Picturing an iPhone at an Exhibition

Recently, I attended the “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay” exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Unless you plan on visiting Paris after these artworks are returned, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to see some truly fabulous paintings, including Van Gogh’s Starry Night. If you live in the Bay Area, don’t miss it.

But this column is not about my museum recommendations. Rather, it’s about iPhones.

As at many museums, the De Young offers an audio tour of its exhibits. You rent an audio-only playback device and headset. For the Post-Impressionist guided tour, it costs $7.

But wait? Wouldn’t it be great if the Museum offered an Exhibit Tour iPhone app? It could be a win-win. The museum would save the cost of purchasing and maintaining hundreds of audio playback devices and headsets. Attendees (at least those with iPhones) would be saved the hassle of having to carry around an additional piece of equipment. As a bonus, an iPhone app could be far superior to the audio-only guides that now exist. It could include supplementary graphics and video in addition to the audio. It would have an easier-to-navigate touchscreen interface.

Depending upon the museum’s policies, the app could serve as a permanent souvenir of your visit — or it could be set to expire after your visit is over.

For all this to work smoothly, two critical details would need to be worked out:

1. How would you get the app on your iPhone?

The simplest way would be for the Museum to submit the app to the App Store and, assuming it gets accepted, have it available for you to download. As one especially relevant example, you can already get a Tour app for the Orsay Museum.

But what if you arrive at the museum without the app pre-purchased? Assuming the Museum has decent 3G coverage (for iPhones and iPad 3Gs) or free Wi-Fi (for all iOS devices), you could download it on the spot.

Still, I believe the best solution would be if the Museum could directly and locally transfer the app to your iOS device. In theory, this could work by connecting your iPhone to a Mac server containing the app. Or it could be done wirelessly via a local Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection (perhaps similar to how Bump works, if the app is not too large).

2. How would you pay for the app?

If the app is available via the App Store, there’s no problem. You pay for it as you would with any other app.

If the app is directly transferred locally at the Museum, you could pay for it via cash or credit card, just as you would have done to rent the separate audio device.

As many of you have probably realized by now, there’s one big problem with the entire local transfer and payment scenario: It’s impossible to do. Why? Because Apple won’t permit it.

The only way to install apps on your iPhone is via the App Store. There is no sanctioned pathway for the museum to directly transfer an app locally. [OK. Technically, this is not entirely true. As one example, there are ways for developers to permit users to load beta versions of an app for testing. However, such methods are cumbersome and not designed for the type of large-scale quick transactions that museums would need.]

Which is all too bad. This is a huge missed opportunity. It’s yet another example of how Apple’s restrictive policies prevent using iOS devices in ways that would enhance its functionality.

Apple could create a special section of the iOS for locally-transferred apps. It could include a check to make sure that you are not illegally copying apps obtained from the App Store or otherwise copy-protected. And Apple would have to give up its 30% cut of the sale of such “local apps.” In return, amateur developers could use this to create apps to share among friends. Various institutions, from retail stores to museums, could use it to provide apps at the point-of-sale. But it will only happen if Apple loosens its grip on iOS access. I expect it will happen someday. But it won’t be this year. Or next.

Posted in Apple Inc, iPhone, Technology | 1 Comment

OfficeRunner Stumbles and Falls

A well-designed user interface can turn what might otherwise be an bland piece of hardware into a runaway hit. It will almost always trump a competing device with more, but harder to use, features. Witness the success of the Flip video camera. Or almost anything from Apple.

That’s why I get especially frustrated when I discover a potentially winning device with a losing user interface.

Such is the situation with OfficeRunner. This new product is a wireless headset for landline phones. OfficeRunner is manufactured by Sennheiser (but sold by headsets.com), a brand I respect. So, even at a cost of $299.95, I was expecting something worthy of the price.

The idea has some intrinsic appeal for me. More specifically, for my wife. Currently, she uses a wired headset that is plugged into the earphone jack on a cordless phone (which she carries around). This allows her to talk on the phone while working in the kitchen or doing an assortment of other activities. It also means getting the cord tangled on the kitchen drawer handles, occasionally dropping the phone, or not having the hardware handy when the phone rings.

A wireless headset, looking much like the Bluetooth headsets that work with mobile phones, seemed like the ideal solution. So I gave OfficeRunner a test drive. Sadly, it soon crashed into a wall of poor user interface problems:

Set-up. OfficeRunner’s setup instructions only cover how to connect the phone to a corded desktop telephone. Essentially, you create a wired loop where one cord runs from telephone’s handset to the OfficeRunner’s base station while a second cord goes back from the base station to the handset outlet on the base of the telephone.

Wait a minute! What if you use cordless phones? OfficeRunner makes no mention of this. Here it is 2010 and a device comes out that appears incompatible with cordless phones? Incredible.

With a bit of tinkering, I did manage to find a way to get OfficeRunner to work with our cordless phones. I plugged the OfficeRunner directly into a telephone wall outlet, bypassing any phone. I could now, with some effort, get the device to work. But the manual won’t tell you this (possibly because there are problems I did not trip over in my testing).

