Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Kogan Android Tablet kPad

iPad patentAustralian electronics importer Kogan have demonstrated a prototype $200 tablet computer with a 7 inch screen running Android and Ubuntu. The company is asking for input on what should be in the final design and, despite the hype around the Apple iPad, if anyone wants such a device. This "crowd sourcing" the design seems to work, I have been using the Kogan Agora Linux netbook for several months and have been impressed by how it has a low price but the features I want.

But will a product with features selected by enthusiasts like me appeal to a wider market? Is there any such market? Ruslan, the founder of the Kogan company seems sceptical and is essentially wanting the customers to convince him. The choice of a 7 inch screen looks a good one, the Apple iPad's 9 inch screen making the device too large and heavy (I have tried a mock-up iPad built by one of my ANU colleagues). This is the size of the original Asus EEE PC, which started the netbook craze. An obvious option, mentioned in the Kogan web site, is a removable keyboard, turning this into essentially a netbook with a removable keyboard. There are laptops with screen which swivel and fold to turn them into tablets.

One very good feature of the Kogan Agora is that it is easily upgraded via a large panel held on by one screw at the back. This lets you get to the expansion slots, disk drive and memory. That would be a good feature for the tablet. Another useful feature would be a USB socket in a recess in the back of the computer, large enough to hold a USB 3G modem. This would be much lower cost and more versitile than building a 3G modem into the computer.

One standards feature I would like to see on the tablet would be a VGA socket. This would allow the tablet to be docked and used with an external keyboard and screen as a desktop computer. The screen and battery could be omitted from one model of the tablet to make a $99 desktop web terminal. Many people just want a desktop computer to surf the web with and not fiddle around with loading complex software.

Writing with stylus and folding wax tablet. painter, Douris, ca 500 BCThe obvious name for a Kogan table is the "kPad". But perhaps it could use of one of the names for an ancient wax tablet, such as deltos. Images of these being used in antiquity look remarkably like modern computer tablets. This seems apt as Kogan's Agora seems to be named after an ancient "place of assembly", where such tablets would be used.

In 1996 I wrote a future history talk "Australia: The Networked Nation" featuring a hypothetical PADD (named after the devices in Star Trek). My device was to be 176 × 250 x 10 mm. The Apple iPad comes close at 190 x 243 x 13 mm and the Kogan would be closer.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Delphi e-Academy

Writing with stylus and folding wax tablet. painter, Douris, ca 500 BCInspired by walking the sacred way at Delphi, I suggest a portable green e-classroom. Idris Sulaiman asked if there are any Australian guidelines on Green Computer Labs. This got me thinking about the Green Learning Commons, back to a portable e-learning classroom I proposed previously.

Last year I visited the Delphi site in Greece. Walking up the sacred way I waited for a message out of the ether. It came in the form of a telephone call from Australia asking me about e-publishing. The caller asked of I was busy, I replied that I was walking the sacred way and Delphi. There was a long pause, as the caller worked out what I had said and what it might mean. But that was the only inspiration on that path.

The most evocative part of the site for me was about 1 km below the sacred way at the gymnasium. There is an old olive tree, stoa (covered walkways) and flat exercise area. This was where the ancient philosophers did their teaching. As I was walking towards the ANU this morning I could see the main oval under repair, alongside the covered gymnasium building and the cafe. It occurred to me that what happened here was much the same as at Delphi thousands of years ago. Even the tablet computers look much like ancient wax tablets.

Imagine propping a flat panel display up against the olive tree at Delphi, next to the teacher. Hand each student a wireless tablet computer, in place of their wax tablet. Leave everything else the same and you have the e-Academy.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Apple iSlate the passport to the future of computing

There is speculation that an Apple iSlate tablet computer is to be launched in late January. I am less sceptical of this having spent some time seeing an Apple iPod Touch in use by a family. The smallest reasonable size for the iSlate would be a six inch screen, twice the size of the Touch and and iPhone. This is the same size as the screen on the Amazon Kindle. However, unlike the Kindle, the iSlate is likely to have no physical keyboard and therefore be small enough for a large pocket or handbag.

Visiting a networked family recently, I was struck by how useful their iPod Touch was. The family has a WiFi network, a desktop computer in the study and laptop which tends to sit on the coffee table, next to the controls for the Nintendo Wii. But the gadget that gets used most is an Apple iPod Touch, which tends to be on the kitchen bench or dining table.

