Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My new Kindle DX: the good, the bad, the executive summary

I’ve been the satisfied owner of a Kindle 1 for several months.  Today I got my Kindle DX, which I pre-ordered the day it was announced.  Here’s my first impression–but the executive summary is, I’m keeping it!

The good (in order of coolest to just nifty):

  • PDF files look really, really good.  I’ve tried viewing technical papers (PDF generated from LaTeX or Word), PDF e-books purchased online, music printed from Finale, and sheet music and books scanned  to PDF bitmaps.  They rendered quickly and look awesome.  This alone justifies the purchase for me.  Indeed, with sheet music, there’s now the possibility of downloading MP3 files of, say, Dvorak’s New World Symphony and following along in the score as I listen…sweeet.

  • The auto-rotate to landscape mode is nice, though for PDF files it doesn’t seem to always get the page breaks right if you rotate the file out of its “natural” orientation.

  • The responsiveness and screen refresh feels somewhat faster than the K1, but not stunningly so, and I didn’t really have complaints about the K1 anyway.

  • The industrial design is considerably spiffier. If not for the Amazon logo, you might mistake it for an Apple product. That’s not a knock, it’s a compliment. Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.

The bad (in order of most annoying to least annoying):

  • No touch screen. Not surprising but it would have been REALLY cool. I almost purchased an iRex iLiad Book Editioninstead for this feature.

  • Can’t annotate PDF files (as far as I can tell) by attaching notes/highlights to them the way you can with ebooks.

  • The UI still doesn’t let you organize your documents and books into folders. Since I plan to use the PDF feature to read technical papers, I’ll be at 100 documents within a week. It’s going to get unmanageable fast.

  • The charger/USB port is micro-USB (not to be confused with mini-USB). Not only can’t I use my K1 charger, I can’t even use my existing USB cables.  (It comes with a combination USB/charger cable, but it’s just one more adapter to carry.)

  • The UI for selecting “links” in an ebook is, in my opinion, worse.  The K1 had a separate scroll wheel with a little metallic-looking “slug” you used to select links.  The DX (and I assume the Kindle 2) try to repaint an on-screen pointing-hand cursor (browser-like), but the screen’s refresh isn’t quite fast enough to keep up, so there’s a lot of ghosting and mispositioning.

  • The power switch is a slider, so you have to hold it for 4 seconds to turn the device off.  The K1 had a mechanical 2-position switch that I thought was easier to operate. Similarly, turning wireless on and off now requires a menu selection; on the K1 it had its own switch.

  • Unlike the K1, it doesn’t come with a protective case of any kind. I know this is to stimulate an aftermarket, but still.

The executive summary:

  • I’m really glad I got this. The PDF reader alone is the killer feature. (WIthout it, I wouldn’t have cared about having a larger screen.) I’ll save hundreds of pages of printing a year just by reading technical papers on here.  Magazines like CACM and IEEE Computer are now PDF format, so I’ll be able to stop receiving paper copies of those too.

  • This doesn’t replace my K1. The DX is clearly a two-handed device, like one of those leather portfolios that suits use to carry around professional documents. I’ll use it to read technical papers and other things where the large screen is mandatory. For everything else—including documents reformatted into a markup language from, say, HTML or Word or even latex2html—I like my K1: it’s small, I can use it one-handed (e.g. when standing on the train), it feels like a more appropriate form factor for reading in bed, etc.

  • This is a killer device for textbooks, as I had suspected.

Friday, June 12, 2009

TiVo’s “video on demand” UI was designed by vandals in the 80’s

We have a 2nd-gen TiVo DVR as well as an AppleTV.

TiVo is widely and deservedly praised for its outstanding user experience. But in the video-on-demand department, it’s so pathetically inferior to AppleTV that it doesn’t appear to have been designed in the same decade. The great guys and gals who designed the original TiVO UI must have left the back door open when it comes to the VoD UI.

If I select the TiVo “video on demand” menu option from the top-level menu, I get six submenus: Amazon Video on Demand, Walt Disney Studios, Jaman Movies and Shorts, Browse Free Videos, Music Videos from Music Choice, and Home Movies By One True Media. As a user, what the hell do I choose? Why should the distributor of a piece of video be a first-order user experience choice? Wouldn’t most users be more likely to know, say, the name of the movie or its actors rather than the name of the middleman distributor that happens to control the distribution rights for that piece of video via TiVo?

