A brief history of being a nerd on the go (pt 1).

We’re so obsessed with our mobile gadgets lately, that we sometimes forget it wasn’t so long ago that most people carried only a phone, or nothing at all. I’ve been thinking about this lately, and decided to take a brief look back at some of the other geek boxes I’ve carried in my pants over the last few years. For those of you who can’t stand hearing about this, feel free to zone out and think of Christmas. But don’t think of all the crap you still have to do before the actual holiday, or you’ll just stress yourself out.

We’re going to do this by operating system, otherwise it would just get out of hand, and the three of you who might still be reading would lose all interest. I probably won’t get as technical as I could, either, because this is more about a brief hit of near-nostalgia than an outdated processor pissing contest. Plus, again, most of you wouldn’t care.

If you’re still here, let’s begin with an old favorite, Windows Mobile (aka Pocket PC) 2003. I didn’t really get on the PDA bandwagon with Palm, so my first real foray into the world of mobile computing came with an HP iPaq 4350. I looked at a ton of them before I finally settled on this one, as it had the best keyboard of the lot at the time, and also a decent screen. It ran Pocket PC 2003 (which was what they called WinMo before it became WinMo and eventually Windows Phone), and for all its quirks, it was a solid little system, even with its blazing 64 MB SD RAM, and 32 MB flash ROM. 

Such fond memories. NES FTW! (4350) 

Naturally, the majority of my time with it was spent running NES emulators and loading ROMs onto an SD card, along with DivX movies and some MP3s. I wasn’t nearly as much of an important big-shot type as I am now, and having a 5-way rocker button and hardware keyboard made NES action simply divine on there. I remember taking it on a tour with my band at the time and being so amazingly thankful for both Metroid and headphones.

 

From that device, I jumped to my first PDA phone, which was the Sprint PPC-6600, also known as the Audiovox (or later UT Starcom) 6600. It ran PPC 2003 as well, but it was the very exciting SE (second edition) which added exactly zero interesting features. Not really, I’m sure, as to which some internal MS and Sprint marketing literature would surely attest, but as a user, you saw very little difference. This device also had a keyboard, but was a bottom-slider, which made it weirdly long when typing, but still somewhat usable.

First of the phones, the lovable brick. (6600)

Not by today’s standards, of course, where I would have compared the device to a freshly prepared plate of excrement, but then it was pretty cool. Heavy and bricklike, it served its purpose, but was quickly supplanted by the much sexier, slightly smaller, yet still brickish 6700, which we will discuss later, as thinking about Windows Mobile this much makes my brain cry.

Plus, since it was technically running Windows Mobile 5, we could (and MS does) consider it a different OS, even though it was pretty much freaking identical with the exception of a few minor polish points. But it did do some cool stuff, too, even if it meant sacrificing the quality of the NES action.

What was your first serious mobile device? I’d like to hear about it. (I’m a dork that way.)

Touch is not always the answer.

Touch.

It’s become the new buzzword with gadgets, and a surefire way to get people’s attention. Who wants to use those smelly old buttons anymore when you can use your greasy little finger?! Why have a stylus when you can stab your device with digits?

I’m oversimplifying, of course, but it also illustrates a point. The iPhone’s UI only works as well as it does because Apple spent a really long time working on it. In fact, they’re still working on it, but it’s easily the one to beat. Simply taking an existing interface and removing the access to it that you’re used to in favor of a finger is where everything else has failed up to this point. It’s not about bigger poke-able icons on a screen, but how the screen and the items on it interact with you when you use them.

Nothing I’m saying hasn’t been said before, or better, but it drives me crazy when devices tout touch capability because it’s the feature du jour. Who the hell needs a printer with a touch screen? Who the hell needs a printer anymore for that matter? I know. We’re not all there yet. 

But look at the first (and possibly second) BlackBerry Storm – a perfect example of how touch took a good idea and made it suck. I had a BlackBerry Curve before my iPhone, and it was a seriously solid device. BBs always have been killer at what they do best – push messaging with small hardware keyboards. Jump on the touch train, and the phone falls apart. You just can’t force a sea change in user interaction like that without redesigning the OS from the ground up to accept that kind of input. Add in a failed experiment in haptics, and you start to realize why “one giant button” was a bad idea from the start.

And the full desktop PCs that have giant touch screens? Why would you want to sit at a desk and do that? Simply to do away with the mouse-keyboard combo? I guarantee after you’re done showing everyone who would give a crap how rad it is that you’re going back to your other computer, or just plugging in those peripherals.

Innovation isn’t coming from following someone’s good lead and smashing it together with whatever you’ve done already. It comes from taking a good idea that you had and building it up – or tearing it down yourself and building something new. Palm did it with WebOS when everyone thought they were washed up, RIM needs to do it with their OS too, if they want to keep moving into the consumer, non-enterprise space. Windows Mobile… don’t even get me started on that one. Talk about squandering an opportunity by resting on your laurels.

