Doodling — my killer app

Fisher Price "Doodle Pro" (Pro!)

There’s a children’s toy — the best examples are made by Fisher Price — that I find irresistable. I’m sure you’ve seen them. About the most complex components in this device are the permanent magnet in the tip of the stylus and the fine wire mesh that keeps the white stuff in place. In combination with an iPhone or similar (snap a sketch for editing in Brushes or on a notebook, say) these “tablets” can be a pretty useful tool (although, frankly, napkins work just as well).

If you’re going to build a computer in a tablet form factor and it isn’t at least as useful for a creative person as one of these $15 toys then you’d damn well better not be Apple. It also underlines the difference between a book reader — i.e. a device that is purely for consuming media (even marginal notes are either difficult or impossible to add with the models currently available) — and a notebook computer.

Windows tablet PCs are very popular among digital artists. I’ve been sorely tempted to buy one myself, but… um… it would be a Windows box, the good ones are quite pricey, and most of them (e.g. the Lenovos I linked) have crappy GPUs. I’ve also been tempted to buy the small Cintiq, but they’re also overpriced ($1000 for a 12″ — you can buy tablet PCs for less) and the small one (which I find the most tempting) seems only quasi-portable. As for tablets, I’m on my third Wacom tablet, but I’ve never found tablets very satisfying. With all its limitations, my Newton MP2000 was by far the most satisfying computer for drawing that I’ve ever owned.

I want to be able to draw on this sucker. Please.

Some rumors (from Fox of all places) suggest that in addition to The Tablet, Apple will announce iLife 2010 and iPhone OS 4.x (but no new hardware).

iLife 2010

I’m still using iLife 2008 mainly because I don’t really see the benefit of Pages ’09 (if you need EndNote/MathType support, Pages ’09 is probably much more compelling). What I’d really like to see in Pages is support for automatic indexing (for those cases where I’m actually working on a paper document).

I’ve gone through six major phases in word-processing: MacWrite (it was free with my first Mac); WriteNow (from 2.x to 4.x) — an astonishingly nice word-processor written entirely in 68k assembler, although it never had proper table support; FullWrite (the first word-processor that could do sidebars properly); FrameMaker (which I’d probably still be using if Adobe hadn’t bought the company and then stopped updating the Mac version — thanks Adobe); Microsoft Word; and now Pages. Pages is like Word with a decent UI and the dumb stuff removed, but it lacks automatic indexing. There are a few features Pages lacks compared to Word, but nothing I can’t live without. I do miss a lot of FrameMaker features though — oh well.

iPhone OS 4.x

I’ve no clue what Apple’s plans here are. It seems to me that the obvious improvements for  the iPhone would be:

  • unified mailbox (why do I need to go out two levels and then back in two levels to switch mailboxes? ridiculous).
  • better yet: unified communications — treat all forms of incoming and outgoing communication as “communication”. Let me see emails, voicemails, and IMs in one place. And it wouldn’t hurt to need fewer icons either.
  • suggest more than one word when typing… good grief. (And make the options a wee bit less minuscule — does anyone have fingers that small?)
  • don’t make lists single-column if you can avoid it — I can easily press the buttons on the phone keypad, so obviously three column lists can work perfectly well
  • make “levels” of navigation less modal — e.g. if pressing “reminder” brings up a pick list, don’t hide the current level, but leave a narrow band to allow continued navigation at that level.
  • simple and obvious improvements — to set two reminders for an event I need to press on the first event, pick the interval, back out, press on the second event, and then check that (and then back out). Why? Reduce it to one item in the base view (“reminders”) and then let me check as many as I want in one place.
  • built-in to do list — should be built into notes, and it should be possible to convert emails into to do lists, etc. Blah blah blah — iCal integration… (Don’t care really, I don’t use iCal).
  • the Newton had this really cool feature where you could enter some text (e.g. “lunch with steve on thursday”) and it would guess that you wanted to create a 12pm appointment with Steve (from your contacts) on the coming Thursday. This kind of thing should be trivial with today’s hardware — the iPhone needs to do this kind of thing with incoming email, and in “spotlight”.
  • let us use the iPhone as a transfer disk for Steve’s sake.

The list goes on-and-on. Everyone at Apple, from Steve down, is using these suckers so surely we should see a much rounder wheel if nothing else. And, hey, 128MB of RAM (for the first and second generation phones) and a 500-or-so-MHz CPU may not seem like much, but it was enough for my old G3 powerbook to run like a speed demon, so surely there’s a lot of room for performance optimization.

  • Sean Case

    It would be handy to have the Newton’s drawing recognition.

    And for iPhone 4.x, how about shuffle by album?

  • Definitely as to the first. I think finger-painting text is not going to work for the second (and the “faux finger” styluses appear to suck).

    I loved the Newton’s handwriting engine, but it was pretty much a stylus thing. Maybe the tablet will have some as yet unheard of display technology (e.g. something like the OLPC — high rez mono, lower rez color, works with touch and stylus)… We can dream.