Among those six choices, the submenus are all different. If I choose Amazon Video on Demand, I get choices like Top Rentals, Top Categories & Special Deals, Browse Entire Catalog, Search, and FAQ. The Walt Disney Studios menu item reveals Most Popular, New Arrivals, Browse, and About CinemaNow (whatever that is; the term doesn’t appear elsewhere in the UE). Even in menu items where Search is allowed, it appears at a different spot in every menu. None of the menus or submenus have anything other than a text-only, one-screen-at-a-time interface. It’s like using Gopher before we had the World Wide Web.

Finally, to add insult to injury, the couple of times I’ve actually purchased TV episodes from Amazon Video on Demand, I have to wait an amount of time that is a large fraction of the total playing time before I can start watching. To watch a 30-minute TV sitcom episode, I had to wait over 20 minutes before I could hit Play. Look, I understand about buffering, but AppleTV gets this right–why can’t TiVo?

How does this compare to AppleTV’s user experience? The top level choices there are “Movies” and “TV Shows”. Each choice gets me to an attractively-arranged screen of box-cover graphics with titles (vs. TiVo’s 1980’s text-only interface), or I can search either movies or TV shows. The user experience is identical for both movies and TV shows. If I happen to have rented or purchased movies or TV shows in my iTunes library, I see those as well. I can watch the trailer of any movie instantly and for free. If I choose to purchase or rent a movie or TV show, I can typically start watching within 1 to 3 minutes, in HD and digital surround if available for that movie. Amazon VoD is 1- or 2-channel sound and standard-def NTSC video.

Yes, AppleTV has a far smaller selection of content than Amazon, and the price per rental item is a bit higher. But using AppleTV is a joy, whereas using the TiVo/Amazon UE feels like I’ve been transported back to Gopher in the late 1980’s. Shame on TiVo for allowing this dreck to invade an otherwise excellently designed product. It’s frustrating that TiVo, a device that otherwise has an excellent UE and is by its nature an Internet appliance, falls so embarrassingly flat when it comes to a UE for video-on-demand that isn’t even usable, let alone compelling. Get a clue, guys–the iPod has 85%+ market share for a reason.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Gov. Schwarzenegger calls for open-source digital textbooks in CA; I hope he means e-books

In the midst of a severe budget crisis in California, Governor Schwarzenegger has called for the use of open-source digital textbooks for California schools.

I think this is a great idea and another innovation where California should lead the way, in addition to being a cost saving measure (and potentially an ecologically friendly one). But I was confused when NPR interviewed Sheila Jordan, Alameda County Superintendent of Education, on this topic. Superintendent Jordan spent much of the interview expressing concern about how a lot of students don’t have reliable access to computers and the Internet, and how teachers certainly don’t have the resources to print copies of textbooks in class for such students.

Now, I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Jordan’s concerns, but when I think of “digital textbooks” I don’t think of people reading off a Web browser at home, or taking home pieces of paper printed off a Web browser at school. I think of downloading content onto an ebook reader—no paper waste, easier to read than a screen, can take it with you, etc. Granted, most students don’t have those either, but they are less expensive than computers (especially if purchased in bulk or otherwise subsidized, e.g. by textbook publishers), don’t require Internet connectivity (the Kindle relies on the 3G data network for downloads, or files can be sideloaded via USB), and are ecologically friendly.

I know that current ebook readers are targeted at people buying books online, but I’ve downloaded plenty of public domain content onto my Kindle–academic papers, public domain and no-license-feebooks from various sources (textbooks and otherwise), and more. Devices like the large-screen Kindle DX and the iRex iLiad Book Edition are no-brainers for textbooks, at least where black & white is sufficient, and Amazon’s even announced pilot programs where they are seeding colleges with Kindle DX’s.

So one of us—either myself or Supt. Jordan—may have misunderstood what the Gov meant by “digital textbooks”. I hope my interpretation of his words is correct.

