Archive Monthly Archives: September 2016

The 21st Century Writer – Hardware for Authors in 2016 and 2017

In my previous post, I talked about wearable technology, and the way that, for communications at least, the day is not far off when you won't need to wear or carry your 'phone around with you - but you won't need an implant or circuitry embedded under your skin either - you can be completely naked and still access your contacts, make a call, and all with nothing more than voice and gestures.

. . .

​And I've had some feedback on that post that suggested I may have been getting just a little ahead of myself - or at the very least, ahead of you.

In that previous post I did a series of scribbles showing Mike, my stick-figure-guy, interacting with various computer technologies, and from what I hear, an awful lot of authors' equipment rather resembles this one:

In my picture, Mike is supposed to look really excited because it's the early 1980s. A lot of authors are still typing on desktop computers, though I'm reassured to learn that many have flat, LED screens now, and some even have them mounted on a posable mount arm!

Increasing numbers of authors are also writing on laptops... which speaking as an ex-IT consultant, I have to tell you is very bad, long term. If you're writing, you need to touch type, and you need to keep your head reasonably level. Laptops discourage both. You learn to touch-type much more slowly because you can see the keyboard and screen at the same time. You do your neck (and it is suggested, your eyesight) long term harm, too.

All sorts of interesting interim solutions have been devised for this. I used to have my laptop on a book stand, with a USB keyboard connected to it.

So what next?

Technology is moving on really fast.

My dual mantra, "you will have to learn, you will have to search" is especially true here. But I can tell you where this is going - I can give you a few pointers, that will be especially useful to authors, in particular those who are still hammering away at the keyboard of a desktop computer.

If you aren't still chained to that ageing desktop, chances are that in recent years the number of different devices you own has started to multiply...

...and if you're busy working on both your pillars, then you also spend a fair amount of time online - working on your marketing, your social media, your advertizing, your networking, and so on.

Running your own business - which, if you are a writer, is what you do - requires you to be connected whenever you need to be, which means you need a device that's both portable and powerful, so you probably have a pretty good smartphone. And for the time being, you're going to continue to need one. If you already have one you can skip straight to device #2.

Device #1: Smartphone

It is conceivable that you don't already have a smartphone. If you don't you will have to find out what it is. And you will have to get it set up to do the following:

  • Have a data connection - 3g/4g when out and about, wifi when at home
  • Connect to your most frequently used social media - Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, etc
  • Send and receive email
  • Browse the internet

Any specific advice I give you about Smartphone makes and models will be out of date in a few months, however one thing is unlikely to change soon, which is that there are three main "flavors" of Smartphone:

  • iPhone - if you have to have everything Apple
  • Android - if you don't fee the need for an iPhone
  • Windows phone - if you're a glutton for punishment

You will have to learn, and you will have to search, but with the information I've given you, you can get started.

Device #2: The 21st Century Typewriter

The way that the technology is going, if you're an author, and most of your screen time is going to be spent either writing your book or doing your promotion, marketing or communications, I strongly advise against getting a computer.

Neither desktop nor laptop should ye have. The modern writer should be equipped with (drumroll):

A tablet and a Bluetooth keyboard.

Most tablets are already more powerful than any personal computer was 10 years ago.

So they combine outstanding computing power with portability. Picture quality is better than the screen you're reading this on. Anything you can do on your computer, you can do on a tablet.​ Screen size is only a small concern, because for the good of your eyesight, what matters is the quality of the picture.

Of course, you'll want the screen at a healthy height for your eyes, and if you search for, and learn about tablet mounts​, you will be able to achieve this.

Tablets also come in 3 flavors, just like Smartphones. The only difference is that Microsoft's tablets are actually pretty good - but if you have an iPhone you'll want an iPad (Apple's tablet), and if you have an Android phone you'll want an Android tablet (there is a huge choice of these from many manufacturers. The best ones are made by the same people who made your smartphone - whoever that is.)

The keyboard in the picture is Microsoft's Universal Folding Keyboard. Even if you touch type it only takes a few days to get used to the small gap in the middle; it's slim, light, very portable, and can be used with all flavors of device. Other Bluetooth keyboards are available. Many, many others.

