OLPC XO and the Magic Sunshine Screen

April 18, 2008
XO display in sunlight.

Much has been written about the OLPC XO’s remarkable display, given its specifications:

higher resolution than 95% of the laptop displays on the market today [i.e., 200dpi color, which is theoretically higher than that on the iPhone — gm]; approximately 1/7th the power consumption; 1/3rd the price; sunlight readability; and room-light readability with the backlight off

Whatever other difficulties the OLPC organization may be suffering, the display is seemingly a singular achievement that could result in better handhelds, ebook readers and laptops at significantly lower cost.

But how good is the display, really?

In my earlier first look at the XO, I was quite surprised by the display’s high quality, given the low cost of the machine. With the backlight turned on and the screen displaying full color, I found it to be fairly crisp and bright, far better than the murky displays I’ve seen on some low-end laptops.

Displays Side by Side
The XO (in Tablet Mode, Portrait Orientation) and a MacBook Pro Display a PDF Ebook

In bright daylight where ordinary laptop screens are often barely usable, if at all, the XO performed brilliantly. I loaded a pdf of my current read, Pisstown Chaos, to test the XO display’s mettle with the backlight turned off in reflective monochrome mode. A MacBook Pro in the same environment had me running for shade, since the display was barely legible. The XO text display, on the other hand, was highly readable with good contrast. It was completely suitable for reading in bright daylight (see photo at the top of this post). While the satiny surface of the screen could cause some glare issues (below), slight shifts in position were enough to alleviate the problem.

All in all, the XO display quality and daylight performance were delivered as promised. Since the technology behind the display is slated for commercialization beyond OLPC, we can perhaps look forward to a new generation of capable and lower-cost machines with the XO in their lineage.

The XO’s display in bright sun — some glare, but very usable.

The Hypothetical iTablet: What’s Taking So Long?

April 9, 2008
iPhone and iTablet

The iPhone and a 5.25″ iTablet, to scale.

iTablet concept from Yanko Design

iTablet mockup from Yanko Design.

Interest in the hypothetical Apple iSlate or iTablet — the hybridized descendant of the iPhone/iPod Touch, the Mac and the Newton— never seems to die, as new (or recycled) rumors swirl with the approach of every Apple-sponsored gathering. The iPhone/Touch branch of the Apple family tree is beginning to unfold with new models and a true third-party development environment, so most of the foundations for a multitouch-enabled tablet device are already laid down. Yet, the machine remains forever on the horizon, a mere glimmer in every Apple fan’s eye. Perhaps — as Apple competitors have discovered — the matter of making such a machine usable and polished to Apple standards is far more than a simple supersizing of what already exists. Given what we know about existing machines, it’s instructive to look at what the iTablet/iSlate might be, along with some of the substantial interface issues that Apple will need to solve before such a machine can become reality.

Look, Touch and Feel


The iTablet, based on a rendering posted at TechEBlog.

The iTablet will likely follow the evolving design themes emerging from Cupertino, continuing the convergence toward aluminum and black that characterize recent Apple machines. The critical acclaim and hotcakes-like acceptance of the MacBook Air guarantees that slimness and lightness will be a priority, and by their omission, optical drives will be given another small push toward obsolescence.

The mockups shown here are beautiful, but I think they’re wrong in at least one other key respect — a touch- and stylus-enabled tablet from Apple would be running a scaled-up variant of the iPhone multitouch interface (Mobile OS X) rather than a scaled-down version of Mac OS X. This avoids the problems that Windows has on Tablet PCs, where traditional Windows interface elements designed for precise mouse control are pressed into service for use with the highly-imprecise fingertip (or somewhat better stylus). Instead, the iTablet would have a new version of the slick iPhone OS X that’s specifically designed for touch input. Controls are sized larger and tasks are logically set up for touch interactions. Gestures for navigation and zooming are fully integrated and intuitive. A pressure-sensitive, Wacom-type stylus might be included as an additional input device, for the artists and graphic designers who would be a key (read “drooling at the thought”) market for such a machine.

iTablet concept image from looprumors.com

If Mobile OS X is indeed used, it opens the question of how more-computer-like tasks will be handled. The larger and more capable form factor implies more complex usage scenarios such as editing between multiple documents, and with it comes an increased expectation or desire to do more than one thing at a time. In the iPhone’s paradigm, very few apps are allowed to multitask in the background and, from a user’s perspective, a single task takes over the entire machine at any given moment. Apple will need to figure out a new method for task switching, while still balancing against the device’s more limited battery and cpu resources. Further, Mobile OS X has no user-accessible equivalent to the Mac Finder to manipulate files. While it’s very possible that Apple will choose to keep it that way, a new paradigm for transferring user files onto the system and allowing access within appropriate apps will still need to defined and integrated into the user interface. The searchable hierarchical lists used in the iPhone’s iTunes Store or the Mac’s Spotlight search app may point the way to how this might work, but much remains to be done.

