I admit it, I am a technology junkie. So when my folks and a few other family members asked me what I would like for a graduation gift, I had a list of things with little blinky lights. At the top of the list is a strange little gadget that is not a laptop, a tablet or a pda, but in my mind a combination of all of the features I like about each of them. I like laptops for their size, relative to desktop computers. I use them regularly at work. In fact in the winter I am often accused of heating my office with the three older models I use for testing. They have come a long way from the "portable, but only with a luggage cart" models I remember my dad bringing home once in a while. The problem is they still have a long way to go. I was really excited about the tablets when they were announced. I can communicate more with a quick picture drawn on my steno pad than I can in a long email, so the idea of being able to combine drawing and a computer in a portable device was really appealling to me. The only problem was most of the models available are laptops with a tablet screen that could flip around in an effort to get folk used to the idea. In the end I think those models that try to combine tablets and laptops are just adding a layer of hardware to an outdated platform. PDAs are neat but unless you have a phone contract and an internet connection they are not terribly useful. So what is a poor boy to do?
The new toy at the top of my list is the latest version of Samsungs Q1. This is an example of a UMPC, Ultra Mobile Personal Computer. It is smaller than a tablet or a laptop but bigger than a PDA. It runs Windows Vista and any of the basic software I need in that world. I can connect it to the network via wireless 802.11b/g or via wired ethernet port. It even has bluetooth but since I have nothing else using bluetooth, I keep it disabled. I can use a pen or fingers or a usb keyboard/mouse as input devices. It is the pen I really enjoy. I can finally draw on a computer!
That said, I am still looking for a good sketch program. Something that lets me draw as if I was holding a pencil or pen or charcoal would be great. So far the application that makes it work is Microsofts Onenote. I think they got a good idea with this program. Execution of the idea is in traditional MS manner, take that as you will. What I like about it is it lets me write on the computer like it is paper, and then I can press a button and it attempts to convert it into text. If I am somewhat careful, it works. I can also just leave it as my handwriting. The software can do a lot more but that is what I like about it. I find its "notebook" analogy is a powerful concept. Allowing you to cut and paste from the different pieces of the office suite into this application, as well as pictures, links to web pages and your own handwritten notes and diagrams is pretty useful. But this is not meant to be an advertisement for ms, so on with other thoughs about the Q1.
I do not currently use a keyboard with it, as I am trying to really see what my limits are with just the pen and onscreen keyboard. As one would expect, entering data into it is fairly tedious. I am not writing this on it but only my rickety old desktop up in my office. I do however sit downstairs and surf the web on the Q1. It is perfect for that task. I have taken notes on it during a conference call at work. I even used it when playing DnD with my cousins. I was the DM and I created character sheets on it it and ran the entire adventure from the pdf file as viewed on its fairly small screen. It has nice speakers and built in microphones, so I also set it up to use Skype but I have not had a chance to test it yet. I have streamed internet radio through it over a wireless connection quite nicely.
The Q1, and UMPCs in general, are at the top of my list because I think they are the direction computing is going. This is going to ramble for a bit, even more than I tend to. Computing is in my mind not just a matter of making things smaller but of making them useful. It takes more time and money to have to code and test and everything else for lots of different computing environments. The folk that make their living at this sort of thing have known this for a while. Sorting out how to have the same operating system, or run time environment or whatever, on something that fits in your pocket as what you use at home or work is just a technical hurdle at this point. We already have computer motherboards the size of business cards that can run the same operating systems used on desktops. The larger hurdle is getting folk to use new or different means of interacting with these computers. Voice or pens or fingers or waving of your arms or your gps coordinates are just some of the ways being considered and experimented with. Likely they will all be used in various ways we can not even imagine now. We are already seeing a lot of them in use. The controller for the Wii is a great example. (ok, the Wii was also fairly high on my list as well but go figure.) Even our camera knows which way it is being held and adjusts the picture on its screen so it is always "up" relative to you. This Q1 is one of the steps being taken away from the desktop world that has defined computer use for the last thirty years and towards something new and interesting, at least for me. It is going towards where my imagination took me when I was a kids, seeing my very first computer and reading way too much science fiction.
So, now that I am seeing things that were only imagined thirty years ago, and I have worked in the industry for the last ten, I am curious where they will be when my son is old enough to need a computer of his own. Will it be more like the UMPC model or something else? What will he need to use it for? I fully expect to get him some sort of entertainment device that is built on top of a computer, but that is more so I can play with it. I wonder what he will do his homework on and how his schools will use computers to teach him and how I can make sure they do it right so he has a chance of understanding how the things are actually working. I guess that is what it comes down to, I want him to understand it and be able to work with the technology like the tool it is and not to be afraid or in awe of it. At least not more than anyone should be of any powerful tool. A healthy respect of its capabilities and a working knowledge of it limits can take one far I feel. Or something like that.