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Early Maltron Keyboard
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Why haven’t there been any keyboard innovations in decades?

This might seem surprising coming from someone whose first job was for a speech recognition company more than 20 years ago, and whose current company also develops speech recognition software. I’m extremely annoyed at the lack of innovation in keyboards.

It’s not surprising that attention to keyboard design has lagged in recent years, when production of laptops long ago overtook the production of desktop machines, and tablets will soon overtake the combined production of both laptops and desktops. Take a look at this chart from IDC:

IDC-Smart-Connected-Devices

If you count cell phones in the mix, the production of desktop computers is a tiny percentage of overall computing devices. Sure, some people use external keyboards with laptops, but overall the need for external keyboards in dwindling.

Unfortunately, laptop keyboards have different design goals than external keyboards. While innovation in external keyboards usually has to do with comfort over long periods of typing, reduction in repetitive stress injuries, etc. laptop keyboards are usually focused on simply fitting into a very narrow space. Other considerations are of course secondary.

The only real innovation in laptop keyboards that I can remember was IBM’s introduction of its butterfly keyboard in the ThinkPad 701 laptop in 1995. The keyboard actually opened up so the size of the keyboard was wider than the actual laptop, giving the user a bigger and presumably more comfortable keyboard. This keyboard would never fly today, because it required more vertical space. In today’s world of ultra-thin laptops, no one would go for a keyboard that made the laptop thicker.

That’s not to say that there is no market for keyboards. Putting aside OEM keyboards sold with desktop computers (which are generally not innovative), and putting aside laptop keyboards, the market for keyboards is still a massive market. Logitech, one of the largest, if not the largest, independent producer of keyboards sold more than $400M in keyboards and keyboard/mouse kits in fiscal year 2013. Add to that other big manufacturers like Microsoft and the dozens of small companies that make keyboards, and that’s still a heck of a lot of keyboards being made every year.

Maltron

Early Maltron Keyboard
Early Maltron Keyboard

One of the most innovative keyboard designs in my opinion was one developed by a British woman named Lillian Malt. She spent years trying to improve the design of the keyboard, changing the locations of buttons to match the different lengths of individual fingers, putting the most used keys closer to the home row on the keyboard, and other improvements in efficiency. Her keyboard, named the Maltron, was first shown in 1976, and she described it in a 1977 paper. She was even written up in People Magazine the same year. Maltron never became a major manufacturer, and even though its products are still manufactured today, it has a reputation for making very expensive and not particularly well-built products (while crafting something like a wooden cabinet might benefit from a small skilled set of craftsmen, electronics usually benefit from mass-production methods). It has expanded beyond its original keyboard design to add one-handed keyboards, keyboards for quadriplegics that can be used with a mouth stick, etc. but all of its keyboards are priced beyond what most people can afford to pay for a keyboard. They’ve essentially priced themselves such that only people with serious injuries or handicaps, who require their keyboards, would buy them (and probably only with the help of insurance or an employer).

Kinesis Advantage

Advantage Pro Keyboard
Kinesis Advantage Pro Keyboard

Call it inspired, influenced, whatever, some people call it ripped-off, but another company Kinesis released a very similar keyboard in the early 1990s. By 2002, Kinesis launched a USB version of their keyboard, the Kinesis Advantage, and basically that was the end of their innovation. Neither Maltron nor Kinesis have made any real changes to the design of these keyboards in over a decade.

If you read through Logitech’s annual report one thing that stands out is that wired keyboards are dropping in sales, and wireless keyboards are increasing. That makes sense, but how is it that companies trying to compete in the overall market would not consider these trends and update their products?

These keyboards are already some of the most expensive keyboards on the market, so perhaps the issue is cost. The Kinesis Advantage retails for $299. The Maltron costs £375 (roughly $622). Hard to imagine what they might cost with new technology like bluetooth and backlit keys, right?

I’ve personally used the Kinesis Advantage Pro and think it’s great. When my hands hurt from typing, it relieves my symptoms. However, I rarely use an external keyboard anymore, so it’s therefore rare for me to be able to use it.

DataHand

DataHand Keyboard
DataHand Keyboard

Another radical keyboard design that also reaches back about two decades, is the DataHand. No longer produced, and sought after in the second-hand market (an unopened DataHand recently sold on eBay for $2499), the DataHand took an even more radical approach to limiting hand and finger movement than the Maltron and Kinesis keyboards. The DataHand created wells for each finger, and had five buttons accessible from each finger without having to move it out of place. Keys were positioned north, south, east, west and down (really up, down, left, right and forward) and the keyboard could even be used as a mouse without moving your fingers out of place. There’s a video you can watch if you want to see the keyboard in action.

There are even someone trying to re-create the DataHand from scratch. He’s re-creating the 5-way key switches needed for each finger, and claims he’s 70% of the way there. It’s great to see something like this re-created in a public forum, but we’re still talking about a twenty-year-old design.

