Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Nokia 770, The AJax Appliance that Could

I have been fortunate enough to come across a Nokia 770 Web Tablet. This is a small device that resembles PDA, but oriented horizontally. It features a very high resolution display in a pocketable device. Bluetooth and 802.11b mean that if you are equipped with a cell phone, you can potentially always have access to your email, web content and more in a manner that is not nearly as compromised an experience as the typical PDA or Smart Phone.

This device has recieved notoroiously bad reviews, but it is not entirely the device's fault. Partially to blame has been a initial release of the OS that was at times sluggish, some rough edges in the user experience, and stability.

The beta of the new "2006" OS is on my 770. It is quite good. In fact, in using it for a while, the strengths of the device become much more obvious.

The 770 is not a PDA. It is not a laptop. These are obvious points, but they color our expectation of how devices that resemble them should behave.

The 770 is purely a creature of the connected experience. This is apparent in little things, such as the well done connection manager which makes configuration with a cell phone simple, but also in larger aspects, such as the default "desktop" of the 770.

The 770's initial UI resembles in some ways Apple's dashboard, and this is no accident. It is possibly a low threshold approach to allow developers to build "infowidgets" that can be accessed immediately, exactly in the way this device is envisioned to be used. It is for immediate access.

The inclusion of a chat client further supports this. It expands the utility of a cell phone by offering a useful way for users to communicate. Intriguingly, due to Nokia's partnership with Google, the 770 includes voice over IP support, and does have a microphone built in, but of course could be used with a bluetooth headset as well.

The browser included with the 770 is quite useable, and this is where it becomes interesting. Since the 770 is so network centric, technologies that make use of the browser as an application platform (AJAX etc) can leverage this.

I think this is where reviewers that gave the 770 a bad rating didn't get it. The 770 isn't necessarily about writing applications for it per se, but about utilizing web development and cross platform expertise to power a portable device. It is actually quite smart. Palm has to convince people to learn a unique development platform to write software for their PDA's. People can write for the 770 using skills they already have; and their efforts won't just work on a single series of devices, but a broad range of devices and environments.

Microsoft has ushered in a smaller tablet format, but it is quite expensive -- the cheapest one is at least 3 times the cost of the 770, and can't be slipped into a pants pocket. The only thing they got right is the idea of a network centric tablet device that people carry with them, but I don't any of the existing UMPC models qualify.

The 770 is an imperfect, but I think vital, glimpse of the near future.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Just What Do They Want From Us Anyway?

A New York Times Article
on high tech cheating generated a fair amount of traffic on our TLTR list here at NCSU. Due to crunch on projects I was not able to respond in a timely manner to the posts, and had intended to post something here. Well, time has passed and this response has morphed again into something else.

One question that never asked during the discussion was why students cheat. The answer is obvious, because they have not done their work, they are unable to keep up, they want a simple shortcut to a good grade instead of doing the work.

The work. The work indeed.

The answer was "higher moral conduct" by some to this problem. Students should be held accountable. This is a safe answer. It is sort of like saying that I like babies, sunny days and ice cream.

I think it is actually much harder to ask the question I want to ask. The same dumb question. Why do students cheat?

I have my own answer. It is a semi-successful means of accomplishing the goal, which is getting a good grade. Actual grasp of the subject matter is a distant secondary goal(and in fact, may just get in the way of accomplishing the primary goal). With no "moral" boundaries, students are apt to cheat. It is a morally objectionable, but perhaps successful way of navigating a system that rewards good grades.

I don't worry if there is a superior being watching me when I work on a assignment. My motivation for not cheating is pride in my work, my engagement in my studies. I guess I am not the normal student, but I think something is at work here.

By the time students get to college, they have figured out that school is mostly easily quantifiable knowledge. You are tested on that which is easily testable. Successful students "read" an instructor, and know fairly quickly what is expected of them, what is the percentage of their time they have to expend to get a good grade. They stare at the instructor, and ask themselves the title of this posting: "Just What Do They Want From Us Anyway?".

I know this because I was often terrible at doing this when I was younger. I would try to understand formulas instead of just memorizing them. One takes more resources, but in the end it doesn't matter -- just being able to memorize a formula is better when you have 50 minutes to take a test. You may forget every bit of it 2 years later, but that doesn't matter.

The "high tech" angle on cheating in the NY Times article is just a red herring anyway. Cheating is simply a way that students try to bypass a system that is becoming irrelevant to learning anyway. They have figured that out. Life is not a series of multiple choice questions, although with some thought we may be able to reduce them to that. I think the fact that no one seems to be thinking about "why" versus "how" is quite instructive. Education is stuck. in. a. rut.

On another note, I have begun updating my LiveJournal account again. It's personal stuff, nothing too personal, just a scratch pad, random thoughts. Changed the name to "Hal Meeks Slept Here".