Calls. Regardless of how you set up OfficeRunner, there is no direct way to make a call or even answer a call from the OfficeRunner headset itself. This is completely unlike Bluetooth headsets for mobile phones and largely defeats the whole purpose of the device.

To answer a phone call, you have to first remove the handset from the cradle of the telephone to which OfficeRunner is connected (or, in my tinkered setup, press the Talk button on a cordless phone unit). You then have to press a button on the OfficeRunner headset to activate the connection. So you’re still needing to run to the nearest phone every time a call comes in.

Worse, when the call is over, it’s not sufficient to press the button on the OfficeRunner headset. You also have to “hang up” the phone unit that you used to initially answer the call. If you don’t go back and do this, you cannot make or receive another call.

However you define the word convenient, this is an example of its opposite.

It goes without saying that there is no way to dial a number via the headset.

Microphone. The quality of OfficeRunner’s microphone was so poor that I had to shout in order for the person on the other end to hear me. The manual explains that I can adjust the volume of the microphone. But not from the headset itself. No, I have to go back to the base unit, remove its rear cover and turn a dial. Even after turning the dial to its maximum setting, the volume was still unacceptably low.

Lifter. Recognizing that users may balk at the whole business of having to lift a corded receiver off its hook before you can answer a call with OfficeRunner, these folks came up with a “solution.” For an additional $90, you can by the ORL 12 OfficeRunner Handset Lifter. I kid you not.

The Lifter works as its name implies. You attach the device to the base unit of your desktop telephone. It’s held in place by adhesive mounting tape — which the manual warns can only be applied once, so be sure to do it right the first time. Finally, you make adjustments to the the height of the Lifter movement, so it goes neither too high nor not high enough.

Assuming you’ve done it all correctly, when the phone rings, the sound will trigger the Lifter to raise the handset off its cradle. You can now answer the phone from the OfficeRunner without needing to attend to the phone. When you end the call, the lifter lowers the handset back down. I had to laugh at this whole idea; it seemed like some Rube Goldberg contraption that might have been advanced in 1910, but not 2010.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t test whether or not the Lifter worked as promised — because I didn’t have a phone that was compatible with the device. Our only corded phones were the old “Princess” style; the Lifter does not attach to these (or to most other styles of desktop phones, for that matter). It’s completely useless for cordless phones.

I admit that I have not compared OfficeRunner to competing devices — which may well be equally inept. But that’s not a great defense in any case. The best I can say is that the OfficeRunner system might work well enough to be practical in certain office environments that have the appropriate telephone hardware. Otherwise, OfficeRunner strikes me as a kludge that never should have been released.

Posted in Technology | 2 Comments

Are There iPhones Elsewhere in the Universe?

A few weeks ago, I was immersed in the splendor of Bryce Canyon. The one word that most often cropped up whenever Park Rangers described our surroundings was “unique.” We were told how “nowhere else in the world” are the “hoodoos” (the name given to the odd rock formations that are the Park’s main attraction) as abundant, as varied and as spectacular as in Bryce Canyon. I can believe it.

The origin of these hoodoos can be traced to a unique combination of “frost wedging” erosion combined with acidic rainwater acting on the limestone that primarily makes up the Canyon’s cliffs.

This started me thinking — the late-at-night-when-you-can’t-sleep sort of thinking.

What if, back in time, one of these factors had been slightly different? These Bryce Canyon hoodoos might have never been created and we would not be enjoying them today. Given that the Canyon is “unique,” this further means that there would be no other place on Earth with such hoodoos. In the end, we would likely never know that something like Bryce Canyon was a possibility.

Taking this to its next logical step, it suggests that there may well be other incredible geological possibilities that we have no idea could exist — because the “unique” conditions required for their formation have never occurred.

When you think about, why stop with geologic formations? By the same logic, there are a likely uncountable number of plant and animal species that might have appeared on Earth over the course of evolution — but never have. We have no idea what these species might be like. We do know that there have been some amazingly weird species that have existed but have since gone extinct. Potential species that have never existed at all could be even weirder.

In fact, according to some scientists, it’s actually quite lucky that we humans exist. Rather than some predictable culmination of the evolutionary process, we may well be a “unique” evolutionary accident — much like Bryce’s hoodoos.

Stephen J. Gould made exactly this sort of argument in Wonderful Life. Sure, natural selection played an important role. But, at key points in our history, there were forks-in-the-road. Natural selection was not always the deciding factor determining which direction was taken. For example, the earliest chordates (our “backboned” ancestors) appeared during the Cambrian period. At least one such chordate species survived the mass extinction of species that followed. If not, we would not be here today. However, there was no guarantee that such a species would survive. Chordates did not have some clear selective advantage at this early stage. Bad luck (a long drought in the “wrong” place at the “wrong” time) and these early chordates might have gone extinct. If so, as the argument goes, the eventual evolutionary path that led to humans would have been stopped in its tracks.