FrogPad

FrogPad2 Keyboard
FrogPad2 Keyboard

I’ll just give one more example of an interesting keyboard design, which is interesting for a number of reasons. Around 2004 Linda Marroquin introduced a one-handed keyboard called the FrogPad. The design was based on something a Japanese translator had created to allow him to hold a document in one hand and translate it using his other hand (why he didn’t just use a paper stand I don’t know). The FrogPad was a tiny USB keyboard that was operated with one hand. The keys were full size, the ability to type more letters was gained through the use of chording. Chording is using more than one key at a time to output a single character. The FrogPad went through several iterations over the years, including a Bluetooth version, a touchpad version, an iPad app, etc. The company struggled over the years, however, and the product was not always available. Recently it was announced that a new generation FrogPad, the FrogPad 2, was going to be introduced. Offering modern technology like LED key backlighting, both USB and Bluetooth, the new FrogPad will try to re-introduce the product. While this new generation keyboard was designed in concert with Linda Marroquin, it’s not clear if she is still involved in the company that is now re-introducing it.

In any case, the design dates back over a decade. Maltron is from the 1970s. Kinesis and DataHand are from the 1990s. What happened to innovation in this field?

Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard
Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard

Sculpt Ergonomic

Interestingly, one of the few companies putting an effort into iterating their ergonomic keyboards is a software company – Microsoft. Microsoft’s Sculpt Ergonomic keyboard was released last year, and seems to be an evolution from earlier ergonomic keyboards that sought to keep the direction of each hand more natural (not parallel). The keys are not tactile, and there is no differentiation in distance for different fingers like the Maltron innovated, but it is a solid well thought out keyboard.

Which Switch?

Recently there have been a slew of new keyboards hitting the market whose sole innovation has been to re-introduce mechanical switches under the keys. Mechanical keys generally require more pressure to activate, and offer a tactile feel that many people prefer when typing. Kinesis understood this two decades ago when they created their first ergonomic keyboard, as they worked with keyboard switch manufacturer Cherry to create a tactile switch now called the Cherry MX Brown. For many years Kinesis was the only customer for these switches, but over time they and slight variations on them, became very popular. In a kind of retro-chic movement, keyboard companies have been introducing premium keyboards with mechanical switches that are a throw-back to the earliest computer keyboards. For an interesting look at the various Cherry Switches, used in many many keyboards on the market today, see An introduction to Cherry MX mechanical switches from the Keyboard Company.

Many companies tout how close their keyboards are to the original IBM Model M Keyboards from the 1980s, whose ‘buckling spring’ mechanical switches were considered the pinnacle of tactile keyboard technology. Interestingly, after IBM sold its computer business to China-based Lenovo, the keyboard division was sold off, and modern versions of those keyboards with the same buckling spring keys are now made in Kentucky by the company Unicomp.

Mechanical keys or not, these new keyboards are not really innovative in their design. They are a throwback to earlier keyboards, and not innovative designs to make typing easier, more comfortable, or more ergonomic.

Where does that leave us?

No doubt the rise of notebooks and tablets have shrunk the market for good ergonomic keyboards. Even though notebooks have keyboards, and there are many keyboards designed for tablets, in both cases those keyboard aspire to be thin and flat, putting other considerations to a very second-tier in their design.

Beauty and the Geek Keyboard
Beauty and the Geek Keyboard

The only interesting keyboard I’ve seen recently is more satire than product. It was created by a Dutch design team called Nieuwe Heren, and it’s a keyboard built into a pair of pants. They call it Beauty and the Geek. Not practical, not ergonomic, not comfortable, but interesting at least.

What interesting keyboards have you seen created in the past ten years? I do wonder what the total number of keyboards produced is today compared to twenty years ago. Sure, as a percentage of computing devices, ones that use external keyboards are a much smaller percentage than two decades ago, but there are also a lot more computer users today than there were twenty years ago. Also, considering the premium the advanced ergonomic keyboards like Maltron bring, you’d think that even as a niche, there must be room for innovation when there are companies that exist selling keyboards for more than $500.

So what innovative keyboards have I missed that have been designed in the last ten years? What keyboard do you use? Is there a keyboard you used in the past that you wish there was a modern equivalent to?

p.s. If I left your favorite ergonomic keyboard, maybe Goldtouch, SafeType, Fentek, or any one of the many other keyboard designs I apologize in advance. There is not room nor time to discuss every product in existence.

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Ray Bradbury on computers

I still love books. Nothing a computer can do can compare to a book. You can’t really put a book on the Internet. Three companies have offered to put books by me on the Net, and I said, ‘If you can make something that has a nice jacket, nice paper with that nice smell, then we’ll talk.’ All the computer can give you is a manuscript. People don’t want to read manuscripts. They want to read books. Books smell good. They look good. You can press it to your bosom. You can carry it in your pocket.