Screens, Pixels and Thumbs

In my earlier specifications for an ideal ebook reader, I thought that a 12″ display would be ideal. Now, after using a 12″ Lenovo X61T Tablet PC, a 6″ Sony Reader and a 3.5″ iPhone, I’ve changed my mind. The high pixel density and high contrast of the iPhone’s display allows for good readability at reduced text sizes, and the weight and battery life penalties suffered by the Tablet PC make a smaller screen even more attractive. At four pounds, the the X61T gets to be uncomfortable while reading in bed, for example. A high-pixel-density 5.25″ display — as conjectured by the rumor sites — would provide very usable screen real estate without unduly compromising portability or power consumption.

Screen size has other significant implications for the iTablet’s user interface. The virtual keyboard would have room for larger and more widely spaced keys than on an iPhone, but their size and positioning are constrained by the physical reach of the user’s thumbs if the keyboard is to be used in a two-handed, iPhone-style landscape typing position. The bigger the screen, the more necessary it becomes for Apple to develop a smart solution distinct from the simple layout used in the iPhone. Larger screens also open up the possibility of typing on the screen while it rests in landscape mode on a flat surface, more like a traditional (albeit shrunken) computer keyboard than a Blackberry. This usage implies yet another keyboard layout, and Apple would then need to make the machine clever enough to display the right one at the right time. Sensors could detect this orientation similar to the way they currently detect rotation and face proximity — doable, but clearly requiring yet more development.

Suite Apps

Macs, iPhones and iPods all ship with complete suites of applications that allow the machines to perform the functions that they were designed for, all while showing off the machine’s capabilities. By virtue of its screen size, the iTablet is inherently better suited for reading and editing longer documents (like ebooks) than the iPhone. The latter’s smaller screen is not as well suited for this purpose, and the resulting compromised user experience is probably one reason why Apple has not made reader software a priority to this point. In contrast, the iTablet will be a very able platform for ebook reading, and it’s virtually certain that Apple will create an app to show off this strength. Similarly, a stylus-enabled iTablet would make a beautiful handwriting notebook and sketch pad, and it seems very possible that Apple will create a simple app to show off this functionality.

If Not Now, Then When?

That’s the big question. Nearly a year has passed since the iPhone’s debut, and a second generation phone is already expected this year. On the other hand, the issues sampled here suggest that an iTablet is far more than a physical upscaling of the iPhone. Many incremental but still substantial additions and adaptations are needed, and getting it right takes time.

Related Posts

iPhone and eBooks: an Early Flirtation
iPhone and eBooks: the Video
iPhone and iPod: Dense Pixels, Happy Eyes
eBook Reader Technology Scorecard
iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions


iPhone + Ebooks: Partial Solutions, July Dreams

March 31, 2008

With the recent beta release of the iPhone SDK and the corresponding system software update due in July, reading ebooks on the iPhone (and iTouch) will finally become a straightforward, typically Apple experience. A PDF reader should appear particularly quickly given that the format is native on the iPhone’s flavor of OS X, just as it is with its cousin, the Mac. The other piece of the puzzle — local file handling and storage — will undoubtedly be high on developers’ lists.

When July and its expected tidal wave of iPhone apps arrive, our book reading problems should be solved.

Readdle logoIn the meantime, though, the options for reading available today have evolved quite a bit since I last surveyed the scene. For example, the web app Readdle has been around since last summer, providing free hosting space for files up to 5MB — 50 MB total — for non-DRM PDF (like ebooks from WOWIO) and other files including doc, fb2, gif, html, jpeg, rtf, txt, xls and pdb. Uploading an ebook or other document to this private, password-protected space allows you to read it anywhere with Internet access.

Readdle screen shots
Navigating Readdle.

Other nice features include a Mac app to simplify uploads (though the web interface and email interfaces are fine too), user-definable categories for organizing files and an option for creating a Safari bookmark for offline reading. Unfortunately, the latter is limited to very small files less than 100kb, limiting its usefulness.

