8 kid-inspired features for Apple’s iOS 7

sticky fingers on ipadFor the past couple of years, our kids’ favorite bedtime stories have featured a feline protagonist whose best friend is Apple CEO Tim Cook. In each story, Tim Cook teleports this cat to Cupertino (Apple HQ), where Tim and cat work on various cat-friendly inventions. Naturally, tonight’s story centred on an emergency visit from Tim Cook, requesting the cat’s help with an iOS update that could be announced at the WWDC.

As with most of these stories, the best ideas came from the kids themselves. First, however, they demanded to know what iOS is, and what an operating system is, and what the difference is between the OS and the apps that run on it (I know, I know, we’ve been terrible parents for neglecting this explanation until now). Once they had the basics under their belt, however, they came up with awesome feature ideas for the next iOS:

  1. Divide your iPad into zone so four people can use the iPad screen at once.
  2. Use your iPhone/iPad camera to identify any object: for example, hold a rock up to the camera and it will tell you what kind of rock it is.
  3. If you delete an app, it remains on the device as a ghost image; swiping brings the app back. [ed. note to Apple: please require a parent’s password before restoring the delete apps.I]
  4. Stream any app you are using to a Mac so you can use it with full keyboard/mouse controls.
  5. Filter that automatically detects where the fingerprints are on your iPad, and automatically adjusts the brightness of different patches of your screen in order to compensate and make them invisible (OK, that might have been my idea, but it still owes a big debt to my kids’ sticky fingers).
  6. Tell Siri your food preferences; she’ll remember them and in the future, suggest restaurants that would appeal to you.
  7. If you are at a friend’s house, your iPad will automatically join their wifi network, and once you’re on their wifi network, you can try any of your friend’s iOS apps for free.
  8. Ask Siri for a 3D printer and money printer; it will automatically upgrade itself to print the money you need to pay for the 3D printer and money printer.

That last one kind of broke my brain to think about, but other than that, I’m prepared to put the kids in charge of the iOS development team. Tim Cook, they await your call.

Saying goodbye to pen and paper

My latest blog post for Harvard Business Review has provoked a strong reaction to the idea of saying goodbye to the paper notebook. Here’s my own take on the experience of giving up on paper and pen.

Alexandra Samuel

Those 25 characters, comprising a tip, a total and a signature, now represent the lion’s share of my handwriting. That’s what I realized during a recent conversation with a colleague, when I asked how he takes notes…meaning, of course, what software program did he use. I didn’t even consider the possibility of his actual answer: a notebook. You know, a lump of paper bound together so that you can scratch at it with a pen. Yuck.

In all honesty, I have never liked holding a pen. What I hated about college exams wasn’t the studying or the race to get out the answers: it was the way my hand ached by the time I got halfway through a test. I tried The Artist’s Way but I loathed the morning pages because unlike a touch typing on a keyboard, pen-and-paper writing can’t keep up with the pace at which ideas actually flow.

As soon as I got a laptop light enough to carry, I braved the glares of my fellow conference-goers so that I could take my notes on my computer, where I could actually read them; my chicken scratch is barely legible, even to me.

Even though I took more and more of my notes on a computer, I still used paper notebooks as my day-to-day repository. After all, who can bother launching Word just to capture a phone number? Or hunting through all those folders of files just to find that brief thought you had during last week’s meeting? For these unavoidable writing situations, I carried a medium-sized, graph-ruled, hard-bound notebook, cycling through a new one every three months. Sometimes I referred back to my meeting notes or latest inspirations, but the notebooks were mostly a garbage can: a place to throw words, information and ideas, knowing that they’d get ground up and lost.

Then came VooDoopad, a one-stop notetaking program, and later, Evernote. When I started using Voodoopad in mid-2005, my notetaking was instantly transformed: instead of opening individual Word documents for each note, I could throw them all in Voodoopad. Better yet, I could actually find them, because unlike my paper notebooks, Voodoopad was both legible and searchable. Then I (regretfully, because I loved Voodoopad and its awesome developer) shifted over to Evernote, which offered features like iPhone syncing — meaning that I could access or add to my notes anytime, anywhere.

