An avalanche of innovation?

It seems that, almost in spite of the uncertain times or maybe because of them, it feels like an era of change on the technology front. Computing is the domain of many of the postings on this blog and a hell of a lot seems to be going mobile at the moment. For a good while, I managed to stay clear of the attractions of smartphones until a change of job convinced me that having a BlackBerry was a good idea. Though the small size of the thing really places limitations on the sort of web surfing experience that you can have with it, you can keep an eye on the weather, news, traffic, bus and train times so long as the website in question is built for mobile browsing. Otherwise, it’s more of a nuisance than a patchy phone network (in the U.K., T-Mobile could do better on this score as I have discovered for myself; thankfully, a merger with the Orange network is coming next month).

Speaking of mobile websites, it almost feels as if a free for all has recurred for web designers. Just when the desktop or laptop computing situation had more or less stabilised, along come a whole pile of mobile phone platforms to make things interesting again. Familiar names like Opera, Safari, Firefox and even Internet Explorer are to be found popping up on handheld devices these days along with less familiar ones like Web ‘n’ Walk or BOLT. The operating system choices vary too with iOS, Android, Symbian, Windows and others all competing for attention. It is the sort of flowering of innovation that makes one wonder if a time will come when things begin to consolidate but it doesn’t look like that at the moment.

The transformation of mobile phones into handheld computers isn’t the only big change in computing with the traditional formats of desktop and laptop PC’s being flexed in all sorts of ways. First, there’s the appearance of netbooks and I have succumbed to the idea of owning an Asus Eee. Though you realise that these are not full size laptops, it still didn’t hit me how small these were until I owned one.  They are undeniably portable and tablets look even more interesting in the aftermath of Apple’s iPad. You may call them over-sized mobile photos but the idea of making a touchscreen do the work for you has made the concept fly for many. Even so, I cannot say that I’m overly tempted though I have said that before about other things.

Another area of interest for me is photography and it is around this time of year that all sorts of innovations are revealed to the public. It’s a long way from what we thought was the digital photography revolution when digital imaging sensors started to take the place of camera film in otherwise conventional compact and SLR cameras, making the former far more versatile than they used to be. Now, we have SLD cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony that eschew the reflex mirror and prism arrangement of an SLR using digital sensor and electronic viewfinders while offering the possibility of lens interchangeability and better quality than might be expected from such small cameras. In recent months, Sony has offered SLR-style cameras with translucent mirror technology instead of the conventional mirror that is flipped out of the way when a photographic image is captured.  Change doesn’t end there with movie making capabilities being part of the toolset of many a newly launch  compact, SLD and SLR camera. The pixel race also seems to have ended though increases still happen as with the Pentax K-5 and Canon EOS 60D (both otherwise conventional offerings that have caught my eye though so much comes on the market at this time of year that waiting is better for the bank balance).

The mention of digital photography brings to mind the subject of digital image processing and Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 is just announced after Photoshop CS5 appeared earlier this year. It almost feels as if a new version of Photoshop or its consumer cousin are released every year, causing me to skip releases when I don’t see the point. Elements 6 and 8 were such versions for me and I’ll be in no hurry to upgrade to 9 yet either though the prospect of using content aware filling to eradicate unwanted objects from images is tempting. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t stop anyone trying to exclude them in the first place. In fact, I may need to reduce the overall number of images that I collect in favour of bringing away only good ones. The outstanding question on this is can I slow down and calm my eagerness to bring at least one good image away from an outing by capturing anything that seems promising at the time. Some experimentation but being a little more choosy can  save work later on.

While back on the subject of software, I’ll voyage in to the world of the web before bringing these meanderings to a close. It almost feels as if there is web-based application following web-based application these days when Twitter and Facebook nearly have become household names and cloud computing is a phrase that turns up all over the place.  In fact, the former seems to have encouraged a whole swathe of applications all of itself. Applications written using technologies well used on the web must stuff many a mobile phone app store too and that brings me full circle for it is these that put so much functionality on our handsets with Java seemingly powering those I use on my BlackBerry. Them there’s spat between Apple and Adobe regarding the former’s support for Flash.

