Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tablets by the Dozens Arriving Soon

This year has been dubbed "The Year of the Tablet" for good reason. In addition the much-hyped April 3rd release of the Apple iPad, the company responsible for the design of many of these devices believes fifty other products will be introduced in 2010. While most people aren't familiar with ARM, this company licenses the right to its processor design to the majority of smart phone and tablet computer makers. Many of these devices will use mobile operating systems similar to those used by smartphones today. A few tablets will be be based on the Windows OS and some will use the Intel Atom processor which is at the heart of most netbooks.

While tablets have been around for twenty years and Microsoft introduced their mobile OS in 2001, these early models have been primarily used in specialized fields such as healthcare where they could replace a chart, clipboard or PC at the bedside. It's possible to get confused at this point since "tablet" also refers to totally unrelated drawing devices used with a "pen" by graphic designers - a "graphic tablet".

While some people couldn't imagine using anything less than a full operating system like Windows or MacOS, differences in mobile and desktop computing are forcing a second look at OS technology. Desktop (and laptop) computers are based on keyboard input and mouse control. For most people they also involve a small number of very complicated programs; the latest version of MS Word has 1,500 commands and Excel has a similar number. In contrast smartphones and their new cousins, tablets, use touch screens for the user interface (UI) and a large number of simple programs (apps). In addition smartphones and many tablets will incorporate GPS, music, video and game applications that are very different from the desktop PC model.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

New "Middle Class" Cameras Available Now

If you’ve always wanted a camera with the features and image quality of an SLR and the size of a compact, your dream has just come true. There is a new class of cameras referred to unglamorously as Micro Four Thirds. Four thirds refers to a sensor size found in some SLRs while Micro indicates the camera bodies are small.

These cameras look much like compacts but have interchangeable lenses – which of course will add to the size depending on the focal length. They are smaller than SLRs because they do not have the “reflex” mirror or prism used in the SLR viewfinder. Image composition is done with the LCD or optional electronic viewfinder.

The Four Thirds sensor size is on the small end for an SLR but many times bigger than any sensor found in compact cameras. Pixels can be bigger on a larger sensor and pixel size is more important than huge pixel counts. If you are wondering about the "four thirds" name, digital camera sensor sizes are based on an archaic TV tube measurement system that only vaguely makes any sense at all.

This diagram illustrates various sensor sizes beginning with "full frame" (upper left) that is equivalent to a 35mm film negative. Only a few high-end DSLRs have such a large sensor. The four thirds sensor is shown at the right of the second row. It is significantly smaller than some other DSLR sensors in the first two rows but many times larger than any compact sensor shown in the third row.

A typical Micro Four Thirds camera
4.5x2.8x1.7in   -   11.8 oz - without lens

Panasonic and Olympus have products available today with prices in the $600-900 range. As with SLRs, additional lenses can drastically increase the price of the camera “system”.  For more information on compact and DSLR cameras look at my comparison video.

Lens flexibility is a major design improvement with the Micro Four Thirds format. The lens "mount" or connector usually differs from camera to camera which is why Nikon lenses do not fit on Canon cameras. The Micro Four Thirds format defines both the sensor size and the lens mount so lenses are compatible among the various brands. Because lenses can be the most expensive component of your system and because they often last years longer than the camera, this turns out to be a very big deal.

At this writing the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 and Olympus PEN E-P1 have nearly identical specifications: same sensor size (4/3), same pixel count (12mp) and same burst rate (3fps). The Panasonic offers built in flash while the Olympus does not. The Olympus has image stabilization (IS) but the Panasonic does not. The Olympus IS is built into the camera resulting in simpler, smaller and less costly lenses.

More companies will get into the fray soon which will make more cameras and lenses available and inevitably cause prices to drop. The winner may be the company that comes up with a more appealing name for the product category!

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Mobile Internet: the Fourth Revolution

My name is Gary Braley. I've been writing and speaking on information technology as a developer and consultant in aerospace and healthcare applications for many years. I've been sending out a newsletter for six months (see February Issue) but I have so much to say I decided to try blogging as another outlet.

My Web Site is Braley.com
and my LinkedIn Profile is LinkedIn.com/in/garybraley

To kick this project off, I'm going to discuss one of the current "hot topics" -

The Mobile Internet
There have been three information revolutions: first was the adoption of digital computers beginning in 1960; second, the introduction of PCs in the 1980s and third, the spread of information through the Internet in the 1990s. We are now beginning the fourth revolution and it is happening faster than any of the others – the Mobile Internet.
For many years – “information access” meant being shackled to a desktop computer at home or in the office. Progress was made when portable computers were introduced – slowly at first – remember the Osborne I weighed twenty-four pounds.
As laptop portability improved, information normally stored in the office could be taken anywhere. Internet access in the 1990s made a major change in the way we communicate and retrieve information. Significant technology changes are often complex and stressful but the latest one is different. The Mobile Internet makes more information available anywhere anytime and – most importantly – is extremely easy to learn.
Until now, using a new program (application) involved

  • Evaluating the choices
  • Purchasing and expensive program
  • Struggling through a difficult installation process
  • Learning to navigate hundreds of - mostly unused - commands
  • Months of Practice
The current "app" approach is easier in every respect.
  • These programs are single purpose and often have less than ten commands
  • The user interface is intuitive and a few minutes of experimentation is adequate
  • Many apps are free and others cost less than five dollars
  • Purchase, installation and startup can take as little as two minutes
  • Upgrades are downloaded automatically
  • Apps can be used anywhere since they run on smart phones and tablet computers.