My four-notebook-a-year habit became a one-notebook-a-year habit, and my pen and moleskine might languish in my purse for days at a time. Then I’d find myself in a meeting where I couldn’t put a laptop screen between me and my client, and out the moleskine would come (if the notes were important, I’d snap them later on my iPhone and add them to Evernote). Or I’d come up with a blog post idea over dinner — along with a first paragraph I couldn’t bear to type on my iPhone keyboard — and write it down just legibly enough to transcribe into my browser as soon as I got home. Or sometimes I’d simply run out of battery life halfway through a work session, and be forced to switch to paper.

The iPad liberated me from these final use cases for my notebook. There is no meeting where I feel uncomfortable taking notes on my iPad; not only is it small enough to feel unintrusive, but typing on a touchscreen aovid the clackety-clack of a keyboard. I have beautiful Etsy purse that fits my iPad, so if I have an inspiration over dinner, my iPad is always at the ready. And unless I’ve let Little Peanut wear out my iPad watching videogame walkthroughs on YouTube (a not-infrequent problem) it’s usually there to bail me out when my laptop battery dies.

The moleskine I’m using right now — if using is the right term for it — is filled only halfway. The first page of notes are from early 2009, and at the pace I’m going, I’ll be able to use it until about 2014. (A lifespan that puts Apple products to shame: I suspect I’ll go through half a dozen iPhones, four iPads and at least two Macbooks in the same amount of time.)

With my notebook relegated to such occasional use — if memory serves, the last time I needed more than one page of it was during a blackout at the Hollyhock retreat center — it takes some real digging to think of circumstances in which I actually pick up a pen. I no longer bother to carry one, in fact, and it’s only once or twice a month that I find myself wishing I did.  I still write on our grocery list (though I’ve been thinking about replacing the pad of paper with a half-dead iPhone that would let us access our list online); I still write the occasional comments on a colleague’s document (though I prefer to load it on my iPad and annotate it there); I still need to fill in my daughter’s reading log for school (though she mostly fills it in herself because she’s still at the stage where writing a few words is a form of learning). Together, these various pen-on-paper scenarios might account for twenty or thirty words’ worth of writing each week.

And that leaves the Visa slips. I use my Visa for almost everything, which amounts to thirty or forty transactions a week: let’s call it 750 characters. I figure that’s twice as much writing as all the other scenarios put together.

Of course, my most recent Visa card has a micro-chip: more and more of the time, I enter a PIN and skip the signature altogether. 750, 650, 550…I feel the written letters slip away. With them goes the memory of my grade 3 teacher, patiently baking my first handwritten story into an “antique” manuscript. I sever the mimetic tie to the eighteen-year-old girl who filled the pages of a journal with her first heartbreak. Out of practice at reading my own scrawl, I can no longer decipher the notebook my husband and I used during our first weekend as lovers — a weekend when I lost my voice and relied entirely on writing.

These are the losses that accumulate through our transition to a new world, a new set of tools, new ways of working and new ways of remembering. At any time I could choose to pick up pen and paper once again, to forego legibility and searchability in favor of the serendipity of what gets recalled and what becomes indecipherable. But I have no romantic fantasies about sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris, sipping coffee and writing in longhand; that world is gone, or going, and my paper notebook isn’t going to reveal Paris or the world as they are today.

Instead, I picture myself at that same café, iPad in hand. It’s a lovely spot, charming and a little bit hidden, but I found my way back there because I jotted down the address in Evernote after stumbling onto it last year.  Downstairs is the same dark stone room that has served patrons for more than two hundred years; upstairs the stone is interrupted by windows big enough to let in light and wifi. And there I sit, tweeting and blogging and sharing my notes with the world in real-time.

8 ways iPhones and iPads affect family discipline

There’s nothing like the beginning of a school year to illuminate gaps in your family’s, um….discipline. After a couple of rocky weeks inspired us to take a closer look at our family’s rhythms and regimes, I found myself noting the central role that iPhones and iPads have played in all aspects of our disciplinary approach, acting as:

  1. Band-aid: When we’re in a setting that provokes disciplinary challenges, like a line-up or a restaurant, there is nothing like handing over an I-thing to keep otherwise boisterous kids calm and manageable.
  2. Carrot: “As soon as you’ve finished cleaning up the playroom you can have some iPad time.” That’s the kind of inducement you hear regularly in our house, where the promise of 1-on-1 time with the iPad is our most consistent motivational technique.
  3. Stick: The flip side of the carrot is, of course, our use of iPad and iPhone deprivation as the number one punishment in our family. Immediate misdeeds get immediate removal of the iDevices currently in use. Medium-size misdeeds get a daylong ban from iDevices. Major misdeeds mean at least 24 hours without an iDevice. Oh, what suffering!
  4. Threat: What goes around comes around: after hearing me threaten (or enact) iDevice deprivation as a frequent consequence for his misbehaviour, Little Peanut recently threatened to hide my iPhone and iPad as retaliation for a recent disciplinary conflict.
  5. Lifeline: I often use my iPhone or iPad to google for kid management tips when I’m faced with a sticky situation.
  6. Gold star: You might have settled for stickers as your reward for a job well done, but when we are really trying to get the kids to focus on a particular behaviour, their reward chart pays out in apps. Free apps, mind you. But it’s a very tangible pay-off for working hard on a challenge they are otherwise reluctant to embrace.
  7. Reward chart: Besides serving as the prize, the iPad can serve as the chart itself. I’ve been experimenting with various iPhone, iPad and web apps that support digital reward charts for kids. So far none of the iDevice apps are as satisfying as my preferred online chart system, Goal For It, but I would prefer to use a device-based app so am eager to hear suggestions of tools that are visual and sync to the web and/or other iDevices (so mum and dad can keep their charts in sync).
  8. Trigger: The iPad, in particular, often acts as a trigger for negative outbursts. Frustration at losing a game, resistance to putting away a device when we need to leave the house, insistence on buying an inappropriate game, sibling battles for control of a given device — all of these have led to meltdowns at one time or another.

Given the central role our iDevices play in so many aspects of our disciplinary regime, and in particular their frequent role as an outburst trigger, it should come as no surprise that we are reevaluating the amount of access our kids have had to the Magical iPad. (You want to convince me it’s really magical? Make my kids’ temper tantrums disappear.) I’ll be back soon with a follow-up post on the different approaches we’re considering.

Anticipating the virtual wedding

Today’s Globe & Mail features a story about the “iPad bridesmaid”: the woman who attended her friend’s wedding via iPad. Since Renee Armstrong couldn’t make it the wedding in person, a groomsman carried an iPad to which she was connected via FaceTime (Apple’s videoconferencing system for the iPad). Globe reporter Tralee Pearce called me for comment on the story:

The spectre of a wedding where all the guests are appearing via computer is enough to startle even the most savvy social-media observers. Still, with everyone from the corporate world to grandparents embracing video-conferencing, perhaps the iPad wedding guest will become commonplace too, says Alexandra Samuel, the director of the Social and Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver.

“It’s hard for me to see it becoming a widespread phenomenon,” says Dr. Samuel. “But so far, nobody’s gone wrong by betting on the normalization of what initially seems like a really weird technology use.”

10 essential iPad and iPhone apps for your next road trip

When you’re about to hit the road, you need to look at your iPad or iPhone as a Swiss Army Knife: a device to load up with the essential tools that allow you to rise to any challenge. Here are 10 apps I won’t leave him without:

  1. TripAdvisor: To check out reviews of any hotel you are thinking of booking. Don’t just look at the overall rating: read the comments to figure out whether the kinds of complaints people have are the kinds of things that are likely to bug you, too, or conversely, whether the things people love are the things you’re looking for.
  2. Yelp: To find the nearest and best restaurants, food stands, ice cream, book stores or drug store for an emergency ibuprofen stop.
  3. iExit: Look up which shops and restaurants are available at upcoming exits on the interstate.
  4. Skype: To save on phone charges if you are traveling outside your coverage area; make calls when you’re in a wifi hotspot instead.
  5. Audible: To download and listen to audiobooks, if you can’t find what you want on the iTunes store.
  6. OpenTable: To make reservations at the restaurants you identify on Yelp.
  7. Evernote: To view the travel guide you’ve cleverly compiled for yourself from online resources snipped using Evernote’s web clipper.
  8. OffMaps: To download maps that will work when you are out of 3G range, or if connectivity is overloaded (as happened to us in New York). You have to download the specific maps for the places you’re visiting so make sure you do that before your connection cuts out.
  9. Facebook: To quickly upload and share photos and videos from your road trip (which you can’t do by simply using Safari on your iPhone or iPad, because there is no way to browse to your phone/pad’s photos). Just make sure you’ve set your Facebook privacy settings so that you’re comfortable with who is seeing those uploaded images.
  10. Klexi: To download movies and TV shows from your computer onto your tablet for offline viewing.
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Packing list: 11 tech accessories for your web-enabled road trip

If only Apple would introduce an Apple Store passport! We’re well on our way to the goal of getting stamped at every Apple Store in North America. Not (only) because we make a point of seeking out each retail location in hope of finding some as-yet-unseen doodad, but because we rarely hit the road without discovering that we have left behind some crucial piece of our tech kit (usually a Macbook, iPhone or iPad adapter, but occasionally all three!)

