calendars: Part 3

Thanks to everyone who came back to me with such positive responses to the last two posts… it’s great to hear that other people were also able to benefit from some of the things I learned about Google Calendars recently.

This final post will just tidy up a few loose ends and give you an idea of some of the extra things I’m doing with my calendars now they are set up the way I wanted them.  It’s working far better than I anticipated, and certainly far better than Apple’s MobileMe service ever worked.  And did I mention that Google Calendars are free? (I’m pretty sure I did!)

Add to TasksWe’ve touched on Gmail, Contacts and Calendars, and looked at how these can be synced to your iPhone and iPad. Naturally, they can also all be synced to your Android phone and tablet if you have one of those. But what about Tasks? In the spirit of GTD, it would really help to be able to have a decent task (ToDo) list that also worked with the rest of my digital (Google) lifestyle.

Gmail does have a Tasks list, although it’s pretty anemic. It appears as a tiny little popup at the base of the Gmail screen and it looks very basic, even nondescript. No wonder people miss it. And it is basic and nondescript too, at least until you start doing something more interesting with it. The goal is to use the Tasks list to become a storing place for emails that you need to act upon in the future.

It’s easy enough to do. When you get an email that requires you to take some action, either in general or by a certain date, just click the More Actions button and choose the Add To Tasks option. (If it’s more of an event than a to-do, you can also choose the Create Event option to add it to your calendar… you decide)

Once you add the email as a Task, you’ll then find it in your task list in the lower right of your screen. Click the small right-pointing arrow to dig into the new task and you’ll find you can set a few other parameters for the task, such as editing its name if necessary, setting a due date and leaving some additional notes.  For this exercise, just set a due date. Once you’ve done this, click the Back To List button to go back to the list view.

Where it gets interesting is when you look at your calendar now you’ll see the Task showing up on your calendar on the due date, complete with a little checkbox to tick once you’ve completed the task.  I really like the workflow here – taking an email and turning it into a task which them appears on my calendar. Yes I know that other systems can do this sort of thing, but I like the simple way that Google makes it happen.  I also need to thank Roland Gesthuizen for showing me this stuff… I never realised you could integrate tasks into your calendar in this way.

Of course, it would be really useful to have these tasks also appear on your phone so you could access them (and tick them off) anywhere and anytime you wanted. There’s no built in app on the iPhone to do this, but there is a third party app called GoTasks that does it very well. Install GoTasks (a free app!) from the App Store and your tasks will appear on your phone in a nicely readable list that syncs directly from your Google account. Nice one!

If you’ve managed to follow along and get all this working for you, here’s one more handy tip. The standard Calendar app on the iPhone is pretty basic, and although it still works ok, it’s limited in its features.  No week view or year view, no custom colour coding on calendars, no landscape mode, etc.  If your iPhone calendar app is leaving you feeling a little unimpressed you should try Week Calendar from the App Store. At AUD$2.49 it’s a bargain and well worth the cost. It’s superior to the standard calendar app in every way and is more like what the standard app should have been. A special hat-tip to Brent Walters from Ontario for putting me onto this app.

So there you have it… some hopefully useful suggestions for helping you migrate your key applications – mail, calendar, contacts, tasks – to the Google cloud and to have them accessible from anywhere. No more getting out of sync, of having important information stored on different computers, of worrying about it whether the dog ate it, or even just getting muddled and confused and losing stuff.

Put it in the cloud! Sync it. Access it from anywhere, on any device. That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!

Speaking Clearly

Dragon DictateThis is an experiment. I’m using DragonDictate, a program for the iPad that lets you talk directly into the computer as it turns your words into text. A teacher at school today asked me about using dictation and word recognition software for her students that had trouble with learning.

I think it’s a great idea, although the problem will probably be that in order to have speech recognition recognise your voice you do need to speak really clearly in the first place. For many kids, especially the ones that struggle with learning, speaking clearly can be almost as difficult as writing. Still, I think we will try the experiment because, well, the software is free and it would be interesting to see just how well it can handle the students voices.

I’m dictating this blog post into dragon and I’m going to publish it pretty much as it was recorded mistakes and all if you see mistakes in this you’ll know why. And if you don’t see mistakes in this then you can assume that DragonDictate has done a pretty good job of changing my speech to text.