Ray Bradbury, author

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IsraeCoin Logo
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IsraCoin, the new Israeli national cryptocurrency

This month a new phase in cryptocurrencies began, with the introduction of a series of national cryptocurrencies, including Auroracoin (Iceland), Spaincoin (Spain), Aphrodite Coin (Cyprus), Gaelcoin (Ireland and Northern Ireland), and Scotcoin (Scotland). Now, to add to that list, is the new Isracoin.

Isracoin Logo
The Isracoin Logo

The idea of a national cryptocurrency is kind of counter-intuitive. By their very nature, cryptocurrencies should be borderless. National cryptocurrencies have some advantages, however, in that they are more easily understood by the average person on the street, and the average vendor in the marketplace. As they have all been started with the idea of giving out currency to people (and sometimes businesses and non-profits) in those countries, there is the potential for a much larger percentage of people in those countries to have their particular national cryptocurrency, than for any place to have a high percentage of Bitcoin users, for example.

What all of these cryptocurrencies have in common is that they’re based on giving out small amounts of currency to all residents or citizens (depending on the currency) of their respective countries (called an ‘airdrop’). How this is done differs among the different efforts. For example, Gaelcoin is only pre-mining 1% of the 650M total coins to use. Auroracoin and Spaincoin are pre-mining 50% of their total possible coins to give out. Scotcoin is pre-mining 98% of their total coins to give out. Isracoin is pre-mining 10% for their airdrop.

How these countries verify who should get coins in their respective airdrops also varies. In Spain, the Spaincoin is using the fact that almost all citizens have electronic national ID cards to ensure that each citizen only gets their distribution once. The Auroracoin similar uses a national database to ensure no one double-dips. Gaelcoin seems to be solely relying on the person’s phone number, although I find that hard to believe. In Scotland, they’re using a combination of factors such as having a real Facebook/Linkedin account, connecting from a Scottish IP address, etc.

Scotcoin Requirements
Scotcoin Airdrop Requirements

In general these currencies have come into being due to the horrible state of the economies and currencies in their respective countries. Isracoin might be unique among this ‘first class’ of national cryptocurrencies in that Israel’s economy and currency are both quite strong. If anything Israel’s currency, the New Israeli Shekel (NIS, or in currency lists ILS), has been too strong for many people’s taste.

What Isracoin does share with these other cryptocurrencies, however, is the goal of disrupting control of the government and big banks in the country. Israel’s economy is controlled in large part by a small group of families and conglomerates that own all the major banks, etc. There is no disputing that fact. Having moved to Israel from the United States, I can also say for certain that the banks in Israel need some major disruption.

Israeli banks are known for charging exorbitant fees on everything possible. No one likes the banks, and they are powerful enough to prevent new entries to the market, which is why no international banking brands have entered the Israeli market. If just from that perspective, I would hope this initiative (or a similar one) succeeds. The financial system in Israel needs a revolution. It’s hard to imagine that the banks here won’t lobby to squash Isracoin or anything else that might threaten their tight control of the flow of money here, but one can always hope that wouldn’t be the case (or they would at least fail if they tried).

The real question then, and this is true for all cryptocurrencies, is how involved the government is going to get. How will cryptocurrencies be taxed? There’s an interesting analysis of if Bitcoins should be taxable in Israel which concludes that Bitcoins are actually a commodity and not a currency, at least according to their view of Israeli law. Isracoin might fit into a similar loophole, although how it is defined is a bit different, and it might not be exempt as easily as Bitcoin. The reality is, however, that if any cryptocurrency takes off in any country, those countries will find a way to tax them. There’s always legislation to close the loopholes.

With at least five national cryptocurrencies launched this month, this would seem to be a trend that is going to be growing quickly. I imagine similar currencies will start popping up in many more countries soon. As these seem to generally be linked to an anti-bank and anti-government sentiment, I would just add that I hope the people running these efforts make specific pledges that ensure these are not pump-and-dump schemes set up to make a lot of money for their creators. In these existing cases, and in the all the ones to come, the creators should make specific pledges that they will not be receiving any more coins than any other resident or citizen. Like any currency, these need to be based on a certain level of trust, and this would seem to be the minimum required to gain that trust among the users of the currency.

Lastly, as Israel is a tech powerhouse, I feel a bit of embarrassment at how horrible the Isracoin websites are (there is a Hebrew site and an English site), especially when compared to the other national cryptocurrency sites. Of course, the security of the currency is more important than the design of the web site, but if the goal is to get widespread adoption of Isracoin in Israel, then they need to get their web sites up to snuff (and should have smartphone apps that work in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, French and Spanish).

Some other coverage since this article was written:

Skeptical welcome for new Israeli digital currency (Times of Israel)

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5 Payment Services
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Who do you trust with your identity?

This is the second in a series of articles, which started with The long goodbye to passwords. You might want to read that first, if you haven’t already.