The beauty of a road trip is that you don’t face the air traveler’s constraint of limited luggage and a security check that may look at you suspiciously if your entire suitcase is full of computer cables. Here’s what we’ve learned to pack…or regretted leaving behind:

  1. AC adapters for your car’s cigarette lighter/outlet. Buy at least as many charging adapters as you have AC outlets in your car (unless your car has more adapters than you have devices, in which case you either have too few devices or too big a car). Make sure your adapters are capable of charging all the devices you are actually bringing; in the case of the iPad, a standard iPhone charger won’t be powerful enough, so you need a special adapter.
  2. Power bar with all your adapters plugged in. The absolute smartest thing we did was to bring a couple of power bars that together provided enough outlets to plug in all our chargers (4 iPhones, 2 iPads, 1 pay-as-you-go phone). We plugged all the charging adapters into the power bars, and then dropped them into the one bag that came with us into every hotel we stayed at (the same bag that held our toiletries or pjs). Unfortunately we didn’t have quite enough USB/dock cables to leave them all plugged into the adapters (one had to move into the car each day to keep the iPad charged while we drove and navigated), but ideally you will have your power bar(s) fully set up so that all you have to do is plug a single power bar into an outlet at your hotel, and all your adapters and cables will be ready to charge your devices. Don’t count on your computer’s ports to cover any of your charging needs; you don’t want to be forced to pull out and plug in your computer just to use it as a power bar.
  3. Keyboard. If I’d packed my iPad’s keyboard or a Bluetooth keyboard, completing the occasional form would have been even easier. From now on it’s staying in the car!
  4. Extra-long charging cable. We got an awesome 10-foot iPod/iPhone/iPad charging cable at the Apple store, which is long enough to snake from the outlet in our trunk all the way up to a kid playing on an iPad in our backseat. Presto! No more whining because an iPad has run out of juice mid-game.
  5. Camera connection kit. The iPad’s camera connection kit lets you dump your digital camera’s photos directly to your iPad, using either an SD card or USB port. How we wished that we had remembered to pack ours so that we could quickly post our latest snaps to Facebook! Without the connection kit we were forced to wait until we connected the camera to our actual laptop at the end of the day…when we rarely had the energy to post content. An even easier option: the Eye-Fi card, which (depending on your camera) may allow you to upload your photos to the web directly from your camera, whenever you hit a wifi hotspot.
  6. Headphone splitter. Pack one or two of those headset splitters that let you plug two sets of headphones into a single jack. That way two kids can share a single iPad, sparing you from the nightmare of listening to Barbie videos while you drive. Better yet, use the splitter to share an iPad with your sweetie so that you can watch a movie in bed without waking the kids who are sleeping in the next bed. For those of you who have more than two kids, but are still brave enough to pack them up for a road trip, Belkin makes this multi-headphone splitter. If you have more kids than the Belkin splitter can accommodate then you might want to download this app.
  7. Cheap back-of-the-neck headphones. When Rob or I listen to something on the iPad or iPhone, we use Apple earbuds (me) or mid-grade earmuff headphones (Rob). Neither option works great for our kids, however, and kid-specific headphones are unnecessarily expensive. We’ve found that cheap, back-of-the-neck headphones work great: the kids put them over their heads instead of behind their necks, and the smaller circumference makes for a good and comfortable fit.
  8. Portable speakers. If you want to listen to music in your hotel room or by the beach, consider packing some speakers to connect to your phone, tablet or iPod. Just please don’t blast your music at a campsite. After dark. Next to people who are trying to get their kids to sleep. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
  9. Airport Express. Sad to say, there are still many hotels that charge for wifi, or that charge you separately for each computer you connect to their network. If you have an Airport Express router, it’s easy to throw it in your tech bag so that you can plug it into the Ethernet jack in your hotel room and run your own wifi network, sharing a connection among all the devices you’re using in your room.
  10. VGA adapter/cable and/or DVI cables. Most hotel TVs have their cables virtually soldered in place, but once in a blue moon you’ll stay someplace that could actually let you connect your iPad or TV to the hotel TV. (The all-time high water mark in this regard was the Hotel Intercontinental in Chicago, where the hotel TV had a separate adapter box offering almost every type of input imaginable.) Pack whatever video adapters you have for the tablets or laptops you are traveling with, and you may have the option of connecting to the hotel’s TV to watch your own bank of video content instead of whatever happens to be on TV.
  11. Separate bags for each computer. I didn’t bother bringing a separate briefcase for my MacBook, figuring it would be easier to throw it into the same backpack as Rob’s. But once that backpack was loaded with 2 MacBooks plus 6 devices’ worth of cables, it was a beast! I made Rob carry it into our hotel each night, which is why he is now lying in a special chair while he waits for his back spasms to subside.