More worrisome is the politics of state-level textbook review in California and the sham process that seems to make the review system fundamentally broken (well, at least we don’t have stickers warning students about evolution on biology books!). This may be why the Gov proposed e-textbooks for math and science first, which are least susceptible to these issues, though I agree with Supt. Jordan that because of the way those books are used (students flip pages back and forth as they study) they might not be the best candidates for early adoption. At any rate, one may hope that the profileration of open source textbooks may change the dynamics of the state textbook review situation—authors of open-source aren’t producing them for profit and so are less likely to feel constrained by such guidelines, and the quality of the free books may be just too good to pass up.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Can retrocomputing bring computer-aided learning to the other 90%?

Not sure which of my colleagues (maybe Matt?) pointed me at this, or maybe I read it in one of the various pheeds, but the guys at PlayPower have observed that a self-contained Nintendo NES knockoff, packaged in a cheap keyboard and including NES-like game controllers, is sold in India, China and other countries as the “TV Computer” for around US $10! In fact since the NES patents expired a few years ago, these are now 100% legal, and many different manufacturers offer them. PlayPower’s goal is to find a way to use these to bootstrap computer-aided education (basic computer literacy, learning games like the old Oregon Trail, etc.) in developing countries. Like the Atari 2600, there is a vibrant retrocomputing developer community around the NES.

PlayPower’s booth at Maker Faire had a couple of these devices on display. The NES, also called the Famicom in Asia, was a 6502-based cartridge game system whose technology was only half a generation or so ahead of the Atari 2600. The device plugs into a TV (they have both composite video out and RF out, and soldering an undocumented pad on the board switches between NTSC and PAL) and come with a starter cartridge that has various game titles on it, and even seems to have programs that “simulate” word processing and Web browsing (kind of like “my first cell phone” toys simulate making phone calls). Presumably, the carts have ROMs that take over part of the address space when plugged in; the more advanced Atari carts had some additional bank-switching logic (triggered by memory-mapped I/O) that allowed multiplexing lots of different game levels into a fixed amount of address space, typically around 4K.

Intriguingly, Bob Brost at CMU taught a class on NES game development and even produced “nBasic”, a BASIC-level (sort of) language that, although it eliminates the need to program in 6502 assembly, it does not seem to eliminate the need to understand the arcane programming approach required by these devices, i.e. you have to time your code around the vertical retrace interval (only “safe” to write GPU registers during vertical retrace to avoid flickering/loss of picture sync), etc.

So my questions would be: is this level of programming abstraction going to be sufficient to catalyze the development of a lot of “edu-ware” for these devices? Given that the source of this “edu-ware” is ultimately (we hope) going to be programmers in the very countries in which the devices are sold, should we be looking for something that enables a much higher level of abstraction for development—say, something more like Scratch—and port a subset of it to this 8-bit world?

(Update: the Design For Developing Countries wiki has a lot of great information about their progress and preliminary studies.)

(For the curious, the NES has:

  • a 1.9MHz 8-bit 6502

  • 32K ROM address space for game code & data (typically 16K code, 16K swappable to store different “levels” data)

  • 240w x 248h viewable graphics (NTSC or PAL) organized as 8×8 pixel “tiles” for the purposes of color palette assignment, sprite rendering, etc.

  • system, background and foreground color palettes (64, 16 and 16 entries respectively)

  • up to 64 sprites (8×8 or 8×16 pixels, 3 colors + transparent color, no more than 8 sprites per scanline)

  • 4 synthesizer channels (2 square waves, 1 triangle, 1 white noise) with ~6 octave range; one note per channel at a time

What are the hard problems? Distribution of software specifically, and communication in general, since the device has no comms built in; any storable user data, since the device has no persistent storage (though PowerPlay have mated a CF flash card to it). Now, since cell phones are so unbelievably common even among the poorest in India, even the cheapest ones can do simple text-only Internet browsing, and all come with some limited amount of nonvolatile storage (though I’m not sure it’s programmer-addressable), might this be a good short project—mating inexpensive cell phones to $10 TV computers? Maybe something to do in time for the next Maker Faire…

I have to admit, the pervasive availability of $10 TV-computers is awfully compelling, as someone who remembers very vividly what remarkable things can be done within the constraints of these old 6502 systems.

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