Android Phone as PDA/Laptop Replacement

2012-11-11 13:09:00 -0500

Originally posted on tumblr

I’ve had a dream for a long time of carrying a useful computing environment on me, without being encumbered by it. The first interesting piece of hardware was the Cambridge Z88 (the TRS-80 Model 100 was plausible, but expensive and pretty large; it was the laptop of its day, and at least a decade after for some niches… but the Z88 was the size of an issue of Byte Magazine and ran for days on some AA batteries, by virtue of tricks like turning the CPU off between keystrokes.) I took it on various trips, fought with uploading and downloading over the serial port… In the end it was difficult to develop for, even harder to develop on, and laptops ended up covering the “real work” niche - eJournal or space age typewriter replacement didn’t catch on that broadly.

They did, however, catch on narrowly, there were fascinating glimpses in the mid to late 90s of how various (particularly UK) science fiction writers actually used science fictional working environments; Charlie Stross had various early mini-laptops, Warren Ellis pioneered the “hang out in the pub and drink and smoke over a PalmPilot and foldout keyboard” model - which became my benchmark for portability, the idea that you could pull two or maybe three pieces of hardware out of your pockets (small enough pieces that people didn’t suspect that you were smuggling or shoplifting) and suddenly be able to Do Real Work without needing an office or other chunk of Corporate (ie. Too Expensive for Individuals) Infrastructure. (I didn’t actually care about being “live”, though even PalmPilots had web browsers; from day 1 it was clear that the Net was as much a source of simulated productivity as actual, and that Real Work involved getting ideas out of the brain and onto “paper”.)

The years rolled by, producing a spectrum of Palms - the Sony ones with built in camera and keyboard marked the end of the 20th century, just in time to get entirely displaced by cell phones. This was actually a horrible time for the PDA space - the entire hardware-in-your-pocket space turned around and started building telephones, which certainly provided value to a much broader range of people - almost literally everyone as we can see today, “not having a cellphone” is just strange in 2012 - but the design effort was now going into antennas and batteries, screens got worse, keyboards got far worse (when T9 looks like a good sophisticated option, you know you’ve gone very far down a strange path.) At the same time, laptops were getting smaller and cheaper, skimming off the less demanding majority of mobile writers, luring them with nice screens and the ability to run modern (not to say good) word processing tools, and all you had to do was carry a backpack, and stay near an outlet. (I’m no exception - being able to run a compiler while hanging out with people was a big deal; in the early 2000’s, being able to fix bugs in the taxi on the way to supporting a sales call for your startup was a huge deal.)

Then Apple changed everything.

Note that I’ve never owned an iPhone (though I have an iPad) - I still have to acknowledge that the iPhone kicked an amazing competitive “arms-race” back in the right direction. All of a sudden, portable devices with long battery life, gigahertz processors, and lots of storage were The Thing, and an entire industry pivoted from trying to interest people in flippier flip-phones to trying to catch up with the idea that you had an awesome computer in your pocket, with a sophisticated development ecosystem (ok, that took longer, but it was inevitable) and oh, by the way, it takes care of making phone calls too, when you’re not using it for everything else in your (online) life.

Very rapidly, my niche was back under the big tent with everybody else and billions in R&D were going my way. Sitting in a coffeeshop and poking at your phone was a mundane thing. Writing and publishing to the internet was suddenly something everybody was doing (and while I’ll sneer at facebook and foursquare updates right along with the rest of my disdainfully elitist peers - it’s still writing and, to the extent that it’s pushed out specifically for others to read, still publishing, and it still needed the tools I wanted.)

I almost missed it.

I’ve kept an eye on the tools and toys, of course. Poked at various ways of hooking keyboards up to phones, played with various design sketches for better ways to connect the hardware (I’ve got pictures of a wood-and-styrofoam mockup that hooks an IBM Model M clicky keyboard up to an original model Oqo - which I used as my “work laptop” for weeks, but entirely failed to be more portable than the Toughbook I’d been using beforehand - the Toughbook actually had a handle and hooks for a shoulder strap right on it) but I never really sat down and did it, I just poked at the gadgets.

Turns out that “poking at gadgets” is almost as much of a distraction from Real Accomplishment as arguing on the internet. I got a hint at this a while back when laser printers first got cheap - I plugged one in to my linux box, and printed, and it just worked. (I did end up tweaking the default from 300dpi to 600dpi… 6 months later even that much wasn’t necessary; I guess I’m not a victim of the ESR curse.) Having done that, I noticed that the documentation said the printer worked on Solaris too, and almost went and tried it to see if it really did - which led a friend of mine to comment “it’s like a cat, with a mouse that’s already dead - you’ve just got to bat it around a little and see if it will start being fun again?”