Once you’ve checked all these must-have items off your packing list, be sure to take one item out of the car before you start driving. I don’t want to deprive you of an excuse to visit the Apple Store!

Klexi is the cheap and easy way to transfer video to your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch

If you’re heading out of town or to the gym with your iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch, and you want to load it with videos for the road, you’ve got a couple of options for filling it up with those yummy, legitimately downloaded .avi and .mkv files (which I’m absolutely, positively certain you didn’t get via Bittorrent, because that would be wrong).

Option 1: The Hard Way

  1. On your Mac, use HandBrake to convert each file to an iPad-friendly .mp4
  2. Still on your Mac, drag your .mp4 files into iTunes to add them to your iTunes library
  3. Connect your iPad to your Mac with a physical cable and wait for eons while your iPhone or iPad runs through the entire backup and syncing cycle. Your video files will now show up in the “Videos” app under “Movies” (even if they are TV shows).

Option 2: The Expensive Way

On your iPad or iPhone, access the iTunes store and buy or rent the videos you already have on your Mac. It feels annoying, wasteful and stupid but it recently occurred to me that this is what normal people must do in the absence of torrents and HandBrake.

Option 3: The Cheap and Easy Way

Klexi episode description shows link to download episode

Downloading a video in Klexi

With all those .mkv and .avi files on your Mac, I’m going to assume you’re already using Plex. If you’re not, start: it is going to rock your world!  (Read my 2010 Home Media Center Overhaul and Documentation Festival for more on the awesomeness that is Plex.)

  1. Buy Klexi for your iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch ($5.99 on the App Store)
  2. Launch Klexi on your iOS device (if you’re used to using Plex on your iPad, iPhone or iPod then Klexi will feel very familiar) and select your Plex server (i.e. your main Mac).
  3. Navigate to the TV show or movie you want, choose the download option, and sit back while Klexi downloads your selected video(s) over your local wifi network.
  4. When you get to the gym or the plane, relaunch Klexi and this time choose your iOS device’s local library (rather than your Plex server). Your video(s) will be waiting for you to watch.

My point in a nutshell? Klexi makes it stunningly easy for any Plex user to transfer videos from a Mac to an iOS device. Install it today.

UPDATE: After a month of using Klexi I can report it’s slightly more temperamental than I originally realized. You need to turn off your iPad’s autolock so Klexi doesn’t go to sleep mid-transfer; best bet is to leave your iPad plugged in, out of contact with your magic cover (if you have an iPad 2) with Klexi running in the foreground. Which brings me to another issue: apparently iOS kills a background process after 10 minutes, so you can’t leave Klexi transferring files while you play Scrabble. Finally, I have found that even apparently successful transfers sometimes refuse to play, so if you are critically dependent on a transfer (say, you are 3 weeks behind on Gossip Girl and have a transcontinental flight that will let you catch up) make sure the files are playable before you leave your home and server.

Why do moms have to choose between usability and openness?

A few years ago somebody broke into our office and stole a couple of new-in-box hard drives, a giant cake knife and a colleague’s little Cambodian Buddha. I figure the stolen Buddha pretty much guarantees the thief will get his karmic retribution, but that didn’t ease the sting of losing one other, deeply sentimental possession. Sure it was old, and not really functional, and I hadn’t used it anymore: I was still heartbroken to lose my first-generation, 5 GB scroll wheel iPod.