To close this mental amble, there may be technologies that didn’t come to mind while I was pondering this piece but they doubtless enliven the technological landscape too. However, what I have described is enough to take me back more than ten years ago when desktop computing and the world of the web were a lot more nascent than is the case today. Then, the changes that were ongoing felt a little exciting now that I look back on them and it does feel as if the same sort of thing is recurring though with things like phones creating the interest in place of new developments in desktop computing such as a new version of Window (though 7 was anticipated after Vista). Web designers may complain about a lack of standardisation and they’re not wrong but this may be an ear of technological change that in time may be remembered with its own fondness too.

Exploring the mobile web

With a change of job ahead of me, I decided to make my web usage a little more mobile. The result was the purchase of a Blackberry 8520 Curve on a T-Mobile pay-as-you-go tariff to complement my existing phone. Part of the attraction was having email on the move and a little web access too. On both accounts it hasn’t though GPRS isn’t the speediest for web browsing and you get to appreciating mobile versions of websites. It’s just as well that this website that you’re reading has a mobile version.

Hooking the Blackberry up to GMail was no problem once I had paid my dues and the necessary set up was done for me; it was only then that the required option was available through the set up screens. RIM’s own web browser may be no slouch when it comes to rendering websites but I put Opera Mini in place as well for those times when the default option could be bettered and they exist too. Speaking of RIM applications, there’s one for Twitter too though I added Übertwitter for sake of greater flexibility (it can handle more than one account at a time, for example). In addition, I have instated applications for WordPress and LinkedIn too and it was then that I stopped myself spending too much time in Blackberry App World. If I was of the Facebook persuasion, I might be interested in the default offering for that as well but I have learnt to contain myself.

Of course, there are limitations to the device’s capabilities with regards to email and web on the move. Long emails still need desktop access (messages can get truncated) and mobile unfriendly websites will take an age to load and explore; a small screen means much more finger work. After all, this is a small device so the observations aren’t really surprising; it’s just that I encounter the reality of life on a small screen now. Nevertheless, useful site like those from Google and the Met Office have a mobile variant though I’d like to see the latter including its rain radar as part of the package.

Speaking of life on a smaller scale, there’s the size of the keyboard to consider too. So far, I haven’t had much practice with it but I am unsure as how some craft longer blog entries with the the tiny keys. Then, there’s the ever-present threat of arm discomfort and RSI that you have to watch. For that reason, I’ll stick with use for an hour at a time rather than going mad altogether. Navigating around the screen using the tiny trackpad is something to which I am adjusting and it works well enough too so long as you’re not looking through long web pages or emails.

To bring this piece to a close, the new gadget has been finding uses and I don’t plan on leaving it idle after paying over £150 for it. Apart from acting as an expensive calculator, it has already travelled abroad with me with roaming not being a problem; I may have failed to get it to work with hotel broadband but there was EDGE availability to keep things connected together. All in all, the device is earning its keep and teaching me a few things about mobile handheld computing with my main website in process of being made more mobile compatible with the front page and the photo gallery gaining versions for handheld devices after the same was done for the outdoors blog earlier this year (might make the design look more like the rest of the site though). Without something on which to do some real testing, that idea may not have become reality like it is. It may be no desktop substitute but that’s never to say that these devices may never get near that situation. After all, there was a time when no one could imagine the same for laptop PC’s and we all know what has happened with them.

Investigating the real-time web

Admittedly, I have been keeping away from Twitter and its kind for a while now but the current run of cold weather in the Britain and Ireland has alerted me to its usefulness and I have given the thing a go. With public transport operator website heaving over the last week, the advantages of microblogging became more than apparent, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Centrebus, National Rail Enquiries and the U.K. Met Office. The pithy nature of any messages saves the effort needed to compile a longer blog post and to read it afterwards. This aspect makes it invaluable for those times when all that needs to be communicated is short and sweet. Anything that cuts down on the information tide that hits all of us every day cam only be a good thing.

Along with Twitter, there is a whole suite of tools available for various bits and pieces. First off, there’s integration with WordPress courtesy of plugins like Alex King’s Twitter Tools. After that, there are numerous web applications for taming the beast. Though I only can say that I scratched the surface of what’s available, I have come accross HootSuite and Twitterfeed. The former is a console for managing more than one Twitter account at once while also offering the facility to do the same for Facebook, LinkedIn, and others too. Twitterfeed may be more limited in scope with offering to turn RSS feeds into tweets but it has its place too. HootSuite might have something similar for WordPress but Twitterfeed is a good more universal in its sweep. Naturally, there’s more out there than these two but I am not trying to be exhaustive here. If I make use of any other such services, I even might get inspired to mention them on here.