Friday, June 22, 2012

Alan Turing - Faster than Lance

This blog post is my tribute to Alan Turing who was born on this day, exactly 100 years ago. As as computer engineer, I have learned about Turing in some of my first courses back at the university. In the 1930s, Dr. Turing introduced ground-breaking concepts such as the Turing Machine and the Turing Test. The Turing Machine is regarded as the grandfather of all computers while seeing the IBM Watson compete on Jeopardy last year has shown that we are not far away from passing the Turing Test. And let’s not forget Turing’s legendary contributions to cryptology in his role at the Bletchley Park while breaking the German Enigma codes during WW II.
Alan Turing, the runner
One less known fact are Turing’s accomplishments as an athlete. He was a competitive runner, starting for the Walton Athletic Club in Walton, Surrey. In 1947, he competed in the Amateur Athletic Association Championships marathon finishing in 4th place in 2 hours 46 minutes and 3 seconds. Folks, 2:46:03 is an amazing time for a non-professional runner even today. Back then, he was within some 11 minutes off Olympic gold medal pace. In fact, that pace is even faster than the marathon time Lance Armstrong posted in the 2007 New York City Marathon which he completed in 2:46:42.

Clearly, Alan Turing was a remarkable person and we should celebrate his life and accomplishments - not just today.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Favorite iPhone Apps

It’s Father’s Day afternoon and I am allowed to watch a soccer match on TV while writing a blog post. As a cable cord-cutter, I am streaming the the game on my iMac which is connected to the TV set via a long HDMI cable. By the way, I can’t wait for the Mountain Lion release of MacOS which will include support for AirPlay - allowing wi-fi streaming to my AppleTV. But that might be a topic for another post. Today calls for some lighter reading (and strangely, such posts tend to attract a lot of views).

I wrote about my favorite iPad apps a year ago and since I have now been using the iPhone for well over a year, it is time to write about my favorite apps for iPhone. Just like with my article last year, I will divide the list between the top 10 most useful and top 10 coolest apps, remembering that the coolest are rarely the most useful apps.

My Top 10 Coolest iPhone apps:

10. Starbucks
The Starbucks app is very useful for an addict like me and could have easily made it to the Useful List. The cool part is the single-click locator of the nearest Starbucks cafe - a feature I use frequently while travelling. Particularly when driving on a freeway, locating the nearest cup of caffe latte really comes in handy. Of course apps such as Yelp and Around Me serve a similar purpose as the Starbucks app, helping to locate many other useful things such as ATMs, restaurants, gas stations, theaters, etc.

9. Photosynth
Surprisingly, a Microsoft app made it onto my list. While I am not a big fan of the iPhone camera due to its pathetically slow shutter speed, Photosync makes panoramic pictures out of a series of photographs that the app guides you to take. It is easy and the results are cool. And given that everyone needs a decent Facebook banner, the app might even be a little useful.

8. SayHi
This is a relatively new app that translates the spoken word between about three dozen languages. The recording is sent to an online service that relatively quickly sends you back the translation and plays it aloud. Asking some stranger you can’t understand to speak into your iPhone might have a limited practical use and if you use it abroad where you are most likely to encounter foreign speaking strangers, the data roaming charges will bankrupt you. But the app is very cool.

7. ShopSavvy
ShopSavvy is an app that reads the barcode tag on any item in a store and tells you where else you can get this item cheaper. While that is very cool, I don’t really bother to compare the price of milk at a grocery store and I do most other purchases online anyway.  

6. Netflix
There is a plethora of other video streaming apps available from NBC to the new Amazon Cloud Player but Netflix deserves the credit for its largest library and best recommendation service. Still, watching movies on an iPhone makes little sense when I have the iPad.

5. Flipboard
Flipboard is basically a very well designed RSS reader which is cool because it uses pictures to navigate the stories. I find myself using my Feeddler more than the Flipboard but Flipboard certainly wins in the coolness category.

4. StarWalk
StarWalk is one of the coolest augmented reality apps. You point it at the sky and it tells you what stars, constellations, and planets you are looking at. The visual experience is simply... wow! I suppose that the app might even be useful for an astronomer which I am not. But since I am certified in celestial navigation, I have to also mention Planets which is a similar app helping to locate the key planets and stars used for navigation.

3. LogMeIn
Controlling your computer remotely from an iPhone makes pretty much no sense whatsoever as the screen size is too small. But the fact that you can is just awesome.

2. Endomondo
There are many GPS based apps for running and other sports. Endomondo stands out because of its combination of run statistics and social interactions. I switched to using a Garmin watch a while ago but I still like importing the data into Endomondo because of the social stuff.

1. Soundhound
Shazam was the first app to blow me away with the ability to identify a song I happen to be hearing on the radio or at a bar. Soundhound appears a little more tolerant to ambient noise but either of these apps are incredibly cool. I have purchased many songs and albums based on what I heard and recognized using Soundhound. I hope they get a cut somehow ;-)

Here are my Top 10 Most Useful iPhone apps:

10. Clock
I know, this is not that exciting but when travelling, I use the alarm clock every morning. I despise the alarm clocks in hotel rooms that take 10 minutes to set only to wake me up with a squelch. Besides, the iPhone clock adjusts itself automatically for time zones which is very useful.

9. Remote
Being a cord-cutter, I am depending a lot on my AppleTV which is an awesome device. The only problem is the tiny little remote control that is just too easy to misplace. Clearly, Steve Jobs figured out a way to keep it away from his kids but I failed to do that so far. The iPhone app Remote helps as it allows me to control AppleTV instead of the lost remote.