I got that iPod in October 2001, five days after the first iPod was released. By the time of its theft, that iPod’s functional role in my life had long sine been superceded by my iPhone, and an iPod nano. But I still treasured my original iPod for what it represented: The Internet’s permanent disruption and reconstitution of creative, content-generating industries like music. An unprecedented harmony of usability and aesthetics.The beginning of Apple’s ascension from underdog to top dog (in share price, anyhow). Physical proof of my chronic early adopter status.

What I didn’t yet appreciate was the underlying tension between these various aspects of my Apple-loving identity: in particular, between my appreciation for Apple’s product usability, and its contribution to disruptive innovation. With the arrival of the iPad last year, the simmering criticisms of Apple’s closed approach to platform development burst into all-out war, as the geek crowd took Apple to task for its highly controlled approach to the iOS App Store in particular. As Alex Payne wrote in a very thoughtful blog post:

The tragedy of the iPad is that it truly seems to offer a better model of computing for many people – perhaps the majority of people. Gone are the confusing concepts and metaphors of the last thirty years of computing. Gone is the ability to endlessly tweak and twiddle towards no particular gain. The iPad is simple, straightforward, maintenance-free; everything that’s been proven with the success of the iPhone, but more so…..The iPhone can, to some extent, be forgiven its closed nature….That the iPad is a closed system is harder to forgive… This is why I say that the iPad is a cynical thing: Apple can’t – or won’t – conceive of a future for personal computing that is both elegant and open, usable and free…..

The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today…. Perhaps the iPad signals an end to the “hacker era” of digital history. Now that consumers and traditional media understand the digital world, maybe there’s proportionally less need for freewheeling technological experimentation and platforms that allow for the same. Maybe the hypothetical mom doesn’t need a real computer.

It’s this hypothetical mom who inspires me to defend both Apple and the open web. As someone who is both a mom and a geek, I feel for all the moms who want to make effective use of technology — whether to advance their careers, or plan the next family outing — but who don’t necessarily have the time to build their own home media server. I am told that some mothers spend up to 60 minutes a day interacting with their offspring in a screen-free environment, and I can see how that would really cut into your blogging, tweeting and scripting. Apple gives the busy moms of the world (in other words, all moms) a set of turn-key, highly usable technology platforms. If I were able to resist the temptation to hackintosh my way to a tinier Macbook air, or jailbreak my deprecated iPhone so my son can use it as a DIY DS alternative, or to simply limit myself to 3 Apple devices, then being an Apple user would be a definite time-saver.

Even as a geeky mom, Apple products have been life-changing. When I look back at twenty years’ worth of Apple purchases, I’m struck by the extent to which each Apple purchase was a solution to a previous tech pain point:

Annoying technology Apple technology
Massive, not-really-portable Zenith Supersport >> teensy Powerbook 170
IBM ThinkPad >> G4, purchased the day I realized I hadn’t enjoyed my work since switching to a company-issued PD
PC-using boyfriend >> Mac-using husband
KVM switch, 20 foot cable + 2nd monitor so I could use my G4 (upstairs) while sitting on my sofa (downstairs) >> lap-friendly iBook
Iomega HipZip MP3 player that could store 45 mins per disc >> 1st gen iPod with 5 GB storage (it seemed like a lot at the time)
waterproof swimmer’s radio that loses reception if your head is underwater >> iPod nano + waterproof swimming case
Microsoft Entourage for Mac >> Apple PIM apps (Mail.app, AddressBook.app, iCal.app)
Treo >> iPhone
Tivo that can’t record HD in Canada >> Mac mini + Plex
decent-quality Swiss wristwatch that nonetheless requires annual repairs to keep running >> iPod nano on watchstrap
Canon point+shoot digital camera with EyeFi card that turns out to be incompatible with this Canon model >> decent-quality camera build into iPhone 4
Windows-based HP Mini 1000 turned Linux-based Mini 1000 turned hackintosh that works pretty well but not perfectly >> iPad

Time and again, Apple has bailed me out of the trouble I create for myself as an early adopter. For moms (or anyone else) who is trying to fit early adopterhood into an overflowing schedule, the turnkey simplicity of Apple products comes as a welcome antidote to the endless time sink of making somebody else’s not-quite-there technology work almost well enough. Whether I’m in pursuit of an MP3 player, a usable net-connected camera or a smartphone that just works, Apple has rescued me from the frustrations of half-assed, poorly designed, not-really-functional solutions.