Let’s start with a few questions:

  1. Have you ever had your password exposed by hackers, such as was done with Adobe, Gawker, Cupid Media, Stratfor, Yahoo and Sony users?
  2. When you go to a web site to buy something, and they offer to store your credit card information, do you let them?
  3. If you answered yes to #2 above, what sites do you say yes to, and why?
  4. How many companies have direct access to your bank account, such as PayPal, other payment service, or a stock brokerage?

Have you been pwned?*

Let’s start with question number one. Has a password of yours been revealed by having an account hacked? You might not even know it. Troy Hunt operated a very interesting site called ‘;–have i been pwned? where he has collected many of the files stolen from web sites by hackers (and subsequently released online) and made an interface where you can search by username or e-mail and see if it shows up in any of the files. Adboe itself had over 152 million accounts compromised (and makes up the bulk of the accounts, but the site also includes Forbes, Gawker, Snapchat, Stratfor, Yahoo, Vodafone, Sony, Tesco, and more. Altogether right now it has 16 sites comprising 161,602,992 accounts that were compromised by hackers (who released the files). Go ahead, take a moment to search the site for your e-mail address and common usernames. You can even request to be notified if your e-mail address pops up in a future file that is added to the site.

What these security breaches show, besides the fact that these companies should have protected their passwords better (hashed with salt), is that people re-use their passwords too much, and use really weak passwords. I remember after one of these breaches getting an e-mail from a different company warning me that I was using the same password on their site, and thus they had automatically reset my password. That means that like Troy Hunt, that company downloaded the released password file, and ran a comparison with their own password database, sending out e-mails to customers that matched passwords in both databases.

Password Managers and Authentication Services

One solution to this problem are password managers. These programs generate random passwords for each site you visit, and thus if a password is compromised on one site, it cannot be used to access any other site. Some popular programs for password management are 1Password and LastPass. Like iCloud Keychain (described in The long goodbye to passwords) these programs store all your passwords in an encrypted database, and share them between multiple devices like your computer and mobile devices. On computers, these programs can utilize browser plug-ins to enable auto-fill of username and password info. However, since Safari on iPhone doesn’t allow plug-ins, these apps cannot integrate directly on the iPhone, and instead have their own browsers built in to their iPhone apps. iCloud Keychain can generate random passwords for new accounts online, but 1Password and LastPass have more customizable password generation systems that allow you specify which types of character are required (upper case, lower case, numbers, punctuation, etc.), how long the password must be, if you want to remove easily confusable characters (like O and 0). LastPass actually offers a web-based password generator you can use, give it a try now to see the kind of passwords it can create.

Another solution to the problem of passwords being hacked is not to give a site a password at all. A number of large sites offer authentication for smaller sites. Some of the biggest sites that do this are Facebook and Twitter. If you have an account on one of those sites, many other sites will let you log in using your Facebook or Twitter account, instead of having to enter a username and password. You go to a site, it asks you to authenticate, you click on a Facebook button for example, and it checks with Facebook and logs you in. The first time you connect your account, you’ll need to verify to Facebook or whoever that you indeed want to allow this site to use your Facebook account for authentication. Subsequently, you just click on the login button associated with the account (Facebook for example) and it verifies your identity and logs you in. The site never has access to a password, so even if they’re hacked, there’s no passwords to be found on their site. The deal here is that you trust the larger company like Facebook or Twitter more than the smaller company to keep your identity safe.

Do you trust web sites with your credit card info?

On to questions two and three. Do you trust any web site with your credit card information?

5 Payment Services
Who will you trust with your identity?

I haven’t done a poll, so I don’t know the answer to this one, but I imagine for most people there are sites they trust to keep their credit card data (Amazon, Apple, Google, PayPal, etc.) and there are sites they don’t trust. On some sites you will enter your credit card info to make a purchase, but when the site asks you if you want it to save your credit card details for future purchases, you say no.

It’s a simple calculation. Larger companies spend more on security, and you tend to trust them more with your financial information. There’s a second factor, however, and that’s convenience. For sites where you are making repeated purchases, having your credit card data on file is a big time saver. Buying $0.99 apps in the App Store or Google Play store would not be very convenient if you had to enter your credit card information every time.

At the same, the convenience factor can also trump security at times. If your favorite restaurant that you order delivery from twice a week offers to keep your credit card data on file, you might take them up on it. On the one hand, it’s not a big web site that would be targeted by hackers. On the other hand, it’s possible any employee of the restaurant might be able to access your credit card information. You have no idea what their security is – convenience is convenience however.

Direct Access

Let’s go beyond credit card information. Credit cards by their nature have some security features built in to them. You can always change your number if you think it’s been stolen, and credit card companies usually offer some protection from having to pay fraudulent charges. Credit card companies also spend a lot of time and money bolstering their automated fraud protection software.

This leads us to question number four – which companies do you allow to directly access your bank account?