A Photo a Day

The Twelve Apostles, taken on my iPhone using HDRI like photography. In fact I like imagery in general, which is, I suppose, why I enjoyed art school so much. The combination of not only interesting images, but also interesting ideas, made the four years I spent at art school some of the best years of my life.

However, it was only after I taught art for a few years that I discovered that, while I liked art, I didn’t necessarily like teaching art. I’ve since spoken to many people who proclaim that the quickest way to kill your passion for something is to do it for a living. I’m not sure that’s the case… what I do now, working with kids and technology and the future, is what I love doing. But I understand what they are saying… for many people, their passions need to be unshackled from the daily “must do” so that they can be enjoyed as a “want to” instead.

So, working with imagery and design and graphics and photography remains something I enjoy simply for the sake of it. I like to take photos, or mess about with Photoshop or Illustrator, but I like to do it on my terms not someone else’s.  And yet, with such a laissez-faire attitude to these things, it’s easy to let these interests slip away in the busy-ness of life, where they simply don’t happen with any regularity.

I’ve seen people doing the 365 Day Photography Challenge over the last couple of years, and I really like the concept.  Take a photo each day for a year and publish it online. It’s a nice idea.  I’ve tried to do it myself for the past few years, starting several times, but for one reason or another I’ve just found it difficult to maintain the momentum of doing it.  All that messing about, taking photos and uploading to the computer each day and then publishing to a blog.  Sure, blogging a photo is a pretty easy thing to do, but I’ve just lacked the discipline to do it every single day.

Coincidentally, I visited my buddy John Pearce at his home near Portarlington last week. John is a far more disciplined blogger than I am and over the last few years he’s been particularly good at taking – and blogging – a photo a day.  As we walked along the beach in front of his home, he was telling me what a rewarding experience he’s found doing his 365 Day Photos. He extolled the virtues of it forcing you to look at your surroundings a little more carefully, of the discipline it creates in doing something every single day, and his enthusiasm for the idea just generally made it sound like a good, fun thing to do.

Even more coincidentally, our conversation took place on January 1. The first day of the year. I mean seriously, if you’re going to start a 365 Day program for anything, is there a better day to start it than January 1?

The thing that really clinched it though, was John’s enthuiasm for a couple of software tools that would clearly make this a far simpler, more doable, proposition.

One was Posterous.  I’ve been dabbling with Posterous for a few other projects lately, and it really is a very impressive blogging tool. It’s ability to take content from something as simple as an email, and to manage any associated digital media files like photos, videos and audio is super impressive. It’s rather remarkable ability to then automatically crosspost to other services like Twitter, Facebook, Picassa, WordPress, Blogger – you name it and it probably crossposts to it – made the whole idea just too interesting to pass up.

Then John told me about an iPhone app called PicPosterous, which specifically uses the phone’s camera (and on the iPhone 4 it’s a pretty darn good camera!) to enable images to be sent directly to a Posterous blog from the phone.  Yes, I know it can be done with a simple email, or a dozen other easy ways, but I really liked the elegance of the PicPosterous solution.  I dabbled with it over our lunch, and was really very impressed with its simplicity and ease of use.

So. A good camera on the iPhone. Easy upload with PicPosterous. Nicely packaged into a blog with Posterous. Broad distribution with the crossposting options. Oh, and of course, it was January 1.  With all of that conspiring together, how could I say no? The fact that we were going to be driving the Great Ocean Road the following day – possibly one of Australia’s most photogenic areas – might have also helped!

So, I’m in. 5 days down, 360 more to go.  You can find my daily pics at http://365daysoflight.posterous.com, where there is even a nice RSS feed to subscribe to. I also send them to Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, Identica and Buzz. (I didn’t include Twitter… I figure I already make enough noise there)  It will be interesting to look back over the photos this time next year to a) look at a neat visual record of my year, and b) to see if my photography has improved any. I’m looking forward to that. Not to mention that it’s a great way to engage with new tools, new techniques, new ideas that I may not otherwise dabble with.  This is how you learn stuff.