But as with any white knight, this rescue comes at a price. Feminist critiques of fairy tales note that the paradigm of damsel in distress, waiting for her rescue, helps consign women to passivity. Geek critiques of the iPad are stunningly similar:

  • [C]onsuming media is obviously a big deal for a whole lot of people. For creative people, this device is nothing. (Tim Bray)
  • Apple threatens to split computing into two markets, one for “traditional,” “real” computers, and another for passive consumption devices that try to play games without physical controls and let you read books, watch movies, play music, and run apps so long as you’re willing to go through the conduit of a single company. (Peter Kirn)
  • Apple is turning internet into a passive medium, feeding it to us with tools that let us consume instead of create. (Omar Rodriguez)

If you accept the argument that busy moms are falling into that trap of passivity in allowing Apple to “rescue” us from the burden of technology management, we’re paying the price three times over. We’re paying for it by turning into passive consumers rather than active creators (though as Ian Betteridge points out, this argument is most convincing if we believe that programming is the ultimate expression of computer-enabled creativity). We’re paying for it by consigning ourselves and our children to the cruel, limiting world of proprietary systems that constrain our ability to hack — to truly own — our own computers (unless these locked-down devices are merely the on-ramps for infants or others who aren’t quite ready for a keyboard). And of course, we’re paying for it by buying into a ridiculous self-image. As Cory Doctorow put it:

[It] seems like Apple’s model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of “that’s too complicated for my mom” (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn’t too complicated for their poor old mothers).

Moms — and every other Internet user who doesn’t have time to put tech maintenance at the top of their to-do list — shouldn’t have to choose between hassle-free passivity and high-overhead empowerment. As many of the critiques point out, there is no intrinsic reason that Apple couldn’t offer well-designed, highly usable products that are also open and extensible.

But Apple isn’t the only player with the power to create technologies that combine usability and openness. If more developers invested serious time in documentation, their web sites and software tools would be a lot more accessible. If techies put resources into design as well as programming, there might be open source tools that launch with more aesthetic appeal than you get from a bunch of grey-on-grey boxes. If hard-core geeks made a point of talking with moms, rather than relegating them to the mommy bloggers table, maybe they’d hear what matters to actual mothers rather than the imaginary mothers they’ve commissioned to raise the next generation of programmers.

What would they hear? Maybe they’d hear that the limiting factor in our kids’ technological engagement isn’t fear of technology, or Apple’s pandering to some stereotypical notion of low-tech motherhood, or even the fact that Apple products have glue not screws. In my case, they’d hear that what actually matters is whether the devices I hand them can I actually compete with the fully pre-fab, heavily branded experiences they get offered on a DS or a PlayStation or an XBox. Or that one of my biggest concerns is the danger of my kid fucking up my computer (a big fear if they’re using my precariously installed hackintosh, a minimal concern if they are using my sealed up iPad). Or maybe they’d hear that between my day job and  the 7 computers I keep running at home and oh yeah, 2 kids,  I have no time to figure out the best way to get a 4-year-old to use our “kid-friendly” OLPC Linux machine.

It’s easy to be ideological when you’re not the one handing a kid the nearest trouble-free device so that you can finish c0oking dinner, or write the memo that’s due tomorrow, or help an older sibling with her homework. And I’m actually a great supporter of the ideology that advocates for an open web rather than (more!) proprietary platforms. I just wish there were a way to support it that didn’t place a further  burden on harried moms.

Tied to technology

iPod nano watch connected to red macbook proMy latest toy is an iPod nano watch. It’s just a plain old iPod nano, but it slides onto a watch strap specially designed to watch-ify it. I loved it for being red and iSomething and tiny but even so I wasn’t particularly sure that it was a wise (read: financially prudent) purchase.

Until the moment after purchase, when I plugged it into my Macbook Pro so that I could load it up with some music and photos. There I was, standing in the Apple Store, and since I needed to keep an eye on the watch while it synced I left it attached to my wrist. I plugged the standard syncing cable into the nano, tethering myself to my Macbook, and it just felt so…true. It was like there was finally a physical manifestion of the connection between me and my computer.