As you can see from the screenshots, the web app works well and as advertised. The iPhone-friendly interface is clean and nicely implemented. My books, like Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, are easily accessed, along with a small collection of public domain titles provided by Readdle.

The only major limitations — and they’re significant ones — are the file size limit and lack of bookmarking for PDFs. 5MB per file is a bit skimpy for larger PDFs, particularly graphics-laden titles like comics or visually-oriented nonfiction, along with text titles built from scanned pages. This is an understandable limit, however, given Safari’s tendency to crash when opening files above 8MB. I suspect Readdle is being conservative to maintain a stable user experience. Bookmarking is another longstanding issue, and one that’s common to all available PDF reading solutions on the iPhone. Readdle does provide bookmarking for books in html, txt, rtf and pdb formats, but the nature of PDF makes this impossible to do from a web browser.

To resolve these limitations shared by Readdle and every other Mobile Safari-based reading solution, we’re once again left waiting for the solutions that are likely to arrive in July. Soon, soon…

iPhone book page

A page from Oh Pure and Radiant Heart on the iPhone via Safari and Readdle.

Related Posts

iPhone Reader: The Long Sessions
iPhone and eBooks: an Early Flirtation
iPhone and iPod: Dense Pixels, Happy Eyes
eBook Reader Technology Scorecard
iPhone + Comics: (Not) Seeing the Big Picture
iPhones and eBooks: The Video


It’s the Thought that Counts? Gifting in a Virtual World

January 30, 2008

As social networking has become a fixture in our lives, it’s only natural that the personal exchanges that occur in our offline lives — like gifting — are migrating to the virtual realm, too. I’ve looked on with some curiosity as the concept of virtual gifting has taken hold in Facebook and other venues. Can gifts that exist purely in digital form really take the place of tangible, physical presents?

On Facebook, gifts often take the form of graphical tokens that are sold for a small cost (typically $1) and are displayed on the recipient’s profile. They have no functionality beyond the symbolic — their value comes from being tokens of good will or affection, along with being the virtual approximation of a very visible display of flowers delivered at the office.

facebook gifts

Virtual gifting in Facebook.

So are people really buying these things?

I’ve personally sent some of the freebie versions of the Facebook gifts in the past year. Apparently, I believed that these tokens had some value both to the recipient and to me since I went to the trouble of sending them. On the other hand, I was never convinced enough to actually spend real money. By some estimates, however, Facebook is currently selling them at a rate of about 270,000 gifts per week — equivalent to $15 million in revenue, annually. Clearly, a lot of people are not like me — for them, the nominal monetary cost is outweighed by the convenience and symbolic value.

At WOWIO, we’ve been thinking about this phenomenon and considering it against the more traditional venues for gift giving, such as greeting cards and physical objects like books. WOWIO’s ebooks straddle the line between virtual and physical — as digital files, they’re clearly in the virtual realm, but as a medium for ideas and communication, they’re not so different from their paper counterparts. Further, the ebook’s written content has a powerful inherent symbolism that can go far beyond the purely visual representations of Facebook-style tokens.

Given this natural fit, we developed a new feature at the WOWIO site that allows registered users to gift ebooks in just this way. In sending my own ebook gifts, the process is remarkably familiar — it’s not unlike shopping for a paper-based gift book. I find a title that fits with the purpose of the gift and resonates with my relationship with the recipient, virtually wrap it in a decorated dust jacket appropriate to the occasion, and write a note on the ebook’s inside cover. The big difference is in the immediacy and relatively low cost of the gift. Delivery is as instantaneous as the Internet can make it, while the pricing ($3–5) makes it much more of an impulse gift, like Facebook’s tokens.

personalized ebook

Gifting a WOWIO ebook.

It will be fascinating to see how this fares in the coming months. If any of you are using (or even just thinking about using) this feature, I’d love to hear how you are using it and what you think of the process.


XO Laptop as PDF eBook Reader: A First Look

January 7, 2008

OLPC XO LaptopThe XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is a distinctive little machine. It invites children to come and play with its whimsical form: big rounded corners, bright colors, personality-laden rabbit ear (wi-fi) antennas and kid-luggable handle. With tools ranging from musical composition to writing, painting and programming, it’s intended to foster learning-by-doing and collaboration. But along with these active modes, it also is designed to be an effective ebook reader, promising inexpensive or free reading content for developing world areas where print books are often considered too expensive and rare to entrust to children’s hands.

XO with Mac and iPhone
XO with MacBook Pro, iPhone.