As my own enthusiasm for the project has grown, I’ve found myself taking a lot more notice of some really interesting photography apps for the iPhone. Having a focus of taking a photo a day has made me much more interested in finding out what I can do with the iPhone as a camera. I’ll probably write a post in the next little while to share a few of the cool photography apps I’ve discovered, but one I’ll just mention now quickly is HDR Pro. With a hat-tip to Allanah King, another 365er, who showed this to me at ULearn last year, it really is a pretty amazing app. It uses HDR – High Dynamic Range – techniques to produce some stunningly good looking images. Shooting in HDR takes multiple images of the same scene, one underexposed and one overexposed, and then merges then together to form a single photograph with near perfect exposure in every part of the photo. The example you see above is shot using HDR Pro and I think it’s pretty good for a phone camera!  Even though it was shot looking almost directly into the sun, the exposures are still pretty good with plenty of detail in the shadowed areas. That’s what HDR does really well.

So, enjoy the photos on my Posterous site, and don’t forget the check out the blogroll as it links to a whole lot of other 365ers taking some great daily shots. And if you’re a 365er yourself, let me know so I can add you to the blogroll!

Calling Home

I’ve been travelling a fair bit lately.  Although much of it has been within Australia, I’ve just spent the last few days in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, for the Sitech Champion Schools Conference, and I’m writing this from in the hotel foyer. New Zealand is starting to feel a bit like a second home lately… this is my fourth trip here in the past 12 months. Aussies and Kiwis have a friendly relationship. Aside from the obvious opportunity to take shots at each other over the cricket and the rugby, our two countries get along amicably well, and the trip across the Tasman is something that feels more like going interstate than international.  It’s easy to feel at home in NZ.

About 12 months ago I was here for last years Champion Schools Conference and some readers of this blog may remember that I came home to a $1000 phone bill for international roaming. That was a saga in itself, and much was said about it both here on the blog and on Twitter and Facebook.  While I should have known better, I was quite unprepared for such a minimal amount of data to be charged at such an exorbitant rate.  I was not a happy customer and I made sure my carrier knew about it.  As a result of that experience, and the subsequent whingefest I made of it, I learned two important lessons.  One, unless you’re prepared for huge roaming charges, do not allow your phone to roam when overseas. In the brouhaha that followed the bill I asked my carrier to completely disable international roaming for both data and voice, and insisted they unlock my phone so I could use an overseas SIM card when I was abroad. They complied and did both these things.  The second lesson was that if you make enough fuss about an outrageous bill you stand a much better chance of getting something done about it.  It took me numerous phone calls to customer service and plenty of persistence to get through to someone who could do something about it, but I eventually succeeded in getting the bill reduced to a reasonable amount.  Sometimes it pays to be the squeaky wheel, and to their credit, my carrier eventually just dropped the entire charge.

So, for the last few days, I’ve voluntarily chosen to cripple my iPhone by requesting my carrier not allow it to roam onto the New Zealand phone networks. The international roaming charges are hefty enough, and my need to make phone calls is not critical enough, that I figured I could live without telephony for a few days.  Besides, I figured that as long as I could get occasional access to wifi, that would be enough. Wifi would let me get to my email and other stuff, and I could make any phone calls using Skype or Fring, both of which work just fine on wifi.  Of course, I never anticipated that getting access to affordable, reliable wifi would be so ridiculously difficult in Lower Hutt, which is only 25 minutes outside Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.  The hotel advertised that it had wifi available, but despite paying for an NZ Telecom voucher it never seemed to work, and most times never even showed up in the list of available wifi access points. I went to Starbucks to pay for wifi there, but still had zero success in getting connected.  So for the past four days I’ve been mostly disconnected. There has been wifi at the conference of course, but I’ve usually been too busy to use it for my own personal needs.

But the real point of this blog post is to question why, in this day and age, is it so damn difficult to be connected while travelling.  Why is 3G connectivity so expensive once you roam away from your own country? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it should be free, but I’d love to see a bit more interoperability between networks and a few more strategic partnerships formed between the carriers so that staying connected while travelling was a bit more affordable and not so difficult.

To access the mobile web in Australia I pay $20/month for my phone to have 1GB, or just over 1000MB, of mobile data. The cost of data when I’m in some countries is charged at over $20 per Megabyte!  So, the cost of accessing the mobile internet when I’m in overseas can be 1000 times what I pay in Australia. I have no problem with paying a reasonable premium to access data over another carrier’s network, but 1000 times more? That’s just gouging!  I’d be willing to be charged a little extra to use the local carriers network, but I refuse to get ripped off like that, hence I turned off the roaming completely.  Sure, it was inconvenient not having access to phone and data while I was in NZ, and there was more than a couple of time when I wished I could make a quick call, but the phone companies can go and get stuffed if they think I’m willing to play their overpriced game.