8. GPS Nav 2
There are many GPS navigation apps available for the iPhone and I often use this one when travelling. It doesn’t replace my Garmin GPS in the car because the Garmin comes with a holder and it doesn’t require any data roaming but still, it is a GPS I always have on me.

7. Amazon Kindle
I love reading books on my iPad and I actually don’t mind reading them on the iPhone either. Sure, the screen size is small but the app handles it well. The huge benefit is the fact that the phone fits easily into one hand - I can read laying on my back in the hammock with one arm outstretched in front of my face. That’s not possible with the iPad, the Kindle or with a paper book. Thanks to Amazon’s cloud, I always have all of my books with me and the app even remembers where I’ve stopped reading the last time, no matter which device I use.

6. Facebook
Yeah, I use Facebook on iPhone. Makes sense, duh...

5. Evernote
Evernote is an awesome app with a cloud-based syncing of notes between devices. I use it the most on my laptop but having all the notes always with me on my smartphone is particularly useful.

4. Twitter
Twitter on the iPhone is my trusted companion when on the move. There is always something new to learn about when I have an idle minute and it is a great way to share with others what I’m up to - when I choose to share it, that is.

3. Email/Calendar/Contacts/Browser
Yep, nothing shocking here - I use the basic apps that Apple included in the iOS all the time. I wish the browser was better and the calendar could use a bunch of improvements too but I use these apps several times each day.

2. FeeddlerPro
Reading my favorite blogs and news sites is part of my daily routine and an RSS reader makes that very easy. I’ve picked the Feeddler for my iPhone as it syncs up with my Google Reader. That way, I always know which stories I’ve already checked out - no matter on which device.

1. Audible/Player
This may be surprising but the one app I use the most is the built-in music player to listen to books from Audible. I have been an Audible subscriber for over 10 years and I am absolutely addicted to listening to books while running, walking the dog, driving or traveling. It is a great way to keep up with my book reading and I love it.

Yes, these are my favorite apps for the iPhone right now. By the way, six of the 20 apps above appeared on my favorite apps for iPad list last year although I counted e-mail, calendar and browser separately back then. That suggests perhaps that the use cases for iPhone are quite different than those for iPad. Or perhaps my taste has evolved since. Anyway, which iPhone apps do you like? Please do share your comments!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Will Mobile Devices Ever Replace PCs?

In his famous post titled Dawn of a New Day, the departing Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie has outlined his vision of the ‘post-PC world’. Those were bold words from the executive of a company that has made a fortune selling software for PCs. Many have since latched onto the idea of a post PC world, an idea that got a huge boost when Apple launched the iPad. Many people quickly concluded that mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets will eventually replace the PCs - the desktops and laptops.

Photo: Lubor Ptacek
Today, however, the prevailing notion is different. There is an understanding that computer use-cases vary widely between content creation and content consumption and most people argue that they prefer creating content on a PC while the mobile devices are well suited for content consumption. People usually say that the keyboard is too small to type longer passages, there is no mouse and the screen real-estate is too limiting. As a result, most of us use both PCs and mobile devices today.

So what is the future going to look like? A post PC world as Ray Ozzie predicted or a world in which we will continue carrying around multiple devices including a laptop?

Well, I’d argue that all the technical limitations of mobile devices today are just temporary. Most iPad users already use a keyboard for extensive typing and it is just a question of time before Apple adds a mouse or a mouse-like pointing device. The screen size limitation is rapidly going away with the ability to add an external monitor which is also possible today. Alternatively, a pico projector provides another way to get a big-size screen for mobile devices.

The software for content creation is increasingly becoming available on mobile devices. Apple’s office applications such as Pages, Numbers, or Keynote are well adapted for mobile content creation. Even Microsoft is now rumored to be releasing Microsoft Office for iPad later this year. Similarly, Adobe now offers Photoshop Touch and Autodesk provides AutoCAD WS for mobile devices. Content creation software for mobile devices had to be adjusted to the different operating systems and different way of interaction but there is no reason why content creation wouldn’t be possible.

Yet even more innovation is coming that will make the distinction between PCs and mobile devices irrelevant. The data input is becoming less textual and more, well, human. Voice recognition and verbal controls are becoming useful. Apple’s Siri and Nuance’s Dragon Naturally Speaking are only the beginning. The gesture technology is also becoming more sophisticated. Innovations such as Microsoft Kinect are showing the way of interacting with computers via full-body gestures. Either way, it doesn’t matter whether the computer is a desktop, notebook, game console, or mobile device.

Our habits and skills will also become a factor. We have all been conditioned to use the QWERTY keyboard and learning a new way of interacting with computers may feel difficult. It is quite likely, that a new generation of users will emerge who will be trained in new skills which will make some of today’s constraints obsolete.

Ultimately, I am confident that mobile devices will replace PCs. But those mobile devices may not look quite the same as the ones we use today. The software and hardware will be more powerful and user friendly. And we will see a plethora of add-ons which will expand the content creation capabilities - I wrote about some of the amazing accessories back in December, 2011.

Today, when I arrive in my office, I don’t work on my laptop. Well, I do but I plug it into a docking station which adds a full-sized keyboard, a mouse, a monitor, a camera, and a set of speakers. Why should I not be able to do the same with my smartphone? I am convinced that the day is coming when we will have docking stations for our tablets and smartphones and we will use them as our primary content creation devices.

Mobile devices will replace the PCs

...and our carry-on bags will be a few pounds lighter!