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.

A new acquisition

Back in the early days of this blog, I mulled over the idea of having a high-end digital compact camera to complement a DSLR that then was delivering very dusty images; that Canon EOS 10D was cleaned since then and comes in for occasional use to this day. That was nearly three years ago and a first generation Ricoh GR Digital was the item that then was catching my eye. At the time, I failed to justify spending that much money on such a thing and ended up acquiring a new Pentax K10D DSLR instead. The question that rattled about my head was this: what was the point of spending DSLR money on a compact camera? Its one that never really went away and comes to mind when you see the prices of interchangeable lens compacts like Olympus’ Pen and equivalent offerings from Panasonic and Ricoh (there, it’s interchangeable lens units rather than actual lenses).

The strongest counterpoint to the cost conundrum is the little matter of size. SLR (film or digital) cameras are sizeable things and there is a place for having something that drops into a pocket. It is that which has propelled me into taking delivery of a Canon PowerShot G11. It may need a good-sized pocket but, unless you are going out with no jacket, it shouldn’t be a problem most of the time. For those shorter sorties when I don’t fancy bringing an SLR out, it well-built and looks the business though some acclimatisation is in order to make the best of the knobs, buttons and menus. Nevertheless, the included manual will help with this process (there’s a paper quick start guide and more detailed documentation on CD).

Canon PowerShot G11

The camera hasn’t seen extensive use just yet so here are a few early impressions. Firstly, there’s the matter of size: it’s even smaller than the first camera that I ever bought (more than fifteen years ago) and that was a Ricoh 35 mm compact film camera. That comparison is even more striking when you consider the feature sets. The Ricoh was a fixed 35 mm lens affair with things like date and time stamping, ISO choice and a nod towards scenic mode selection. In contrast, the much newer Canon is loaded with the sorts of things that normally are found almost exclusively on SLR’s, starting with its effective 28-140 mm focal length range.

Exposure modes such as manual, aperture priority and shutter priority complement scene-based modes and another for movies (not a concern of mine, it has to be said). As if that weren’t enough, there’s exposure compensation too. It came as a surprise to me to find a form of manual focussing included though it is not as convenient as turning a focussing ring on a lens. You can see the inbuilt flash above but there’s also a hotshoe and a place to attach a tripod too. Settings like white balance and file format are accessed using the Function/Set button with the lever underneath the shutter release button controlling the focal length of the lens. In addition, there’s also image stabilisation and that’s important when you’re using live view to compose a photo. Spot metering and focal point selection are other things that find their way into the package. Some may be excited by other things but exposure and focussing are essential for any photographic efforts.

An optical viewfinder is included and it has dioptre settings too but my first impressions are that live view though the rear screen trumps it and I see no need for such things on SLR’s. That also flips out from the camera body and can be rotated either for self-portraiture or for folding back in on the camera body for use like a non-articulated screen. Another use is with those occasions when the subject means holding the camera in positions that would be impossible with a conventional screen; holding the camera over your head or down low on the ground are the sorts of situations that come to mind.

Of course, there’s more there than those features that I have listed and the specifications on the Canon website are as good a place to start as any. So far, my only testing has been of the cursory checks variety and to make sure that the thing works properly. Still, this has given me more of a feel for the camera and how it operates. As you’d expect, high ISO settings are noisy but a bigger surprise was that the smallest aperture setting is f/8. Being used to SLR’s, I was expecting to get f/16 and its like on there but a spot of internet investigation showed that I should have been taking the size of the sensor into account with my expectations. Any trials so far have been in dull weather so I’d need to use it in a wider variety of conditions before giving it the sort of wider appraisal that you’d find in the likes Outdoor Photography (who liked it, it has to be said). For what it’s worth, I have found no major criticism so far though I cannot see it usurping my SLR’s but that never was the intention anyway.