Why should the cost of accessing the web cost so much just because you’re in another place. I mean, sending an email doesn’t cost you more depending on where you send it.  Once the bits that contain the message content are “in the pipeline”, it costs no more to route them next door or around the world. They just become part of the flow of electrons that circle the globe. The notion that it should cost more to send them further is just a hangover from the old days of telephony, when phone companies charged “long distance” rates for calls that went a bit further. The reasoning that it costs more to push data further is completely flawed.  It makes no difference how far you push binary bits through a network, the cost of doing it doesn’t really increase.  You remember when you sent your first email? Remember how liberating it felt when you found out that you were sending a message to whole other country, and it wasn’t costing you any more than sending it to your own suburb?  How could they do that? How could they afford to transport messages clear across the other side of the world and charge no more? Easy. Bits are free.

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t solve my problem.  What about Plan B… get the phone unlocked and simply insert a local SIM card to access data on the local country’s network. Getting the iPhone unlocked by my carrier was not too difficult – I just asked and insisted that they do it, and told them that I was unwilling to be charged their inflated data roaming prices. Surprisingly, they complied immediately, although they now tell me that to finalise the unlocking process does require a complete system restore of my iPhone, something which is quite unreasonable. I sync my iPhone with my home iMac and I travel with my MacBook Pro, so the computer I have when travelling is not the one that contains the sync data for my iPhone. Even it it were, the notion that I need to do a complete system restore (which would involve erasing and restoring all my phone data) is plain ridiculous. 

On top of all of that is the near-impossibility of buying a short-term phone plan that offers both voice and data on the guest country’s network at a reasonable proce.  You would think that the concept of someone wanting a temporary local SIM while travelling would be so obvious, but almost no phone companies actually offers something like that. Crazy! I can’t imagine why they are choosing to be missing out on so much potential revenue from travellers.

So I want to know why it it is so difficult for phone companies to provide what seems like an obvious need in this hyperconnected world of ours… the ability to remain connected -at a reasonable price – to our telephony and data while travelling. The web is built on global standards. Data is data. Most voice calls are carried on VOIP anyway.  The methods for connecting to a network node – any network node – is no different no matter where you are in the world. There has to be a better solution than the current overpriced, under-delivering method of roaming onto another network and being charged through the nose for it.

Come on phone companies! Get your act together!

Image: ‘We are spirits in the material world

Finding New Things to do with an IWB

The following post was originally written as a reponse to a thread about interactive whiteboards on the www.iwbrevolution.com Ning.  One of the thread participants there made a statement about needing to see IWBs used in new ways.

I’m interested (read desperate) to see the revolutionary value adding aspects. I have an IWB, I love using my IWB, but I need to grasp the ideas and strategies that move people to describe it as a ‘revolution’ in learning. Show me an idea that is actually new!!!

While I appreciate where he’s coming from, I think the question is somewhat flawed. In responded to the post, I found myself “thinking out loud” about the value propsition of interactive whiteboards.  For what it may be worth, here’s the post. As always, your thoughts and feedback are welcome in the comments…

I used to own a mobile phone, an iPod, a digital camera, a video camera, a GPS, and a voicerecorder, and I often carried many of them with me at any given moment. I also used to carry photos of my kids in my wallet. Gradually each of these devices has become subsumed into devices that could combine many of these functions – at first, my mobile phone gained a camera, and then my next phone had a camera, and a voice recorder. I still needed an iPod if I wanted to have my music with me, and I still needed a GPS if I wanted to know where I was going. I could maybe carry 3 or 4 photos of my kids at most.

My latest device is an iPhone, and it has finally merged all of these tools into a single pocketsized device. I now no longer carry all these things around with as individual tools, but I still have all these tools in my pocket. They are now just one device. The phone, the cameras, the voicerecorder, the GPS, the iPod with all my videos, music and photos accessable whereever I go, combined with mobile internet access and the dozens of amazing apps I have installed for doing just about anything you can think of, has fundamentally changed the experience of interacting with these devices individually.