The iPod is connected to the home wireless network. The iPod starts instantly, compared to about 20 seconds for the laptop. Also it is much more socially acceptable to use in a group of people, as it looks like a mobile phone. It takes only a few seconds to turn the iPod on, go to the web browser and look something up. The screen is large enough for looking at the bus timetable. This makes prospects for the rumoured Apple iSlate tablet computer very good.

Something like an iPod touch, but with a screen the size of a paperback book would seem to be a winner. Exactly how large a screen such a device should have is an interesting question. The iPod Touch (and iPhone) have a screen which is about size of a credit card, which is one of the standard sizes for international documents (ID-1 format: 85.60 × 53.98 mm).

The next standard size up would be that of a passport: 125 × 88 mm (ID-3 format or ISO B7). This would be about twice the size of the iPod Touch screen and the smallest reasonable size for the Apple iSlate. It would allow for a 6 inch screen, which is the size of the screen on the International Version of Amazon Kindle e-Book reader. A device this size would still fit in many larger pockets and in handbags. This is no coincidence, as passports are the size they are so that they will fit in a pocket or handbag, which is in turn sized to fit a human hand. Making the device this size would also allow it to be held comfortably in one hand. While modern electronics have allowed the size of many devices to shrink, these are still limited by natural units of measure, such as the size of a hand.

Such a small screen will not be suitable for everything. The iSlate will presumably have a USB interface. If plugged into a keyboard and mouse, the iSlate would be usable for entering more text. If interfaced to a large screen, such as a flat screen TV or LCD computer monitor and this would provide enough computing power for a web terminal. Apple may be reluctant to support this as it would undercut sales of their laptop and desktop computers. The iPhone and iPod Touch have a USB interface, but a keyboard is not supported (they also have a low resolution video out).

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Open source consortium building car entertainment platform

The GENIVI Alliance is a non-profit consortium launched in March 2009. It aims to produce open source car entertainment systems based on Linux. Members include GM, BMW, Intel and Peugeot Citroen. Given cutbacks in the automotive industry it might be a good time for a cost-saving open source approach, as an alternative to initiatives like the Microsoft Ford Sync.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Microsoft Ford Sync the future of Car Computers?

Ford and Microsoft have announced a system for car communications and entertainment:
Dubbed Ford Sync, the system uses Microsoft's Auto software and allows drivers to dial their cell phone and have their text messages read to them through voice commands. Drivers will also be able to use voice commands or steering wheel buttons to play music stored on a portable device including Apple Computer's iPod and Microsoft's Zune as well as other MP3 players and even USB flash drives. ...
From: "Ford, Microsoft get in Sync on in-car tech", By Ina Fried, CNET News.com, Published on ZDNet News: January 7, 2007, 10:00 AM PT
Mass production should lower the cost of such systems in cars. But you could get the same results with an after market car computer and GPS systems.

But is how much of this equipment does it make sense to build into a car? The GSM phone system was designed to use a removable smart card with the subscribers information on it. Originally the cards were the size of credit cards. The idea was that you could easily transfer your mobile phone number from one car phone to another by inserting the card in a slot in the dashboard. It was assumed phones had to be built in because they were large bulky items.

GSM phones still use smart cards (a SIM or Subscriber Identity Module), but in a much smaller format, as most phone are smaller than a credit card. Instead of having the phone built into the car, there is more likely to just be a microphone and speaker (and possibly power connection). Some cars have a Bluetooth wireless phone interface built in. You transfer your phone number from car to car by taking your phone with you. What is left in the car is a relatively dumb interface.

Similarly MP3 players can be plugged into a car radio and a GPS unit into the cigarette lighter. From reading Ford's announcement it appears that most of the intelligence for Sync is not intended to be built into the car, but in portable phones and music players the occupants have with them.

Perhaps we will see cars equipped with a large screen in the dashboard with some basic functions. But for the personalized services (your phone calls, your music) the car will communicate by Bluetooth with your smartphone. Already some car GPS units have Bluetooth so they can be used as a handsfree phone.

A car could have a screen for each occupant, communicating with the phones in the car and with each other. Each occupant could see information from their own phone on their screen, or share music, video or a phone call with the other occupants. These would be easy to install as they would only need power from the car, no complex data cabling. They would make a good after market installation or could be removable tablet computer.

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