​This happy family may now be set up anywhere temporarily using a small foldaway tablet stand, or clipped onto that tablet mount when you're in your writing nook.

And because you'll now be storing all your manuscripts and notes "in the cloud" (you will have to learn, you will have to search)​, all your work will always be accessible to you wherever you go, and you'll never have to worry about breakdowns or loss or theft, because whether you store in the iCloud (Apple), on Google Drive (Google/Android) or Onedrive (Microsoft) or a third party like Dropbox, they will do all the backing up for you.

The Near Future

... is what I'm trying to show you; if you're thinking of getting a new computer right now, then what I've been talking about is exactly what you should be looking for, and you should not wait.

The portable typewriter allowed authors to take their work anywhere. Those days have at last returned.

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The Future of Wearable Tech… and of all personal computing

From the first time I "unlocked" my new 'phone, I could see that a change that I had long expected in personal tech was starting to take place.

The image is the sony xperia compact z5 - the cell phone I use. To unlock it, you touch the power button. There is a fingerprint reader in the power button.

The change I'm referring to is passive authentification.​

Passive Authentification

Passive authentification is when instead of your having to enter codes or passwords, the tech identifies you. You probably already have it on your laptop computer: when you switch on, the face in front of the webcam is compared with a stored image of your face, and your account/session can be started automatically.

The technology identifies you automatically, so you don't have to.

This terrifies people - but it doesn't have to.​

It has the advantage that once technology can identify you reliably, you don't have to memorize codes or passwords or carry tokens around with you.

You are your password - literally.

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Literally; technology looks at you, scans you, touches you, smells you, hears you. And uses all of this to be sure that you are you.​

Shell Technology

Another promise that failed to be delivered long, long ago now, was the revolution promised by Java - that it would no longer matter what hardware we used. Your computer would be stored on the internet somewhere, and all you had to do was identify yourself to the technology, and your computer would be there in front of you.

This is shell technology. A screen, a keyboard, a webcam, that aren't part of a single computer, but become the interfaces for whatever computer you need to use them through.

Personal Computer?

Now that everyone has (or seems to have) a smartphone, everyone has a hugely powerful computer in their pocket (if it's small enough to fit in a pocket). If you want proof that shell technology is becoming a reality you only have to look at the Superbook.

The Superbook looks like a laptop computer, but it's just a keyboard, a screen, a battery and some connectivity electronics. You connect your smartphone to it. The smartphone provides the computing power, the Superbook provides the interface.

Mobile Devices Evolution

"Mike" my stick-figure-guy (as opposed to my artist galihwindu's awesome stick figures) is shown here in a mainframe computer. As it turns out, I can just about manage a clipboard but it's very difficult to do a stick-figure labcoat.

In the beginning, a computer was installed in a special room, and did literally thousands of calculations a second. A computer was a place you went to get a job done that previously might have needed hundreds of people (whose jobtitle, incidentally, was either clerk, calculator or computer!)

Mike looks excited (I hope) because he's got his first personal computer, so it's probably around 1982. The first ones were commercialized in the late 1970s but they were for specialists. The tipping point for use of personal computers for work was the invention of the computerized spreadsheet, around 1983, and everyone started using it when Microsoft Excel for Windows was released, in 1987.

At this stage, a computer came in several boxes and there were all sorts of cables to connect, and you had to understand things like config.sys, autoexec.bat and system.ini - by which I mean you literally had to understand what the configuration information in those files meant. It was like the wild west, man.

The laptop computer is named for a way of using it to which it is singularly unsuited. However it was the first serious attempt at a portable computer, and the laptop was, for more than a decade, the most portable form of multi-purpose microcomputer available.

Mobile telephony has gone through its own evolutions, at the same time. A lot of people think the cell-phone is so called because 'cell' is another word for 'battery.' It isn't, but I'll leave you to dive down that rabbit hole in your own time.

I'm reminding Mike of his first "brickphone", his first flip-phone, his ridiculous "phablet" and his "smart watch".

You remember I said that a mainframe computer, that filled up often an entire floor of an office building, could do thousands of calculations a second?

Your smartphone can do billions of calculations a second. Think about that for a second. It's more than a million times more powerful than a computer that fifty years ago, could only be bought by governments and large corporations.