For most people, the only answer is PayPal. PayPal built their business not only by making an easy way to transfer money between people and businesses, but by building algorithms that could detect fraudulent transactions and making the system safe. When you set up a PayPal account, you generally link it your bank account, with a credit card as a back up.

As mobile payments ramp up, I think more companies will try to move into this direct connected space, to allow them to do payment processing at the cheapest possible rate. Some companies currently want the credit card in the middle, to lean on their fraud protection and other security features. If there’s a credit card in the middle, you can add on their security features, but you also are allowing potential revenue to flow to the credit card companies.

Near Field Communication (NFC) and iBeacons

It’s not a coincidence that all the credit card issuers like Visa (payWave), MasterCard (PayPass) and American Express (expresspay) have all moved into NFC-based mobile payments. These systems don’t change anything – you’re still paying with your existing credit card. They’re just adding a convenience factor, and trying to lock you into using their credit card to make you payments (wouldn’t you use the easiest payment system you have?). Visa has gone one step further and built their own online payment system (V.me) as well, which competes directly with PayPal.

These companies realize that payments are going mobile, and are increasingly done with cell phones. Early efforts to use NFC in cell phones, including Google Wallet, basically failed. This is due to early NFC efforts being tied to the carriers. Google recently announced that any Android phone running a version of the OS earlier than KitKat (4.4), i.e. the latest version, will no longer support Tap & Pay (the ability to tap a payment terminal in a retail store with your phone to approve payment). The reason for dropping support for one of the defining features of Google Wallet in older versions of the OS is that they’ve completely overhauled how they handle payment, disconnecting from the carrier and moving to the cloud using a technology called Host Card Emulation (HCE). The technical details are not that important, but Visa and Mastercard have both also thrown their support behind HCE. It can’t be long before other payment processors like American Express also support the technology.

While Google and credit card companies have pushed NFC as their enabling technology for mobile commerce, Apple has assiduously avoided NFC. Instead, Apple has pushed its own solution, based on Bluetooth, called iBeacons. iBeacons is not only a technology to enable commerce, but a major enabling technology that allows retailers and other businesses to detect the presence of customers, make offers to them based on their location in a store, and other very powerful features. Apple has been slowly deploying this technology in it’s own stores, several other retailers, and sport locations like baseball stadiums. iBeacons allow baseball stadiums to detect a customer with seats in the nosebleed section, and offer them quick upgrade to better seats right on their phone when they enter the stadium. Retailers could see that a customer entering the store bought a razor previously, and offer them a discount on blades. As the range of NFC is so short, these kinds of applications are not possible. Apple is also laying the groundwork for retailers to deploy this technology for their own benefit (gaining knowledge about customers, being able to offer deals to them, etc.) while also building in the ability to accept payments. Right now retailers see NFC-based solutions as a cost they may not recover, while iBeacons offer a useful solution to retailers who happily will enable payments through their iBeacons. iBeacons are not an Apple-only technology (rather iBeacons is an Apple trademark and standard, but other companies like Google could offer support as well if they’re not locked into NFC as their only solution).

Becoming your preferred method of payment

In the end, all of these initiatives are focused on controlling the flow of commerce in the coming decades. The credit card companies have more or less controlled the majority of commerce for the past few decades, but they know change is coming. New players are moving into the space. There was a time when only the big credit card companies could manage payments globally. Today Apple, Amazon and Google operate stores and process payments in over 150 countries each. Currently these payment still get routed through credit cards, but who says they have to stay that way?

It’s no secret that PayPal has been trying to partner with Apple for their future commerce efforts. PayPal has already partnered with Samsung for their forthcoming Galaxy S5 phone, that will allow payments to be made via PayPal using the fingerprint reader on the S5 for authentication. Apple already offers payments using the Touch ID fingerprint reader on the iPhone 5S (5S/S5 – kind of annoying, no?) for their own store, but not yet for third-party stores. PayPal wants to be the clearinghouse for those third-party payments, but Apple could either continue to direct purchases to account-connected credit cards, or set up its own payment processing system in competition with PayPal.

Companies are positioning themselves to be your preferred method of payment. Companies like Apple, Samsung, PayPal, Amazon, Visa, and Google are all trying to make sure they are the conduit for your mobile purchases. In this race I think some companies have advantages over others. Apple and Google already operate stores in over 150 countries each, and thus are close to being ready to offer global payment services. Both companies have their own mobile operating systems and can push commerce-related features into the devices that run their operating systems.

PayPal already has the service, but can be circumvented by device companies, which is why they are working so hard to insert themselves into the device manufacturers solutions (like they have with Samsung). Carl Icahn has been trying to get PayPal spun out as it’s own company to realize its full value separate from parent-company eBay. As things heat up in this space, perhaps we could instead see PayPal bought from eBay to further mobile payments from one of these companies.

Amazon operates a global store (although their physical goods are only sold in ten countries, their app store is available in 198 countries), as well as a global wireless network (Whispernet) which could be useful for such efforts. In addition to Amazon’s existing tablets, expect Amazon to offer phones and other personal devices soon. I believe that devices will play a part in the success of mobile payments, which is why the companies controlling the most devices that people use will have a major advantage.