As Gould put it: “Wind the tape of life back…and let it play again. If {a chordate} does not survive in the replay, we (humans) are wiped out of future history…”

In the same way, the emergence of mammals as the major large animals on the planet might have never happened if a unique and unpredictable event (a meteor?) had not led to the extinction of dinosaurs. Without such an event, this too might have short-circuited the eventual appearance of humans.

In the end, Gould concludes that the odds that humans would ever come to exist on Earth (actually the odds that any sort of large multi-cellular organisms would ever exist) is incredibly small — despite the generally favorable-for-life conditions that existed on Earth from its very beginning.

Reflecting on all of this, I extrapolated one more step — to the possibility of life (especially “intelligent” human-like life) on other planets. Some argue that, given the presumed nearly infinite number of planets in the universe, there must be life like ours on at least a few other planets out there. Perhaps. But maybe life on Earth is “unique” — in a similar way to the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. Maybe, despite the size of the universe, the probability of the evolution of intelligent life is so low that we are the only planet where it occurred.

Let’s go one step further. Even if there are human-like species elsewhere in the universe, what are the odds that they have iPhones? I don’t mean this facetiously. What I really mean is this:

As with humans or hoodoos, the appearance of iPhones (or any other similar technological device) is the result of a lengthy cascade of necessary preceding events. Before Apple could invent the iPhone, there needed to be Mac OS X, cell towers and more primitive smartphones. There needed to be an Internet and a World Wide Web. And that’s just the recent stuff. Going back further, there needed to be computers in general, whose existence required the invention of integrated circuits which, in turn, were derived from transistors that were the descendants of vacuum tubes. All of these technologies couldn’t exist without modern manufacturing techniques, which are in turn dependent on electricity. And back and back we go…to the prehistoric invention of the first tool by a hominid species.

In some sense, all the natural materials needed to build an iPhone have been present on Earth for millions, perhaps billions, of years. But it required this lengthy train of events before the materials could be assembled into Apple’s superstar device. Were these events inevitable — at least once hominids appeared on Earth and the ball really began rolling? If so, we should expect an iPhone, or something quite similar, to exist everywhere else in the universe where human-like creatures might have evolved.

Or, as suggested as possible via Gould’s hypothesis, might the iPhone be the result of a series of (sometimes lucky) events that are unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere — even on other planets with species otherwise similar to our own (assuming such planets exist)? If so, we might be the only species in the universe with iPhones — or anything close to it. We could be the only species who can, as E.T. put it, “phone home.”

Or maybe there’s an alien Steve Jobs somewhere on a distant planet, just now getting ready to reveal his company’s iPhone at a Special Event. Hold on; I’m going to check my email. Maybe I got an invitation.

Posted in Evolution, Science, Technology | Comments Off

Consider the Source

Whenever I hear a claim of “fact,” or any sort of debatable assertion, my first caution is to “consider the source.” I’m not alone here. This is something we all do, at least to some extent. When we know that a claim has a self-serving bias, we add the appropriate measure of salt.

The veracity of Bob’s assertion that “Brenda is a selfish two-timing bitch” should obviously be tempered by the knowledge that Brenda just yesterday dumped Bob as her boyfriend.

Searching for a good plumber, you may happen to catch Joyce’s tweet that “Peter’s Plumbing is the best in town.” However, your faith in her recommendation will be sharply diminished if you discover that Peter is Joyce’s brother-in-law and that she gets a commission for all referrals.

And so it goes. You should always consider the source before passing judgement.

This is one huge reason why the current rules regarding political advertising desperately need to be fixed. With the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, corporations are not only free to spend almost unlimited amounts of money on attack ads, they can do so without revealing who paid for the ad. In other words, citizens have lost their critical ability to “consider the source.” This is especially critical when you consider that the majoity of these ads have been rated as “untrue” by organizations such as factcheck.org.

What can be done about this?

For one thing, we can push for new legislation and rulings that requires greater transparency regarding political advertisements. As noted in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, one such ruling by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission will accomplish this.

Unfortunately, it does not take effect until after this year’s election — and it only affects California.

Fortunately, there’s something effective YOU can do right now — whatever the rules may be. You can refuse to believe, be influenced by, or pay any attention to political ads — especially attack ads. This is not as difficult as it may sound. But it will take a bit of discipline. Personally, I have decided to stop listening to all news programs on television until after the election — from local news to ABC News to CNN and beyond. By doing so, I not only miss all the accompanying ads, I also avoid any discussion of the ads that might crop up during the program itself. For other programming, I use my DVR to record shows, so I can skip over any ads that show up there. Despite all this, an occasional ad still slips through — which I do my best to ignore.

If we all did this, political ads on television would become worthless. If politicians wanted our attention, they’d have to change their way of doing business. I’m too much of a realist to believe that we’ll see this happen any time soon. But I’m willing to start the ball rolling. How about you?

Posted in Media, Politics | Comments Off