Out of memory at line: 56

This is an error that I have started to see a lot in the last few weeks. First, it was with Piwik and latterly with WordPress.com Stats. For the record, I have never seen it on up to date systems but always with IE6 and at page unloading time. The CPU usage hits 100% before the error is produced and that has had me blaming JavaScript in error; it isn’t the cause of all ills. In fact, the cause seems to be a bug in a certain release of Adobe Flash 9 but I am of the opinion that the inclusion of certain features in a Flash movie are needed to trigger it too. I don’t have the exact details of this but WordPress.com Stats worked without fault until a recent update and that is what is making me reach the conclusion that I have. That observation is making me wonder whether we are coming to a point where Flash compatibility is something that needs to factored into the use of the said technology in a website or web application. Updating Flash will solve the problem on the client but it might be better if it wasn’t triggered on the server side either.

64-bit Firefox plugins?

My laptop has both Windows Vista and Ubuntu on there with WUBI being the facilitator of the peaceful coexistence. However, what I either forgot or never realised was that it was the 64-bit variant of Ubuntu 9.04 that has found its way onto the thing. For the most part, it works well but there is one catch that I recently encountered: not every Firefox plugin or add-on is 64-bit compatible. Google Gears is one such example but other very useful and pervasive helpers have the same affliction. RealPlayer is one and Adobe’s Flash is another. Apparently, you can still download the 32-bit release versions and use nspluginwrapper to get them going. That worked for RealPlayer but seemingly not for Flash; more investigation may be needed on that one. Other remedies like using 32-bit Firefox (if it runs, of course) or alpha versions of what Adobe offers can be tried too. It almost goes without saying that I’d wish that there was more awareness of the 64-bit Linux world but I remain glad to have met this rough edge before taking the plunge with my main system.

Update 2014-01-24: It looks as if this problem has gone away now with the growth in maturity of 64-bit computing. Certainly, it does not rear its head on any 64-bit Linux distro that I have used or even Windows, apart perhaps from ensuring that you are using the right JRE for a browser (32-bit or 64-bit).

JavaScript: write it yourself or use a library?

I must admit that I have never been a great fan of JavaScript. For one thing, its need to interact with browser objects places you at the mercy of the purveyors of such pieces of software. Debugging is another fine art that can seem opaque to the the uninitiated since the amount and quality of the logging is determined an interpreter that isn’t provided by the language’s overseers. All in all, it seems to present a steep and obstacle-strewn learning curve to newcomers. As it happens, I have always found server side scripting languages like PHP and Perl to be more to my taste and I have no aversion at all to writing SQL.

In the late 1990’s when I was still using free web hosting, JavaScript probably was the best option for my then new online photo gallery. Whatever was the truth, it certainly was the way that I went. Learning Java or Flash might have been useful but I never managed to devote sufficient time to the task so JavaScript turned out to be the way forward until I got a taste of server side scripting. Moving to paid hosting allowed for that to develop and the JavaScript option took a back seat.

Based on my experience of the browser wars and working with JavaScript throughout their existence, I was more than a little surprised at the buzz surrounding AJAX. Ploughing part of the way through WROX’s Beginning AJAX did nothing to sell the technology to me; it came across as a very dry jargon-blighted read. Nevertheless, I do see the advantages of web applications being as responsive as their desktop equivalents but AJAX doesn’t always guarantee this; as someone that has seen such applications crawling on IE6, I can certainly vouch for this. In fact, I suspect that may be behind the appearance of technologies such as AIR and Silverlight so JavaScript may get usurped yet again, just like my move to a photo gallery powered on the server side.

Even with these concerns, using JavaScript to add a spot more interactivity is never a bad thing even if it can be overdone, hence the speed problems that I have witnessed. In fact, I have been known to use DOM scripting but I need to have the use in mind before I can experiment with a technology; I cannot do it the other way around. Nevertheless, I am keen to see what JavaScript libraries such as jQuery and Prototype might have to offer (both have been used in WordPress). I have happened on their respective websites so they might make good places to start and who knows where my curiosity might take me?