Everything in tech right now – at least the majority of the mobile consumer electronics space – seems like a giant me-too; everyone’s got an app store now, and everyone’s adding touch. There’s a place for buttons in our world, and plenty of arguments against them. But we all lose when companies don’t choose to innovate and keep polishing up hackneyed ideas and calling them new. But luckily, enough companies are getting it right, and we’re moving into one of the most exciting times we’ve ever seen in the CE space.

The App Store as a metric for success.

John Gruber has a great post up on Daring Fireball that really addresses the misconception of “more apps = better”. It’s something I’ve been thinking about too, and talking about with others, as discovery becomes more of a problem with the voluminous amount of software within the store. Until search improves, and the browsing method changes, bragging about having multiple thousands of applications really only helps people who don’t already have iPhones make the decision to buy them. Once you’ve got one, the challenge becomes separating the wheat from the chaff.

Gruber’s thoughts on the App Store

Your brain as mass storage.

So if we only use, what – 10% of our actual brain for living, what else is it for? I like to think that it’s like a big, mushy hard drive, and that all the myriad moments of my life are etched in there, somewhere. Then I like to think that at some point in the future, brain-computer-interface advancements will reach a point where we can actively tap into those furthest reaches of our conscious and sub-conscious mind, to see all those moments again.

I know this is kind of a “pandora’s box” desire, but I’m willing to suffer it. After all, I lived through the stuff once, I can stomach it a second time, right? Perhaps with the distance life’s afforded me from those moments, I can gain a new perspective on them. And just think how awesome it would be to re-live – or even just re-watch – some of the greatest things your life has shown you.

I swear to God, if this happens, I’m going to be ecstatic. Please, PLEASE, science. Make it so.

Oh, and if anyone is going to leave a comment dashing my hopes, be gentle.

Pure online photo ecstasy.

I am a Mac user, and I rely on iPhoto heavily on my systems to keep all my photos in order. However, I also have a sizable Flickr account with a bunch of photosets, some of which duplicate things stored locally, and some which don’t. But what I didn’t have was a good way to interact with Flickr on my laptop. Until today.

Enter flickery, an application by Eternal Storms software, makers of the excellent GimmeSomeTune, for use with iTunes. Flickery is a native Mac app for wrangling the hell out of the content you store on Flickr, and I am absolutely floored by it. I will be spending so much more time using the site now, simply because the interface it provides is far and away an improvement to the web interface. Which is not to say Flickr’s site isn’t useful, because it’s come a long way over the years. But for all that can be done within the confines of http://, it doesn’t even come close to the experience you get with flickery.

What makes it so great is that it looks a lot like iPhoto, but with its hooks straight into your online account, you get to see both your local content and online content in similar fashions, which is fantastic for mentally arranging your photos how you like them. Clean, easy to understand, and powerful – everything a great app should be. God, I love good software. I could go on and on about it, but I really want to play with it more. If you’re a Mac-head and have a Flickr account, you’ve got a 15-day free trial to see if you like it. I’ll definitely be plunking down a few bucks for it. It’s essential as far as I’m concerned.

flickery

Movie nerd boner.

While listening to the always geeky, always hilarious Geek Show Podcast this afternoon, in the episode titled “Brokeback Podcast”, there was a discussion about connections between a lot of Tarantino’s characters in his films. I knew of this phenomenon, but what I didn’t know was that Sgt. Donny Donowitz (played by Eli Roth) from Inglorious Basterds was supposed to be the father of film producer Lee Donowitz (played by Saul Rubinek) in True Romance, which was penned by Tarantino, and also happens to be one of my favorite movies. That little nugget blew my mind clear out of my skull. I love stuff like that, when characters sort of cross over between stories. Awesome.

Epiphanies.

After a delicious Korean dinner with my sister and brother-in-law tonight, I had two thoughts occur to me on the way home, courtesy of my ~18-mo nephew playing with the iPod in the car.

  1. Listening to Kelly Clarkson’s music, and most pop songs in the same vein, is roughly equivalent to the act of an adult eating Pixy Stix. You know it’s a terrible idea, but something is compelling you to do it anyway. Upon starting to eat the overly-sugary treat, you start regetting the decision, and ultimately end up killing the idea 2/3 of the way through, having become comepletely disgusted with yourself. Later, you become angry with yourself for even considering it and do something diametrically opposed to the earlier mistake (either eating healthy food or listening to Nine Inch Nails).