I recently took a first look at the XO in the book-reading realm, viewing several WOWIO non-DRM’d PDFs to get a general sense of its display quality, performance and usability. Along the way, I also compared the little green guy against some of the other ebook-capable devices, including laptops, the Sony Reader and the iPhone.

Happy Surprises on Display

The XO uses a specially-designed twist on the standard LCD technology found in laptops. This variation combines high resolution, very low power consumption (the laptop is designed to run on alternative energy sources, including a human-powered hand crank), full color and low cost. The laptop seamlessly transitions between two display modes — standard backlit color (like a laptop LCD) and unlit monochrome for use in bright ambient light (similar to the E-Ink used in the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, but with an even higher pixel density).

XO vs. MacBook Pro: Displays Side by Side
The XO (in Tablet Mode, Portrait Orientation) and a MacBook Pro Display a PDF Ebook

As you can see from the photo above, the XO’s screen actually fares pretty well in comparison with a MacBook Pro and its designer-grade display (a machine which costs about 10x more than the XO). While the XO’s screen can’t match the Mac in brightness, crispness or color fidelity, it still does a very respectable job in rendering the PDF’s text and graphics. Typography is clear and well formed and images display with good detail. I’ve seen much more expensive laptops with far inferior displays. I suspect that the XO might actually outperform the Mac in bright light outdoors, thanks to its special screen — stay tuned for that test in a later post. From what I’ve seen so far, the OLPC team did a great job in hitting its multiple design objectives with this display.

PDF Performance

View of XO Screen in Tablet Mode
XO Display in Portrait Tablet Mode

Given its modest, power-sipping hardware specs and child-like form, I didn’t really expect blazing speed out of this cute little machine. It lived up to those expectations and exceeded them in some ways.

Launch of the various task-oriented apps generally took a bit of patience, with load times taking many long seconds. Once loaded though, performance of apps including the PDF reader were quite acceptable. Scrolling and screen update performance were reasonably peppy, even for a large 310-page document with many embedded photos (like Letters from St. Petersburg, pictured above).

The fully variable (and responsive) zoom and scrolling controls, selectable display orientation and Transformer-like adaptability (from standard laptop configuration to a tablet-like reader) together make a very functional package for reading a PDF ebook. As with the iPhone, the ability to zoom in on PDF pages is particularly useful, since it allows the book text to be enlarged to fill the screen. This is in sharp contrast to the limitations of the Sony Reader, which has a very limited zoom that leaves some books with uncomfortably small text by wasting valuable screen real estate on blank margins.

Interestingly, XO’s reader software actually seems to be more compatible with some PDFs than that in the Sony Reader and the iPhone. For example, the latter devices (as well as other third-party PDF readers on the Mac or Windows) choke on displaying certain embedded images while the XO renders them just fine (just as Adobe Reader does).

XO compatibility vs. iPhone
XO displays an embedded PDF image while iPhone and other non-Adobe apps cannot.

As I mentioned above, PDF paging and navigation are fairly snappy. Several options are available for navigating including physical buttons for scrolling and paging along with on-screen equivalents and a jump-to-page control. In keeping with the multi-purpose nature of the machine, the physical buttons aren’t specifically labeled. As with the rest of the interface and applications, these functions are best determined through learn-by-playing-with-it trial and error, and that’s a mostly straightforward process. Bookmark functionality is notably absent. Oddly, there appears to be no way to control the cursor when the machine is in tablet configuration, so many of the onscreen controls aren’t accessible without unsnapping the screen and fishing around on the trackpad. Perhaps more experimentation will glean a more usable approach to cursor control, but in the meantime, the hardware buttons accomplish the essentials.

Head-Scratching GUI

The XO GUII tried to view the XO’s interface in terms of its intended audience — young children unburdened by the baggage of established OS conventions. Perhaps it’s impossible for me to reach such a state of innocence, but even after many of the required trials and errors, I found that the seemingly simple act of opening a PDF file was still terribly obtuse and required too many steps to accomplish. I hope to find a more direct method, since this complexity is the single biggest bump in using the XO as an ebook reader. Once the file was actually open, the reader software was easy enough to use and seemed to work well.

Closing Bits

I haven’t yet had an opportunity to read full books on the XO. In my initial play, though, it’s clear that a tremendous amount of design and thought went into creating a machine that is physically well adapted for use by children in the developing world. The biggest weaknesses are in OS usability — the all-new paradigm for a simple, task-oriented system needs some rethinking and refinement. As an ebook reader, though, the XO shows enormous potential and I’m looking forward to future developments.