I believe that wearable devices will become key in mobile payments. Smartphones are great, but a watch, bracelet or ring is even better. If you can authenticate yourself using some form of biometrics on a wearable device, and can wirelessly approve payments in retail stores, this creates the third factor (as I described in my earlier article The long goodbye to passwords) that is necessary for secure transactions.

The companies that can both offer payment services (Apple, Amazon, Google and PayPal) and those that can control the devices (Apple, Amazon, Google, and Samsung) will have a major advantage in the upcoming battle for your wallet. For the companies that don’t have enough influence on both the payment side and the device side, expect partnerships to develop.

In the end, the companies that will succeed, will do so by convincing you that they are the company you want to trust with your identity. This company will know what you buy, who you buy from, will have access to your biometric information in some form, and you will need to trust they will never be hacked. For this reason, it’s unlikely that a startup company without these other capabilities will win this war. There may be more than one company who win, but it won’t be a huge number of companies. Just like there are a limited number of credit card companies today, there will be a limited number of mobile commerce companies that take over the market as well.

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iPhone 4S - open with original battery
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Replacing the battery in my iPhone (10 minutes + 1 month)

I use an iPhone 4s as my main phone. While Apple still sells this model, as someone who has been using it for over two years, it has certainly started to show its age. In pre-iPhone days, when one’s battery invariably wore out, you could buy a new battery and swap it easily. In all its wisdom, Apple pretty much squashed that idea. It’s a compromise between being able to let consumers replace their own batteries, and having slimmer phones. Apple chose slimmer phones.

iPhone 4S - open with original battery
My iPhone 4s showing the original battery

If you’re asking why I still use an iPhone 4s, instead of an iPhone 5, iPhone 5c (just kidding), or iPhone 5s, it’s really quite simple. Nothing in the more recent iPhones has been particularly interesting to me. Sure, I want more screen space, but the amount extra in the iPhone 5 is not exactly going to change my world. Sure, I’d love a faster processor, but 90% of the time it’s really irrelevant to me. Touch ID is a nice gimmick right now, but not particularly useful. I believe Touch ID will become more useful in the future, but by then there will probably be a new iPhone anyways.

That said, it makes it a simple decision to wait for a newer model, that maybe will have an even bigger screen, an even faster processor, a more advanced Touch ID sensor, etc.

Envelope from China
Envelope from China

One thing I could not wait for, however, was a new battery. Batteries don’t last forever, and certainly smartphones that never get turned off are not the best environments for keeping batteries healthy. My battery was causing me all kinds of problems. Sometimes within an hour of getting up in the morning, my phone would die. Sometimes my phone would be over 80% charged and die anyways. Sometimes it would say it was at 1% charge, but last for a long time. Crazy annoying stuff. I found myself carrying around a mophie external battery all the time, to keep my phone topped off and to allow it to boot up when it shut off prematurely (and would say it had no charge when it was still over 80%).

Smartphone repair kit
“Smartphone” repair kit

The easiest option to replace the battery would be to go to one of the many phone repair shops/booths that have popped up everywhere. In my relatively small city, we have half a dozen at least, including I think 3 different ones in the local mall. I didn’t actually ask what it costs to replace a battery at any of these stores, but from past experience I would guess it would not be less than $50, and probably more. I don’t know what the local authorized Apple repair place would charge, but I would guess at least double. There are two big advantages to using a local phone repair store, which is their repair people are experienced opening up and repairing phones, and the turnabout is very quick. On the other hand, if I wanted to replace the battery myself it would take time to get the battery, and I’ve never opened up an iPhone before.

After watching a video or two online, and reading instructions I found at iFixit, I decided I could probably do the repair myself. I went online and found batteries for the iPhone 4s from a store I occasionally order from in China. It’s true I might have been able to find a local seller of iPhone 4s batteries, but they’d probably be expensive, and if I was going to do this myself, I figured I should try to keep it as inexpensive as possible. For about $6, including shipping, I was able to get an iPhone 4S battery shipped to me. I paid an extra $7 for an iPhone repair kit, from which I really only needed the pentalobe screwdriver to remove and replace the two screws on the bottom of the iPhone. Of course, if I ever need to open up an iPhone again, I still have the kit, so depending on your perspective it either cost me $6 or $13. Either way, it’s much cheaper than getting it done for me.

The only big downside was waiting for the package to arrive. In general, when ordering from China it usually takes a couple of weeks to get something. The battery happened to be backordered, however, and it ended up taking just over a month. As I waited several months before deciding to do this, it wasn’t that bad. I was already used to using my mophie battery pack regularly, which made using my phone possible.