I find my iPhone to be “revolutionary”, not because it allows me to do anything I could not do previously with all these individual devices, but rather because of the way it has combined all these tools into a single device. The revolution has been in the convergence, not in each the specific tools. I could do all this stuff before – I just had to carry a bag full of devices to do it! It’s also evident in the way these tools interact with each other… the maps can talk to the GPS, which in turn can access the web to look up an address, which in turn can let me make a phone call to that address. There’s nothing terribly “new” about the map, the GPS or the phone. Individually, these are all old, existing tools, but combine them together and they produce an overall experience that is new, different, and dare I say it, revolutionary.

The argument I hear that “an IWB does not let me do anything I couldn’t do with xxxx” – pieces of cardboard with words on them, sheets of butchers paper and blu-tack, an overhead projector, a pair of real dice, a big wooden protractor… you name it… is a complete piece of misdirection about the real value that an IWB can bring to a classroom. It is NOT about whether an IWB can “only” be used to do something that was already possible using a different technology. The real point is that the IWB, by converging so many classroom tools into a single, digital, point of contact on a large shared screen that every participant of the classroom can see, hear and engage with, fundamentally changes a whole lot of things.

There ARE great examples of how IWBs can reinvent what happens in classrooms, but if the onlookers want to constantly dismiss them because they might be able to be done in other ways with other tools, then they will never see the value that convergence brings to these tools.

You say you are desperate to see something “new”, but what do you need to see before you class it as “new”? There are very few new ideas under the sun… if people are waiting for that magical moment where they see an IWB being used to do something that is so unique and special it has never been done ever before by anyone in teaching history, they might be waiting a while. Few examples exist.

However, many examples exist of IWBs enabling teachers to bring digital media, online video, rich learning objects and realtime data into lessons. There are lots of examples of IWBs being used to bring disparate resources together in ways that were cumbersome and awkward using disparate technologies. If you’ve ever tried to show students specific scenes from a DVD – or heaven forbid, several DVDs – in a class, you will know that juggling disks in and out of the DVD player and trying to find specific places in the movie can take up most of the classtime. The same lesson, where the relevant video clips have been pre-prepared and embedded into a flipchart is a totally different experience.

Likewise, the ability to have an IWB as a “window to the world” where not only is the answer to so many random questions just a Google search away, the important thing is that it is only a Google search away in a shared, publicly viewable, social space of a classroom. I would argue that classroom participants using the shared digital space of a large screen connected to the internet and able to divert a lesson into unexpected directions at a moments notice is fundamentally different to traditional classrooms. The ability to do this is, in effect, new.

Perhaps we should stop looking for these profound, earth shattering instances of how an IWB can be “revolutionary”, and instead see the whole picture. The convergence of tools into a shared space that can be instantly adapted into whatever digital tool that might be appropriate is a an incredibly fundamental difference. A large screen tool shared by the whole class that is a place to write, a spreadsheet, a video player, a photo album, a maths lab, a world map, a link to world libraries, an encyclopedia, a highlighter pen, a post-it note, a place to brainstorm, and so on and so on, is an incredibly valuable tool. The fact that these individual parts can be dynamic, realtime and interactive makes it even moreso.

Whenever I hear people saying that an IWB can’t add anything to a classroom, I ponder how they are using it. Are they using a narrow set of IWB tools or do they use it in a myriad of connected ways that build on each other to create a dynamic ecosystem of tools. Do they treat their IWB like a hammer or a Swiss Army Knife? Is it just an expensive highlighter pen, or is it an amazing pandora’s box of digital tools waiting to be combined in interesting ways by creative teachers and students?

That’s where you’ll find your new stuff.

The REAL trick to all this is to ensure that this potential is being realised by teachers who understand the world of possibilities their IWB offers. If a teacher cannot see the potential, then of course we will struggle to see genuine “newness” in the way the IWBs are being used. As always, it is the creativity and insight of a talented teacher that brings this potential to the surface. Let’s stop being so hung up about whether IWBs can add value to a classroom. They can. The real question is whether the teachers who work with them can make the most of that potential and use them to bring that “revolution” into their classrooms.

iPhone – A Garden of Pure Ideology?

There are moments when I really like my iPhone, yet others that frustrate the heck out of me.  I finally got one a couple of months ago when my carrier, 3 Mobile, finally got the iPhone, long after nearly every other Australian mobile telco.  This surprised me, since 3 Mobile were the first carrier to bring 3G services to the Australian marketplace about 8 years ago, so I was expecting that when the iPhone 3G was released in Australia that 3 Mobile would be one of the first to carry it.  Not so.