This also took a while to sink in. Part of the problem is that I’m actually very good at poking at gadgets, and I work in a field where that’s encouraged, or at least tolerated as a sign that you’re the sort of person they need to have around to get the computers to actually be useful. This usefulness leads directly to a decent income, which (combined with decent shopping skills) means no end to the stream of gadgets to poke at (as you’ve seen in this blog already, KickStarter is the biggest distraction I’ve had since Amazon came along.) The end result is that I’ve basically felt no pressure at all to get back to the original goal of “being usefully portable”. At the same time, I’ve gotten relatively picky about working environments; I learned on typewriters so I’ve hated most modern non-IBM keyboards, and I find mice to be a dead end that we just haven’t escaped from, so I turn trackpads off - the Mouse Stick is just minimal enough, it’s nearby when I must use a mouse, and at the same time my hands don’t have to leave the keyboard to use it; this is rather incompatible with the huge level of compromise that goes in to making portable keyboards, let alone pocketable ones.

Thus it is that I’m sitting in front of a Galaxy Note (the I-717 phone, not the larger tablets) looking at a very readable 25 lines of this posting, and typing on a Motorola KZ450 - a bluetooth keyboard with Mouse Stick - that is itself only barely thicker than the phone, yet has enough travel that I’m typing full speed and full accuracy relative to my ThinkPad (with the caveat that typing English is much easier than typing Code, but this keyboard looks up to the challenge.) As far as writing goes, there are no compromises here - I’m not thinking in letters, I’m basically thinking in sentences and while I do expect to go back and edit, the “data entry” part of the path is not a limiting factor. There’s no interruption between intending to write and writing and having the words appear on-screen; I have actual flow going on, and I’ve been writing for an hour and a half without feeling like I’m doing a special exercise or straining or contorting myself - I’m just writing. At my stopping point, I’ll save-as-draft (in the Android Tumblr app I’m using), turn off the keyboard, put the GNote back in my shirt pocket, unfold the stand back into “keyboard cover” configuration and clip it back on to the keyboard - stuff the keyboard into a jacket pocket, have a last sip of tea, and walk away.

(In the interests of full disclosure - this is a test run; I’ve had the keyboard for a week and kept failing to sit down and use it, so I’m at a worktable at home, the tea is a late-night decaf k-cup brew, the network is my local wifi. That said, the test was a complete success; the only “challenges” were figuring out that I needed to hit “back” to get the on-screen keyboard to pop down, and that save-as-draft wasn’t a missing button, it was a setting under options that changes the “publish” button to one that just says “save”. Also I have no idea how to do a word count here, but a quick scroll and sample tells me I’ve gotten around 1500 words down. NaNoWriMo it isn’t - but it is something and I’m going to have to sink my teeth into it for real now…)

Update: I'm at Pycon.CA and although I did bring two laptops and the iPad, they're back at the hotel - I'm actually attending with only what I have in my pockets. Of course, I'm wearing a ScottEVest (winter model from a couple of years back - the newer models have fewer pockets and lower build quality, unfortunately) so I have a lot in my pockets; during the talks I primarily take notes in S/Memo, using a ThinkPad wacom-stylus, which is basically the electronic equivalent (in size and look) of a Moleskine; I occasionally hop out into Chrome to check out a URL mentioned in a talk, or hop into Plume to broadcast a choice quote on the conference hashtag. Since we just have chairs, and not tables, that's been about the limit during lectures; I'm skipping the OpenStack lecture (no discredit to the speaker, I went through the slides in advance, and it looks like it isn't going to cover anything I didn't pick up in a major cloud service evaluation I did for work a year and a half ago, so it's a good time to take a break) to hang out at the "bar" which has tables and decent chairs. I have the keyboard set up, and an Energizer "Energi To Go" battery pack boosting the Galaxy Note, and have only had one person stop by to comment on the setup. (I'm not alone in the bar; four people with conventional laptops, and one organizer reading a paperback book.) Overall it has been a pretty effective conference and blogging setup. The weak point in the short term has been photography; simple "tweet this picture" doesn't work at all, plume uploading to twitter just gives "media too large", so instead if I want real time pictures I shoot them with the pureview 808, share-to-flickr, wait for the upload to finish, then come back to the Android flickr app, pick that picture and hit share-to-twitter, add the comment and post. This is still kind of silly :-) and fails to support completely casual photo streaming. (I should try just shooting from the flickr app on the Note, but the 808 is a lot more almost-camera-like.)

I'm still pulling all of the cameras back to the laptop and managing the archive with kphotoalbum there. The next big step will probably be to use rsync-for-android (which actually works on ICS, it failed entirely under Gingerbread) to push/pull the most recent year of images onto the phone, and thus use it to synchronize the devices and push them back to my archive; then I can cherry pick things to twitter, and later pull things back to the laptop when I want to do my conventional kphotoalbum-based tag-heavy workflow. The other "next step" is to look into using git-annex to manage the diverse photo pools, but I'm stalling on that until the work from the kickstarter project goes mainstream.

Update 2: hit "edit" in the web interface, and preview shows proper markdown rendering, so re-saved. Will have to try to use the mobile website instead of the app for future writeups, I'm more likely to remember to do tags that way...

Welcome to the future!