That moment of delight has brought my attention to the visceral relationship I have with my many devices. I love my iPad because it’s red (thanks to my new case) and iSomething and touchscreeny but mostly I love it because it means I always have a computer with me. As much as my iPhone has served as my iphone home button from kindle app away from safari home button, it doesn’t really feel like I’m carrying a computer around. So if I actually want to show somebody something on the web, which I do about every 20 minutes (45 if I’m really trying be all analog) then I want an actual screen-sized screen with me. The iPad means that the Internet and all my Internet friends and apps and fetishes are always there with me, tucked in the big pocket of my custom-made iPad-sized purse, or (as a colleague observed today) cradled in my arms like a third baby.

This doesn’t mean that my iPhone is superfluous: far from it. I might put my iPad in my purse or even down on a desk or table; the iPhone is always in my pocket or (if I’m pocket-less) my hand. It’s my little touchstone, especially in its silky new moshi case, and I can’t imagine I go more than ten minutes without just reaching out to make sure it’s still there, or fidgeting with it the way I imagine my great-great-great-grandfather might have worried the knots on his tallit.

Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that our connection to technology is not simply an intellectual or emotional choice — or as some might have it, a dependence — but an actual attachment. My attachment to my iThings is not very different from my daughter’s attachment to her favourite stuffed animal or my son’s attachment to his favourite pillow. As attachment objects, these technologies provide a kind of emotional security, a sense of reassurance, a bulwark against separation anxiety.

No wonder that our most common justification for touching them so constantly is to “stay connected”: it’s not just a competitive advantage or a form of efficiency, it’s an answer to a profound emotional need. Yes, we do need to stay connected, and in our secular age we carry devices that keep us connected to our (online) community the way previous generations carried rosaries or tallit to stay connected to God. We may have more tangible proof that our attachment objects are making the connection we need — I just got an urgent email, or sorry, I’ve got to reply to this text — but ultimately they are serving the same underlying purpose.  As we caress these electronic touchstones in our hands or feel their comforting weight in our pockets, we are reminded that however frightened we may feel, we are not alone.

Introducing App Girl

This is a cautionary tale about the dangers of introducing children to technology.

Four weeks ago, it was time for the annual ritual of Hallowe’en costume selection. Most years, I have the energy to make one costume, which means that one kid get storebought and one kid gets homemade. Last year, Little Peanut got a robot costume; this year was Little Sweetie’s turn. But what would she be? She wanted to be some sort of princess, but the only princess she could think of with short hair was Cinderella, and she insisted that would require dying her short hair blond….which I vetoed.

Plan B was a Google Image search. To give Little Sweetie some options, I searched for girl costume halloween princess, which I quickly revised to girl costume halloween princess -sexy to eliminate options with PVC and stilettos.

We scrolled through page after page of results, looking for an image that would catch her fancy. Princess Leia: not pretty enough. Mermaid princess: been there, done that. Skeleton princess: too creepy. A dozen pages into our search, I had all but given up hope of Sweetie ever finding an acceptable option.

And then she saw it on page 13: a little child in a pink flowered kimono. “That’s it!” she shouted. “It’s beautiful!”

The costume in question was labeled “Child Asian Princess”, but it was barely distinguishable from the grown-up costumes labeled “Geisha”. 12 pages earlier, I would have ruled it out as an option for a little white kid on the grounds of cultural appropriation, not to mention questionable taste. But Google image search had worn me down: a plug-and-play option was irresistible. I picked up Little Sweetie’s “Asian Princess” costume at our local dressup store, and we were all set for the big day.

A week before Hallowe’en, her school had its own celebration, with kids invited to come in costume. Little Sweetie came home at the end of the day with her dress in shreds; she’d tripped on the hem and the whole thing unravelled. Much to their credit, our costume store took it back and gave us a new one, but the harm was done: Little Sweetie had started thinking about her costume alternatives.

On my side was the legal precedent that has helped untold generations of parents survive the Hallowe’en season: Thou Shalt Not Change Thy Costume After Thy Mother Has Made And/Or Bought It. But Little Sweetie hit up on the two words that pierced through that legal shield: App Girl.

Yes, our daughter’s idea for a must-have Hallowe’en costume was her very own invented superhero. App Girl, a hero with the power to recommend the perfect applications for your iPad or iPhone.

How could I resist a costume idea pitched at a tech-crazed mother’s heart? And so today we are proud to introduce App Girl, along with her theme song, The World as My iPhone.

Little Sweetie as App Girl