Until the iPhone, I was a relatively happy user of a Nokia N95 8Gb. As phones go, the N95 was a pretty impressive piece of hardware… it did a lot of things well, including an excellent 5MP camera, decent voice recorder, VGA quality video, GPS and the ability to install a reasonably impressive number of third party apps – nothing like the thousands of apps in Apple’s AppStore – but it had quite a few that I found useful, including Gravity, and excellent Twitter client, and Geocache Navigator, an app for geocaching.  The turn by turn voice navigation of the Nokia Maps app was also very impressive, although relatively expensive to enable.  the downside was that although the N95 had an reasonable music player in it, it was a bit of a joke compared to  an iPod, and syncing with a music library of any sort was way harder than it should have been. This meant that, although I liked the phone quite a lot, it required me to still need to carry two devices – the N95 and an iPod Touch – most places I went. The other downside was the text input method – that silly little numeric keypad and predictive text thing was a pain to use and really marred the overall user experience of entering text on the phone.  On the whole though, the N95 was a decent phone with great functionality for most purposes.

It wasn’t until the recent release of the iPhone 3G S that 3 Mobile finally announced they would be carrying it, and with much fanfare they offered a bunch of special deals to existing customers, including the ability to move to an iPhone without any real penalty for early termination of my existing contract. After much mental “should I or shouldn’t I”, I decided to move “up” to an iPhone. Actually getting one from them was a whole other story, and was such a huge customer service debacle that it deserves it’s own story some other time.

So am I happy with it?  Well, sort of.  As I mentioned, there are things I really like about the iPhone, and others that make me a little frustrated and annoyed with it.

The positives are pretty obvious… it’s a beautifully designed piece of hardware, nice to hold, pretty to look at. The interface is intuitive, easy to use and once you get past its modal nature and the lack of real multitasking, it is extremely functional.  The extensibility through the apps store is, quite simply, amazing.  “There’s an App for that” may be an Apple advertising catchphrase, but there truly does seem to be an app for just about anything you can think of, and this ability to customise the phone into a true mobile computing device that runs pretty much any task, utility or game is really quite a defining moment in the history of computing devices.  To their credit, Apple has redefined an entire market with the iPhone, producing a device that was unlike anything before it and that most other manufacturers are now scrambling to keep up with.  There is no doubt that the iPhone will go down in history as a device that reshaped the entire mobile computing and communication platform.

The fact that the iPhone is basically all screen means that it can morph into almost any device a developer can think of. This is part of the iPhone’s genius. From a user perspective, the device is just as good at being a camera, as a GPS, as an iPod, as a notebook, as a you-name-it. The interface for any of these applications can be purpose built without being limited to a tiny screen, a hardware keyboard and the existing hardware buttons. Developers can build the ideal interface, the keyboard appears and disappears on demand, and a “new phone” is only a software update away. Pretty clever really.

So, with all of those positives, why does the iPhone frustrate me?  Well, perhaps it’s just a case of the way I like to use mobile devices, but I find the lack of Bluetooth support really annoying (and more importantly, it symbolises a much bigger problem with the whole iPhone ecosystem). With my N95, I would often send files back and forth between my phone and my computer using Bluetooth networking.  On the iPhone, I just can’t do that – Apple don’t allow it.  Because Bluetooth file transfer capability is such a standard function of every other mobile phone on the market, I never thought to check whether the iPhone could do this…  having to check whether a modern phone can do Bluetooth file transfers would seem to be like buying a car and needing to check whether it has a steering wheel – it’s just assumed that it does.  I never realised this was a missing function until, not long after I got the iPhone, my daughter wanted to send me a file from her phone so she initiated a transfer over Bluetooth, only to discover that I was unable to receive it.

Surely I was just missing something obvious? Every other mobile phone on the planet can do this, even very basic ones, but not the iPhone, supposedly one of the world’s most advanced phones ? More research online and chatting to the folk at several Apple Stores revealed that this was indeed a design “feature”.  Apple does not allow Bluetooth file transfer, with the commonly stated reason being that, in order for Apple to get the kinds of deals with music publishers it needs for the iTunes Store, the ability to share songs via Bluetooth had to be disabled.  Sorry Apple, but that’s nonsense.  If you need to protect purchased music from being shared illegally then surely some form of specific DRM could solve that? If you must, you could disable the ability to transfer only purchased songs over Bluetooth, but to just shut Bluetooth off completely?  Come on Apple! Are you serious?