Games consoles?

The Microsoft Kinect is a device that enables you to control a game with your console without needing a control device. You don't have a mouse or a keyboard or a joystick or joypad.

The Kinect watches you, and you use gestures to control the console, making selections in menus or playing games.

It's important to understand that this technology exists, and understand how it's used, so if you want a demo:

Aside from the truly awful music, this is a good illustration of it's use.

The Smart Home?

You may have already heard of the "internet of things" and the "smart home" - all sorts of electronic devices are increasingly connected to the internet. You might not be surprised to learn that the latest printers from HP all use your internet connection to update their own software automatically, so you no longer get pestered by messages asking you to "download and install the latest firmware".

For a printer that seems pretty normal. But there are already other household devices that are run by their own software (usually called 'firmware' for unimportant reasons). There's no reason why you shouldn't see, in the near future, a message on the front of your washing-machine asking you to wait 10 seconds while it downloads an update to ensure it has a suitable wash cycle for the new pants you ARE WEARING.

Whatever Next?

All these things are leading somewhere very specific.

Right now, technology seems ubiquitous to the point of intrusive. But soon, it'll be discreet to the point of invisible.

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Here's Mike in the near future, with all the tech he ever needs to carry about with him:

I'm going to try to paint you a picture of a few basic things that you do now, and what they're going to look like in a few short years' time.

Making a phone call

If Mike's at home, all he needs to do is say, aloud, "I'd like to make a call."

Whatever room he's in will have a discreet flat screen which most of the time is probably matching the patterned wallpaper of his living area. It displays his list of most recent contacts, but all he has to do to place the call is say "call Alice and Bob."

A 3 way call is set up automatically. Alice and Bob's faces appear on the screen, and they start chatting. Mike decides to fix himself a cup of coffee, so he heads into the kitchen. The screen in the living area goes back to patterned wallpaper and the screen in the kitchen comes on, so he can continue the call unbroken.

If he's out and about, he might need to take a small, portable screen/camera/microphone with him as I don't think being followed everywhere by a phonedrone will be practical once everyone wants one! Implanted microphones and speakers are probably a little further in the future, right now. But the portable device he's carrying isn't a phone, it's a shell. It has a device that recognizes him, and downloads his preferences into it. It gets his contact list from the web - no need to store anything locally. Mike probably doesn't even own the device. If he's in the city he can probably pick one up at the coffee stand and leave it (at the end of the call) in a bus depot.

Watching TV

Netflix and the like are already transforming the scheduling experience, which is nice. And with TVs now able to connect to the web, you can already see how a TV is becoming a shell technology. It's just another screen; the sound just another sound. And if you have screens and speakers everywhere in the house?

Mike is binge-watching Game of Thrones series 22. Partway through he gets up to make himself a meal, so the show transfers to the kitchen screen. He decides to eat his meal on the deck, so the screen out on the deck rises up from between the begonias and the one in the kitchen switches back off.

Writing your Magnum Opus

Mike heads into his writing nook and sits in his office-chair. The screen comes on automatically, and he says "picking up where we left off."

Mike is old enough to have learned to touch-type and has never got into the habit of dictating, even though he knows it works extremely well now. So he rests his hands on the blank wooden desk in front of him, and a keyboard is laser projected under his fingers.

He begins to type, fingertips tapping lightly on the teak veneer.

When he has a correction to make, he makes a few gestures in the empty air, and a word moves to a different spot in the sentence.

Later on, he's back in the kitchen and he has an awesome idea for the next paragraph. He sits at the counter, puts his hands in front of him, and says "picking up where we left off." The screen on the wall opposite him lights up, and the keys appear under his fingers...

So in the near future...

...you won't need a mobile device, because all the devices you need will be around you, but visible only when you need them

...you won't need usernames and passwords because technology will recognize you the same way other people do.

...you won't need to store anything "locally" - everything will be "on the cloud" in distributed storage (stored in multiple copies in multiple locations) so the only way you'll ever lose a manuscript is if civilization itself comes to an end.​

Good or Bad?

I can't say. What I can say is that looking back on the last 40 years of evolution in technology, in society and in world culture, that there is one thing of which you can be certain: 

Things change, and will keep changing.​

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