3030mAh Battery
“3030mAh” Battery from China

The other downside, potentially, is the quality of the product. I have no idea if the battery is any good. Amazingly the battery advertises its capacity at 3030mAh. Let’s put that into perspective. The original battery capacity is 1430mAh. The latest iPhone 5s has a capacity of 1558mAh. The significantly larger yet-unreleased Samsung Galaxy S5 has a battery with a capacity of 2800 mAh. The battery I found online is marked as being 3030mAh.

My first response to seeing such a large capacity was either the company is lying about the capacity, or it’s going to melt my phone. However, like every other smartphone user who wants to eke out every extra minute of time on my battery, I decided that it was worth a shot. The same store also sold a battery with a 1430 mAh capacity, like the original one, but the price difference was a few pennies, and I might as well try for more than double my original capacity, right? In reality I don’t think the capacity is nearly that high, but I just hope the capacity of the 3030mAh is still better than the one labeled 1430mAh.

The package from China arrived today. First things first, I backed up my iPhone and copied all the photos and videos off of it. I figured there’s a more than tiny chance that I could destroy my phone. Then I opened up the iFixit instructions and skimmed them and the comments. I recommend always reading comments on pages like these, because different people run into different problems. One person, for example, tried to remove his battery with a screwdriver instead of the plastic pry tool as recommended, and short-circuited his logic board. Another person stripped one of the pentalobe screws that holds the phone together. These are good things to know about before jumping in and taking apart the phone.

iPhone 4s - open with new battery
My iPhone with the new battery installed

Taking apart the phone was actually a bit anti-climactic. Opening up the phone was simple. Removing the battery was mildly more difficult, as you need to remove 2 tiny screws, take out a small metal piece, and pry out the battery which is glued to the case. Putting in the new battery is just a reversal of those steps. Overall the whole thing took about 10 minutes. A month waiting for the battery, about 20 minutes making sure everything was properly backed up, and just 10 minutes to do the actually battery replacement.

After the battery was back in and the case put back together, I powered up the phone (with a bit of trepidation) and everything started up normally. The battery showed a charge of 18% and I plugged it into my mophie battery pack and let it charge up to 100% (I would have plugged it in to the wall or my computer, but I was running out the door).

So far so good. Do I believe the battery is really 3030mAh? No way. Do I really care? No. I just want it to work better than my original battery. If it just works as my battery did when I bought the phone, that will be good enough. Almost anything is better than what I was going through before I replaced the battery.

Might I have gotten a better battery if I had it replaced through the official Apple repair shop here in Israel (a half hour drive and a week or two turnaround)? Sure. Would the battery have been any better if I had used one of the low-cost repair shops in town? Maybe. Maybe not. For $6, this seemed the right move. We’ll see how the battery preforms over time.

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Leaving a WhatsApp Group
Aside

UX Note – Changing the admin of a WhatsApp group

WhatsApp has been in the news a lot for obvious reasons, and it has been praised for its focus and simplicity. Sometimes, however, simplicity is a crutch. Here’s one example.

Ever use groups on WhatsApp? It’s a great feature. You can set up up to 50 groups with up to 50 people in each group. I’ve used it spontaneously to organize get-togethers with friends, etc. and it is very useful. I am also part of a larger WhatsApp group used for more long-term coordination. I set it up not realizing a major limitation of WhatsApp groups.

The problem starts with only the admin being able to add people to groups. In order to add people, I of course had to have them in my address book with the same phone number they associate with their WhatsApp account. Okay, so I collected the phone numbers of the people I didn’t have. Not a problem. As the group grew I realized I didn’t want to manage it myself, so I figured I would add a second admin to help manage adding all the people. Except, like in Highlander, there can only be one. Then I figured I would switch the admin over to someone else and let them run the group instead. Except not only can’t you add a second admin, you can’t assign who becomes the next admin.

WhatsApp made some very good decisions in designing their app, but I wonder how they came up with the group admin handling. What is the only way to switch the admin of a group to another person in the group? Here’s the description in the WhatsApp FAQ:

Leaving a WhatsApp Group

That’s right, the only way to switch admin of the group to another group member is to remove yourself from the group. Then, the best part, the admin role is randomly assigned to another group member. Of course, if you want back in the group, you need the admin (whoever that may be) to add you back into the group.

How do you figure out who the new admin is? I guess you need to ask someone you know is in the group to look at the group info, see who the new admin is, and then contact the new admin about being added back…

I looked online and some people have struggled to find a workaround for this. What do they do? They delete everyone from the group except who they want to be the new admin, leave the group which automatically assigns the group admin role to the one person left, and then send a list of all the people who had been in the group to the new admin to be added back to the group. Crazy.

Perhaps the idea behind not allowing multiple admins, or reassigning the admin role, was to maintain simplicity, but in the end it has created incredibly complex workarounds.

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Kodak Disc Film and Camera
Standard

Are cell phone photos the 110/disc/APS photos of our day?

I’ve heard it said that the best camera is the one you have with you. Sure, any picture is better than no picture, but with cell phones today many people don’t ever bother to bring a better camera, even if it’s small and fits in their pocket.