Travel and eBooks: A Jet-Lagged Perspective

December 11, 2007


Having just returned from a trans-Pacific journey involving 20+ hour flight times, I can now say that long, economy-class encapsulation has given me a new perspective on the relative qualities of ebook readers.

In preparation for the travel, I loaded up the iPhone, the Sony Reader and the MacBook Pro with titles. The choices I made among my reading devices are telling — notably missing is the X61T Tablet PC, since I didn’t want to haul a second laptop-sized machine in addition to my primary Mac. If you plan to travel with a laptop and you also want to use a tablet computer as an ebook reader, make sure those two machines are one in the same. iPhone world clockOtherwise, be prepared to consistently leave one of them behind (or risk a sore back). The iPhone came along by default, since I needed a phone and texting device. The laptop was optional, but I wanted to bring it along so I could process photographs on the road. The Sony almost stayed home, but its small footprint and low weight made it an easy last minute addition despite my already-overloaded messenger bag.

Even before getting on the plane, I knew I wouldn’t be using the Mac for reading purposes. With a battery life of just 2-4 hours (and aircraft power ports limited to Business Class), it had little chance of making it through even the short hops, much less the main ocean crossing. I saved it for computer-specific tasks.

The iPhone looked better on paper, given its multi-faceted functionality, long-ish battery life and its status as my current-favorite reader. Unfortunately, the iPhone’s current software shortcomings got in the way of using it for reading. The hack I use to access PDFs requires access to the Apache web server that I installed, but when the iPhone is in airplane mode, Mobile Safari is blocked from accessing the server. While I could still view the PDFs with either the Mobile Mail program or the third-party PDFViewer v0.3, neither method enables landscape viewing (necessary for readable text sizes without horizontal scrolling) and the latter is too immature to use reliably.

In the end, the Sony’s seemingly inexhaustible battery life made it the only useful device for reading on the long-duration flights. I easily fit my wife’s and my own reading choices on an SD card, with multiple titles for each of us (her primary read turned out to be Cat’s Cradle while I finished up Letters from St. Petersburg and started Some Sunny Day). Such an extended selection would have been impractical in print format. Unlike my last trip, however, I made no attempt to use an ebook travel guide, since the limited navigation and slow response on the Sony had previously proven useless for reference tasks. We lugged along an old-fashioned (and bulky) paper version of Lonely Planet Philippines instead.

The next time I need to cross an ocean, I’m looking forward to further advances in the state of the ebook reading art. While the Sony turned out to be a pretty workable solution, I’d ideally still prefer to carry a single device for all of my in-flight entertainment needs. With the iPhone software development kit promised for next February, its ebook software situation should be up to speed soon. Its fast and flexible interface would also enable Lonely Planet-style reference look-ups, which will allow me to leave that last heavy chunk of paper at home.


Details on Amazon’s Kindle Reader (updated)

November 18, 2007

Newsweek cover on Amazon Kindle(updated with additional details from the Kindle User’s Guide)
Newsweek.com has posted a lengthy piece on ebooks and digital reading focusing on Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and the upcoming Kindle, entitled The Future of Reading.

Amongst prognostication about changes in the process of writing, distributing and reading books were a few facts about the Kindle:

display 6” E-Ink, 4 gray levels, 167 dpi
(like the Sony Reader)
weight 10.3 ounces
battery life 30 hours reading
2 hours recharge
storage 200 books onboard
additional via SD memory card
input keyboard, scroll wheel
connectivity EVDO cellphone-style broadband, USB2
Windows PC required for activation
file compatibility Kindle (.azw), unprotected Mobipocket (.mobi, .prc), HTML, text, MS Word (.doc), Audible (.aa), mp3
price $399

The wireless connectivity is used to connect to the Internet and the Amazon ebook store, where New York Times bestsellers and recent titles can be bought for $9.99, with older books priced lower. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions are also available.

Notably, the device cannot open Adobe PDF or any other common ebook formats, including DRM’d files from Amazon’s own Mobipocket ebook store.

The Kindle is a bold entry in the dedicated reader field, with the always-on wireless connection and periodical subscriptions being the most intriguing twists. Comparisons with the iPod/iTunes ecosystem are inevitable. However, unlike the iPod, which could support content from users’ existing cd and mp3 collections, book acquisition is limited to Amazon’s own Kindle store and existing personal documents such as Word files — ebooks from all other sources are essentially excluded. With a steep $399 entry price and a largely closed supply of content, it remains to be seen whether a mass market really exists for this device…