Sunday, 24 April 2016

Looking back on looking forward

I was just poking around in the BlackBerry PRIV user guide, in an attempt to figure out what USB-based video out standard it uses, when I noticed that certain PRIV models support wireless charging, using the Qi and PMA standards. I got excited (I’m planning on buying one, eventually, once I feel that I’ve got my money’s worth on the spare battery I bought in the fall [read: its lifetime goes for about as crap as the original]) and checked out whether, for example, IKEA’s wireless chargers support either of those standards. Good news for me, they do. I don't have one yet, but we have a bunch of other IKEA furniture, and at least that way I can get a lamp, or and end-table, with a built-in charger for my phone. Hurray!

And I got to thinking about wireless charging, and this thought occurred to me, “great, I see that Android and BlackBerry have caught up to where Palm was seven motherfucking years ago.” Palm, and by extension, HP, were way ahead of the curve when it comes to mobile computing, and for a very good reason. Wireless charging on the Palm Pre. The OS in that phone had real multitasking from day one, beating Apple to the punch by a year. And Palm beat everybody to the punch with their Palm Pilot. Apple was dicking around on the Newton with full handwriting recognition, Palm had a comparatively minuscule processor, and they nailed it. Given their technology constraints, instead of trying to fit the technology to the ideal, they identified the paradigm (pen-like input instead of keys, because the machine was so physically small) they felt would be the killer app, and found a way to apply that paradigm to a pocket-sized device, and won the market.

They kind of reinvented handwriting with Graffiti, but that also allowed them to create an input mode that didn’t actually require user verification the way that even normal handwriting on the page does (e.g. am I staying within the lines? Is this even legible?). Graffiti allowed the Palm user to keep writing away without moving their hand across the screen, and with a simpler gesture set that was still sufficiently similar to real handwriting to be easy to to learn, but also fit inside the tiny 186 processor they had. They revolutionised computer-supported time organisation, and by God if I didn’t want one for myself the first time I laid eyes on it.

Then BlackBerry (well, Research in Motion at the time) comes along with the original BlackBerry. They did the same thing, figured out how to fill a technology gap (simple email where the person was), made it pocket sized, and ran all the way to the bank with it. And like Palm, with something that the user doesn’t actually have to look at in order to input data.

And thinking about my deep and abiding love for both of these technologies reminded me of why I called my “small business” (which I have never really got around to getting off the ground in any meaningful way) Prophecy Newmedia. The notion was that Prophecy would provide its clients with the right technology for their online presence, not just the flashiest, newest stuff. Flash included—it was a pain in the ass from beginning to end, accessibility was notably awful, and after a weird artist love affair with it, it was relegated to streaming video once CSS and AJAX calls were able to do everything Flash could, until Flash itself got end-of-lifed by the vendor, because HTML5 has replaced it.

While I haven't necessarily picked the winning vendors every time (God rest Palm’s soul, and BlackBerry hasn’t been looking very hot since they shit the bed trying to beat Apple at consumer media devices), I feel like when I see an approach to doing things that works… it works. Handheld computing is something I’ve been a devotee of for probably twenty years. Wireless charging, oh my God yes (because wires suck, just plonk the damn thing down and be done with it). Machine readability of websites was part of why I didn’t like Flash in the first place, and Google’s off and running with it, along with everybody else who does big data crunching.

What’s next? I don’t know yet. But it’s going to be exciting.

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