Our School In A Box - First Deployment in South-East Asia
Yesterday (May 14), we deployed our first school-in-a-box (SIAB) project in a small village north of Java, Indonesia: Mauk, in the Tangerang province. SIAB is a very ambitious program we’re putting in place to evaluate the potential impact of tablet technologies on education in developing countries. It means a lot to us, and we are willing to share what we’ve learnt along the way. As usual, these views are mine only, it’s a personal account and does not engage the responsibility of anyone but me. So, catch a cold drink and let’s look at what we’ve achieved so far…
The smart village concept was born about 3 years ago. It was pushed by Yohanes Surya to his group as an idea for future development. The idea, as I understand it, revolves around one goal: better the lives of Indonesians by bringing them into the twenty-first century. Indonesia is a developing country with unparalleled growth (6 to 15% over the past 12 years), yet 60% of its population lives below the state of poverty. In practice that means with less than $1 per family per day, for a family of 5 in average. The smart village is articulated around 3 core needs:
- a house with a solid roof and modern amenities: free energy and water
- health, hygiene, food, wellness
A green house has been developed by some of my colleagues, with photovoltaics and wind power harvesting, water pumps and such things. We are currently working on a new type of solar panels, with the goal to make them dirt cheap. With that in mind, we set off to see what could be done for education at large.
I have been a registered Apple developer since the iPad came out. During that time, I have witnessed my Son playing and learning with iPad, and have developed a number of toddler games among other apps. From the earliest stage, I have been convinced that there is a great potential for iPad in education. Turning that potential into reality proved to be an enigma, though. How does one introduces new teaching methods in an environment that has been closed to innovation for the best part of the last three centuries?
Regarding our University, that is easy: I just needed to convince our Rector and Owner, Yohanes, who was looking for such solutions anyway. Thus, the University is going paperless from the inception. While discussing with Apple on all counts of the tech needed to get 2000-3000 iPads working simultaneously in our University, we also had a few chats about the big picture: how can we do the same on a larger scale, say Indonesia? Is it worth even trying? Can it be done? What would be the benefit for the children? How do I overcome the difficulties associated with just being in Indonesia: no power, poor populations…? What kind of problems do I solve, and am I not raising more problems than I am solving?
I found some clues and hopes in the works of a non-profit, named “School In A Box”: an Apple education representative in Asia pointed me to the head of Apple Education who addressed me to them, so that I could discuss some of these questions with someone who had already thought about that. These amazing teachers from Ireland were passionate about trekking and new technologies, which led them to start a project whereby they would bring to schools in the third world all the tech you need to teach in a box. It effectively removed one hurdle from the past attempts at doing that much — the OLPC failed because of two main reasons: the absence of power and the disconnect between teacher and students when you put a laptop between them. So, a typical SIAB solution would have: solar panels, a power generator and accumulator, a wifi base station, a projector, iPads, all packed in a military-grade box. Cool, and it gives an idea of where you’re going. I contacted them around Christmas 2012.
Contacting people, talking, planning
Of all the people I have talked to during the course of setting up this project, Philip Penny from IADT was probably the person who pushed me to kick myself the most. Phil effectively deployed in Africa and his co-worker did so in Nepal. Their experience was invaluable, first and foremost because they had done it once. If it’s been done once, it can be done again! (Engineering rule #1.) We did concentrate on the why, the how and the what. One thing that immediately came out was that every single deployment is different, even though there are some commonalities in the methods and the apps deployed, for instance. Teacher interaction was of paramount importance though, and I was missing both a place and a teacher.
At the same time, I had decided by mid-January that if we were to do it, we should do it in full. Plan big, if this works it has a measurable impact that will give us enough weight to discuss with the government. If it fails: don’t even think about failure. Think about the kids.
Going big was easy from a strategic point of view. Yohanes is also the owner of the Surya Institute, which trains teachers. Basically that’s a teacher school, where 18 years old study for 3 years before returning in the field. It has one big specificity: being private, it accepts 108 students every year, who all come from the same district. The district foots the bill for their education. At the moment, we have two of the three promotions who are coming from Papua, the poorest region of Indonesia. So, with a small stretch of the mind, wouldn’t it be fabulous to benefit from this and train the Papuan teachers in-house, and give them the kit to take back home when they graduate? This solves the problem of deployment and infrastructure… Great! Let’s go to Papua.
Finding a location
There was only one small problem with that plan. Yohanes told me straight on: “David, that’s crazy risky, when the kit is in Papua… it’s in Papua. That’s 5 hours flight plus up to 2 days trip to get to it if something goes wrong. Or if you want to add something to it.” Point taken, we needed a pilot implementation close to home. We’ll find one, never mind, let’s progress and get what we can on the kit, the price, the apps, etc… Basically, complete the feasibility study. It was completed before I found the location, and I got lucky.
