Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

iOS 4.1, semi-portable computing

iOS 4.1 came out yesterday, and I updated my iPhone 3G, which has been plagued with slowdowns and randomness since I updated it to 4.0.  It was almost so bad that I thought I was running a high-end Windows Mobile phone.  (Okay, not that bad.)  But it appears that the fixes in 4.1 alleviate any of the problems I was having, and everything is back to normal.  I can’t use the new game service, and it doesn’t multitask, both of which are not deal-breakers for me, since I need fewer things to waste time with, and I don’t care much about multitasking as long as I can switch between apps smoothly.  (Like for example, my Windows Mobile phone multitasked, but switching between applications was clunky and involved the virtual equivalent of the phone saying “oh yeah, hang on a second dude…” Switching between email and the web browser is faster on the iPhone, even if both of the applications are running and in memory in WM, the only difference being that in WM, you’re burning through the battery twice as fast.  And I used to constantly do stuff like switch out of Google Maps but not exit it, so it would still be running but not be visible, and by lunch my battery was dead.)

One of the things that enticed me though, and I can’t find any good information on it, is that you can supposedly use a bluetooth keyboard now with the iPhone.  I don’t know if you can on the 3G, or if the performance is decent, but if so, that gets me a step closer to the ideal travel computer setup.  I’ve always wanted some kind of thing where you had an iPhone-sized palm-based computer that you could pull out of your pocket to take a picture or play a song or jot down a note, but then when you sat down at a desk, you could pop it in a cradle or stand and hook up a keyboard and maybe a monitor, and you’d be able to work.

I think my obsession with this model was fueled by a week I spent in San Diego for a conference in 2000, when I only had my Palm Pilot IIIx with me.  It was before I owned a laptop, and probably the main reason I shelled out $5000 for a Dell Latitude in the beginning of 2001.  But this was when the Palm was a big deal, and every suit you see tooling around the airport with an iPad today was tooling around the airport with a Palm Pilot back in 2000.  You could actually go to a CompUSA and buy software for the Palm Pilot – actual shrinkwrapped, boxed, on-disk software.  I think back then, they had entire aisles of software, plus all of the cases, screen protectors, cables, docks, and other add-ons you could buy.  I did a lot of reading on the Palm, a lot of eBooks (which was ten years before the eBook was invented, according to current news reports).  I also played many, many rounds of Dope Wars, and found many hits of acid on a dead dude in the subway, when I happened to actually be on the subway.  But I never really wrote much on the Palm, because the stylus and the graffiti inking language never completely jived with me.  I can barely read my own handwriting, so learning a new handwriting system was out of the question.

I did no writing on the trip – I found a Borders instead and bought an armful of Philip K. Dick books to keep me busy.  But when I got home, I saw this little keyboard at CompUSA and immediately bought it.  The thing unfolded and you plugged your Palm Pilot into the lid, sort of like a makeshift cradle, and then typed away.  This thing was an awesome novelty for me for about three days, until I got bored of trying to write on the Palm Pilot and decided to start gardening in my kitchen or trying to collect crossbow parts off of eBay or whatever the hell else I did at that point in 2000.  This keyboard looked neat, and the folding lid was nifty, but the keys were like 95% sized, and my fat fingers kept hitting the wrong things.  Plus there was some weird delay of a tenth of a microsecond that made the user experience a bit sloppy.  And there were various ergonomic issues with having the keyboard immediately under a three inch screen, and the joined assembly bouncing around as you typed, unless you had a perfectly flat and stable surface to rest the whole thing on.

So would a bluetooth keyboard and an iPhone solve any of these problems?  I’m guessing you would have the same ergo issues unless you pumped the iPhone video into a big monitor.  And it’s not like I can run emacs on my phone, so I’m not going to be writing a 300,000 word book in the notes application.  Also, there’s the issue that the 3G is not a powerhorse cpu-wise, so even my lowly netbook is going to outpace it for desktop application performance.  And then I have the various sync issues; I can’t keep all of my writing on my home computer in a phone’s tiny flash memory.  I suppose I could concoct some scheme where all of my data lived in the cloud somewhere, but that doesn’t help me much at 40,000 feet with no cell tower in sight.  (Side note: man, I hate the term “in the cloud”.  It reeks of MBAism, something that was invented by a suit to describe a long-existing service and wrap it up in some hip and smarmy term that could be resold for more money. I mean, was my VAXNotes conference back in 1989 “in the cloud”? )

Maybe the iPad is part of that solution – you have a big screen, you can haul it around easy, you can plug in that keyboard cradle thing or pair up a bluetooth keyboard and write.  And everything I write here, even though it isn’t my primary writing repository, lives in a remote server and can be accessed by any machine with a reasonable web browser and a functional connection to the internet.  Wordpress has a halfway decent app on the iPhone, and if the iPhone glass keyboard wasn’t so slow for me, I could write on there.  (It works perfectly fine for web surfing, googling things, and the occasional two-sentence email message, but I can’t hack out a thousand words on it unless you gave me like eight hours and four Ativan tablets.)  All of this is much less important starting next week when my office is my home and my Mac is always within arm’s reach.  But it might be more important the first time I have to make a trip back east for work.

Speaking of, last day of the old job is today.  I thought about writing something giant and grand to sum up my feelings about that whole situation, but it’s complicated, so maybe later.  Probably not tomorrow though, given what happened nine years ago and all.