  2. The music of Jason Mraz is the result of the unholy union of Steely Dan and Jamiroquai having sex in the backseat of a Chevy Nova. Mraz has some chops, and some similar studio tricks to Steely Dan, such as the liberal use of overdubs on his vocal tracks, but a peppiness and slightly annoying tinge, as Jamiroquai is pretty ok, but can also get on your nerves after a while. The Chevy Nova comes into play because I feel like it’s the kind of car in which those two entities might fornicate. Also, it seemed funny at the time.

Happy birthday, Dreamcast.

Ten years ago this week (9.9.99), the arrival of the Sega Dreamcast in the US marked the last attempt Sega was to make at owning the home console market. While it had its day in the sun, it was ultimately destroyed by the juggernaut that was the PS2, and its massive install base. Aside from the NES, which has extreme sentimental value to most people in my immediate age group, the Dreamcast was my favorite system of all time.

It came out at a great time in my life, when I was a year out of college, still young enough to make excuses for myself, but not too old to realize that this practice wasn’t a good idea. I hadn’t yet found my path in life, so I had a lot of free time to spend playing video games, and my God, what games these were. Graphics that would make your eyes melt right out of your skull, but so beautiful that as it was happening, you didn’t even care and were prepared to spend the rest of your life as a blind fool. Some really incredible gameplay innovations were made during this time, too, with Soul Calibur dominating (at least in some people’s minds) the fighting space, and games like Jet Grind Radio (Jet Set, if you were outside the US) changing both aesthetic expectations and introducing new gameplay coupled with fantastic music.

Sure, there were stinkers, and a lot of them, but the smart kids figured out how to either mod their systems or use boot discs to play other games. I started buying all kinds of games and related DC paraphernalia from around the world. Mostly from Japanese eBay sellers, these items became so exciting to find and bid on, I spent almost as much time online looking for them as I did using them when they finally arrived. I think I actually have more import titles than domestic ones at this point.

I could go on for days, but I won’t bore the non-gamers out there with more nostalgic nerdery. This year, 9.9.09 is already marked for an annual Apple iPod event, and people are expecting a lot of things to happen there. But I’ll be thinking of another special day, one when the gaming landscape really did shift to the next level. Dreamcast, I love you.

You can purchase Dreamcasts, new in box, as well as other Dreamcast-related accessories at ThinkGeek. And to hear from the man himself, follow @segadreamcast on Twitter. He’s started a campaign called #therealsept9, to remind people that he was the “OG” of 9.9, back in the day.

A belated thank you to ThinkGeek.

In stumbling across my action shot that I sent in to ThinkGeek after getting my new-in-box Dreamcast (my third system, it was my favorite console of that generation), I remembered that I was going to post a public thank you to their impeccable customer service division, and never got around to it. So I’m doing it now.

The reason I had to deal with CS at all is because some of the Dreamcasts had that not-so-fresh feeling, you know? And instead of being douches (wordplay!) about it, they were exemplary in how they handled everything. After a bit of an outcry on the Internets, they offered to replace them, no questions asked, and I was among the few who needed new systems sent out. It came before I even had a chance to put my laptop on standby, and they were awesome throughout the experience, in constant communication through Twitter DMs and emails, and even offered me a gift certificate to the site.

So in a nutshell, ThinkGeek deserves crazy respect, in this day and age of absolute garbage CS, with people rushing to get rid of you so they can post their numbers. Thanks, ThinkGeek. You rock.

And here’s the awesome shot of me with Declan, enjoying the sheer glory of the most underrated home console ever.

 

The great iPhone turn-by-turn nav app showdown has ended.

After deliberating over which turn-by-turn app to get for the iPhone, and hearing from a lot of people that a dedicated nav unit was a better way to spend the money, I decided to get Navigon Mobile Navigator North America, which is currently $69.99 until August 31 (iTunes link). I spent way longer than I probably should have investigating the options, and decided based on a lot of reviews and opinions gathered from people. It’s a solid app, if in need of a few updates. I won’t go into exhaustive detail, since it’s already been covered by many blogs, with a great review up on The iPhone Blog.

I used it all weekend and I like it. It worked pretty well for me: re-routing occurred easily, voice prompts were very clear, and the lane assist function is nice, since it helps you when you need to be on one side of the road or another before making a turn or getting off/on a highway. Handling calls is a little weird, as you leave the app completely, and understandably a limit of the iPhone running background processes, but what I can’t understand is this: if the iPhone doesn’t allow 3rd party processes to run in the background, but will allow things like the iPod to play in other apps, why can’t I get a nav app that takes calls within the app and has basic call controls (as with the iPod pop-up window)? It should be supported, since Apple has no issues with their own apps running in the background, and would make the experience even more seamless. I’m holding out for an update with something like this, but I’m also not holding my breath.

Overall, not the cheapest app, nor the most expensive (for now), but very solid. If you want it, get it before the price goes up.