Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A 30-year Revolution in How We Interact with Computers

With a career in computers that spans more than 30 years, I've seen a lot of different ways in which people interact with computers. With each iteration, the usability of computers has become more accessible and easier for people to use.

My first experience was with punched cards that could hold only 80 characters of information. This required a dedicated device whose sole function was to punch combinations of holes into cards that represented letters, characters and symbols.

Around that time, "dumb terminals," that were essentially a small television set with a keyboard attached, started becoming popular. This saved huge amounts of time because people — usually programmers — could write, edit and execute their software programs without having to punch cards, hand their cards to a computer operator and wait a few minutes — or hours — to receive a printout back. Results were available almost instantly.

When personal computers appeared on the scene, they introduced the "mouse" that we're all familiar with by now. A breakthrough device at the time, the mouse introduced "point and click" to the way people interacted with computers.

The graphical user interface, or GUI, — pronounced "gooey" — was made popular by the Apple Macintosh computer and later Microsoft Windows. The idea of dragging things around on a screen was novel at the time and opened up computing to a very wide audience, especially non-technical users.

Jump forward a number of years and there are some pretty amazing technologies that have recently become popular.

Perhaps the most "disruptive" technology is the touch screen, made popular by the Apple iPad. The ability to perform commands by touching a screen instead of using a keyboard and a mouse is changing the nature of how people compute.

Another creative idea is the Kinect interface from Microsoft, where people simply move their hands around in the air and make gestures while the computer watches them and takes instructions based on the person's movements.

But the computer interface that has been sought out for the longest period of time is voice activation. Great strides have been made in getting a computer to understand human voices, in different languages, while eliminating background noise or distinguishing normal conversation from commands. Every year, the voice interfaces get better and better, mainly as a result of the availability of cheap and plentiful computational horsepower.

I do look forward to the day when I can interact with my computers using voice alone, but there will always be times when a keyboard and mouse or similar quiet interface will be preferable to speaking. Much as not every conversation should be public, not every command should be spoken, either.

I look forward to having multiple ways to interact with computers, especially for safety, such as driving a car, or when my hands are full, i.e., "car, please unlock the doors." Multiple ways to communicate with a computer will continue to make them more beneficial to more people, and that helps us all.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 23 January 2013.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Mobile Phone I Bought - a Phablet?

Many people ask me what technology I use. I'm happy to tell them, but I have to admit I'm not always using the latest gear.

In fact, I just replaced the phone I've been using for three years — a full 18 months after I could receive a discounted upgrade.

In looking around, there are many good choices, and I won't get into them all, but they pretty much fall into two camps: Apple or Android.

Yes, the Blackberry and Windows phones are out there — and the new Windows phones look really nice. And as much as I like underdogs, the market leaders have some great products.

I really like the iPhones — and my daughter insisted on one. And while I like the size of the iPhones and how well they work, their oodles of apps and integration with other systems, the Apple "ecosystem" prevents one from doing things that Apple doesn't want you to do.

So I went to the Google Android world. The real problem with the Android market is that there are new phones coming out quite literally every day. Today's killer Android phone is yesterday's road kill.

With many phone manufacturers selling Android phones, such as Samsung, HTC, Google and Motorola, which is now part of Google, the choices are dizzying.

When Samsung came out with their Galaxy S III phone, it was very nice. It was fast, light and just about everything I could want.

Then I saw the Samsung Galaxy Note II. It's pretty much a larger version of the Galaxy S III. The Note is a cross between a tablet and a phone.

As I looked at what I want in a phone, I decided that I use the phone feature much less than I use the tablet feature. However, I already have an iPad, which is too big to fit into a pocket.

The Note does fit into a shirt or jacket pocket comfortably. With my voice I can pretty much control the entire phone. By using a headset, either wired, which is my preference, or Bluetooth, I can leave the phone tucked away and not have to touch it unless I want to use the screen parts.

And the screen parts are stellar. With a screen size of 5.5 inches diagonally, whereas Apple's iPhone 5 has a 4-inch screen, it's definitely on the large size, but that extra real estate makes a world of difference when viewing web pages or email.

The large screen is also useful for watching movies on Netflix or when I use the phone as my GPS.

The "speech to text" feature, where I dictate emails, text messages or other items, is accurate more than 90 percent of the time. Simply amazing.

I wouldn't say that the phone is for everyone, but my wife and I both have these phones and we're quite happy with them. If you're in the market for a new phone, be sure to check out both the Samsung Galaxy S III and the Samsung Galaxy Note II.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 9 January 2013.