And what about photos I take myself? Or sharing a contact from my address book? Or a calendar item? Why should I not be able to share these things back to my own computer, or even to another phone, if I wish to?  As it stands, I cannot get a photo from my iPhone to my MacBook without the need to use a transfer cable, as there is no direct way to get a photo to another phone via Bluetooth.  Yes, I know I could use email to send it, but that presumes that, a) I’m in a wifi zone, or, b) I have enough bandwidth on my mobile plan to allow it. Here in Australia, mobile plans for phones are relatively limited, so using your data to send large files via email is a nuisance, and the thought of transferring lots of files is just not practical this way.  Same deal for MMS or uploading it to MobileMe… it’s a slow, time and bandwidth consuming solution to a problem that is not a problem for every other phone on the market.  If I’m sitting next to someone on a bus and I want to share my contact details with them, there’s no easy simple way to do that without connecting to an external network of some kind.  That’s ridiculous.

The Bluetooth problem might seem to be relatively minor, and perhaps I just feel affected by it more because this was something I used to do a lot with previous phones.  It just feels like a really backward step to own a phone that prohibits something that was so useful and usable on my last few phones.  And I use the word “prohibits” very deliberately. Apple could allow Bluetooth on the iPhone… there are no real technical issues that prevent it.  The Bluetooth stack is there, and it works for other things, such as the handsfree speakerphone in my car.  No, the hardware is there, the functionality is there, but Apple have just decided to switch it off on purpose, and I’m starting to find the whole “it’s the Apple way, or no way” attitude gratingly arrogant.  I’m also seeing this attitude play out in the App Store’s rather opaque approval process, where apps are refused access to the store seemingly on Apple’s whims.

What all of this has really highlighted to me is just what a closed platform the iPhone is. As someone who believes in the basic principles of openness, it’s annoying to see the level of interference that Apple is exercising over what it decides should be allowed or not.  Yes, the iPhone is nicely designed, and yes it has tons of very cool apps, and yes it is light years ahead of the devices that came before it.  On balance, it’s still one of the best phones on the market and I still think that if I have to own just one device, the iPhone is currently the one to have.  I’ll tolerate the added inconveniences of the missing Bluetooth functions and the very average camera quality, because the iPhone’s many other advantages make up for it.

However, I’m really coming to think that in the long run openness will probably be the better strategy.  In hindsight, I’m wondering whether I should have hung onto the old Nokia N95 for another 12 months and then taken a good look at what the Android platform is offering by then.  Android is moving so fast at the moment, that many are predicting it to ultimately overshadow the iPhone’s dominance.  Certainly, in the history of the computer business, open platforms nearly always succeed over closed platforms, and you would think that Apple, moreso than any other company, understands that.

I’m really hoping that Apple use that massive advantage they have – the software extensibility of the iPhone platform to become whatever it needs to become – to bring back some openness.  The missing Bluetooth may just be one small thing, but I think it symbolises a much bigger thing – the willingness of Apple to play the role of Big Brother by telling us what we can and can’t do with our devices.  I’m very much feeling that Apple is dictating to me how I should be using my phone, not based on how I want to use it, but on how they think I should be using it.

The irony is that back in the pre-Macintosh days, in Apple’s now-famous “1984” advertisement, they portrayed computer users as a group of mindless, soul-less followers, marching lockstep and being dictated to by Big Brother.  Those early days of Apple were focused on building a computing experience that enabled people to break free of the imposed limitations of “closed-ness” and to work in ways that made personal sense.  Turning off basic phone features simply because Apple doesn’t think they are needed is just arrogant and insulting to the user.

Just be careful Apple.  Over the next few years, the competition in the Smartphone market is going to heat up and get a whole lot tougher.  Users will have many more choices than we currently do. The iPhone is a revolutionary device to be sure, but Android, Nokia and many others will match or better the features of the iPhone and users will want phones that work the way they want them to work, not just how you think they should work.  As you say in the video, “We shall prevail”.

Apples 1984 Commercial