Kodak Disc Film and Camera
Kodak Disc Film and Camera (Wikimedia Commons)

Obsolete Film Formats

The reasons 110 film, disc film and APS film (known as Kodak Advantix, Fuji Nexia, etc.) were created were all more or less the same – to allow the creation of smaller cameras that used more convenient film cartridges. Cartridges of various kinds allowed consumers to take pictures without worrying about advancing the film, and take the film out of the camera without having to rewind the film back into the film canister.

These formats were popular because 35mm film cameras were more complicated to use, and more prone to making mistakes (opening the camera before rewinding the film, for example). The biggest problem with these formats is that in order to make their cameras smaller, the size of the negatives are necessarily smaller than 35mm film. Smaller negatives means lower quality and higher grain.

The last format APS, was the highest quality of these formats, yet still lower than 35mm quality. APS film was introduced in 1996 and discontinued in 2004. The life of APS film was short because it was released just as digital cameras came into existence (the Apple Quicktake 100 was released in 1994). As digital cameras became more popular and cheaper, they surpassed the convenience factor of APS film, and there was almost no reason to buy APS film anymore.

It’s not so easy to get prints from these older formats. Your best best would be to get your old film scanned now. 110 and APS film can be scanned by many more places than disc film, so consider yourself lucky on two counts if your photos are not on disc film (bad quality and hard to scan).

Amazingly, the 35mm film cassette, introduced in 1934, is still in use. Additionally, the ‘full frame’ digital camera sensor is the same size as a single frame of 35mm film.

As good as cell phone cameras are…

For every person who says cell phone camera photos are bad, there is certainly someone who will show an amazing photo taken using their cell phone. Apple’s 1.24.14 ad which coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Mac, and was filmed on a single day around the globe using only iPhone 5s phones is amazing, and probably made some people think all they needed to be the next Spielberg was an iPhone 5s. Watching the Behind the Scenes video, however, should firmly bring everyone back down to earth as to how much skill, equipment (gyroscopic stabilization, microphones and lighting) and personnel were needed to make the video:

The truth is that many camera phones are capable of beautiful photos, when used in ideal situations. Ideal meaning the ideal amount and direction of light, not overly quick motion, time to focus, etc. The reality is of course usually much different. You might be able to touch to focus on many phones, but will you have time to do so before the photo you wanted disappears? Might you take the picture before the camera focuses properly? How many of you with state-of-the-art smart phones take blurry photos?

Besides the size of the sensor, the lack of optical zoom, the inability to focus quickly, etc. another big problem with cell phone cameras is the lack of a powerful flash. There just isn’t a very good range possibly from such a small flash.

Parallel History

For all of the children of the 70s, 80s, and 90s whose parents chose the convenience of cartridge film formats, whose childhoods are documented in grainy photographs that are extremely difficult to print or scan today, the children growing up today will in a somewhat parallel fashion, feel your pain. While there are likely to be many more photos taken on parents’ cell phones today than on film cameras of yesteryear, and while digital files can last forever (although back up people – a friend of mine just lost 8 years of photos in a hard drive failure), there are going to be a lot of photos taken on cell phones that are blurry and grainy (technically it’s noisy, not grainy, but let’s just call it grainy), and generally just bad quality.

How many times did you think you got a great shot on your camera just to realize when reviewing it later that it was blurry, or the light was so bad that the image came out super grainy (sometimes just as bad as disc film)? How many times have you just copied your photos to a folder somewhere not to review them for years, and then find out how grainy and/or blurry the photos are?

 

Noisy Photo
Zoomed-in cell phone photo

I was reminded of these facts recently at a presentation done with the first graders in my daughter’s school. Imagine a massive dimly-lit rented theater space with hundreds of parents and grandparents seated stadium style, shooting photos from a considerable distance from the stage, their child/grandchild a little dot in the frame of their cell phone or tablet. Almost everyone at this recent event was shooting photos with their phones, with a sprinkling of tablets, a small number of compact digital cameras, and a handful, maybe, of DSLRs showing up. Since cell phone cameras don’t have optical zoom, when those parents shot photos of their children they digitally zoomed to get the picture of their child, further pixelating the images. Out of the thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of images generated in that single event by all of those cell phones, how many images are actually decent quality? My photo, from the mentioned event, was taken near the front row. Imagine what the photos from the parents 20 rows back look like.

Basically, it’s been over 40 years since film cartridge formats were introduced, and somehow we’re still spitting out grainy photos for convenience’s sake.

p.s. I did take the photo above, but just to record the GPS data to sync later with my photos taken on my dedicated camera. It doesn’t have GPS, but I can sync the GPS from the above photo into the photos from my other camera via software (I use MyTracks for this purpose).

Just for fun

Just for fun, here’s an advertisement for Kodak disc film from what must be 1982, when the film was introduced:

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