I met Engeline Tjia while we were launching the University on March 9. An old friend of Yohanes, she is now the marketing director of a retail group (Kawan Lama), but has kept tight links with a NGO she helped set up: Habitat Indonesia. This organization raises money and uses it to build solid houses in very poor areas, aka slums. She put me in touch with them immediately, and after a few phone conversations they offered to show me to two villages that matched my description: being as close to Papua conditions, ie. no electricity, no running water, and no contact with technology ever. One of the villages became off limits before we even visited it, as the inhabitants burnt half of it following a contested local election. The remaining one it would be! I went there with them, they introduced me to the chief of the village, to the principal and the school teacher of the first grade.
Getting to know the Teacher
This was the first of half a dozen meetings to educate the Teacher, tell her about the goals, the technology, and teach her how to use an iPad. Sulis, if you’re reading (a translation of) this, I am forever grateful for your time, your patience, and your openness. During all that time, I tried to be non invasive, involving, and first and foremost I replicated the Apple Genius teaching method I witnessed in the SF Apple Store years ago: show, repeat, show, repeat, lead the person you are teaching into trying herself, make her repeat, repeat, repeat, until there is no more questions or hesitation. Patience is a virtue. The most important thing you can teach an adult about iPad is this: “Sulis, there is no way you can break this. There is nothing to break. I’m here 24/7 for support if anything goes wrong. Now, take the iPad in your hands and let’s do something fun with it”.
Why we decided to do it
By the latest accounts, Indonesia is spending 20% or so of its GDP on education. While visiting the school, it raised some painful questions: where is the money going? Apparently, corruption is so high that little money goes into the education of children. I have been told that most of the budget is attributed to paying the salaries of the teachers and staff (I wonder how?), and to the buildings. While the latter is laudable, construction is also the domain that is the most impacted by kickbacks here.
The curriculum is also a problem, and in great danger of being dumbed down. Again, kickbacks threaten the education system by forcing some changes of the curriculum every year or so. This could be OK if it was for the better, but unfortunately it is mostly to print some new books and get kickbacks from the print industry. Not so good. Not good at all, when the remote areas do not get the new books and are therefore unaware of the new curriculum until they get the national exam.
The problem with books in Tropical/Equatorial countries
There is also a physical issue we’re not prepared to deal with when coming from Europe: the books don’t last long in tropical and equatorial countries. The humidity ranges between 30 and 90% all year, with that delta happening every day during the rainy season. As a result, the paper (of low quality, extra thin) literally disintegrates in very little time. While the life expectancy of a book is a few years in Europe, in Indonesia they last 18 months. So, even if these are cheap prints, there is a huge cost associated with it!
A first world solution to a third world problem: opportunities
I was quick to identify those shortcomings, and think about iPad to solve some of these problems. The curriculum needs to be refreshed? Not a problem, we change the book content, and push that content to all devices. You will tell me: there’s no internet in the slums. And I will answer: curiously, even though there is no electricity, we have a remarkable coverage in remote areas. I still cannot figure out why, but I was damn sure going to make use of it. There is no electricity? Well, we deploy a solution with solar panels and a power generator/accumulator. Kickbacks? Well, quite simply, that’s the advantage of a closed system: the intermediaries have been given the middle finger. Delivering the content electronically is a huge economy of scale and time, so much so that I have problems to understand it is not applied universally.
Add to this that the iPad does not age, which is not the case of books. So, if it lives for 3 years, a quick back of the envelope calculation shows that I am actually better off buying an iPad that all the books a student will use during this time. And then, there are some obvious benefits: iPad is so much more than a book.
Content generation and beyond!
Let’s look at another issue, close to my heart since I’m a physicist. A physics teacher in high school needs to spend about $5000 per year on experiments — that’s the kit plus consumables — to cover the needs of the course. And trust me, this is more than needed. In all cases, no physical phenomenon should be taught without being demonstrated. It’s as simple as this: the student will remember and identify the variables without needing to put it in equations. That’s what I call the “sense of physics”. I have interviewed many physicists who did not have any, and this is a handicap. It reflects immediately in the appreciation of orders of magnitude, which invariably they will get wrong. The same is true for chemistry, biology, basically all branches of Science. Wouldn’t it be great if all that content was integrated in iPad? The good news are: it’s not that difficult to do. We just need some videos, some animations, and some simulations. It’s just a lot of content to generate or pick up from various sources. But it’s worth it, a huge saving and a huge improvement of the course content. As a result we have started such a project, and I am happy to report that our first “very rich” iBook will be out before July.
You know what else? Kids can use iPad to generate things they could not otherwise. The cameras and microphone are great examples. We have seen them completely fascinated by the fact that they could just write their names on photos. Thinking back about it, since they had never seen their faces on a screen that must feel quite magic.
What about the teacher? Well, there are apps for her. Three of them will give you a good feeling of where this is going: Keynote (presentations), Book Creator and Ink for iOS (simple drawing, used as a whiteboard). In the case of Sulis, she has a class of 55 kids, with about 30 seats in the classroom. As a result, she takes half the class from 8AM to 9:30AM, and the other half from 10AM to 11:30AM. Given that, like school teachers, she has a very nice handwriting, she can just snap pictures of her board during the first period, and stick that in Book Creator for re-use. Gain of time, yes, and she is now free and facing her students to help them directly.
This is just to say: once you begin looking at the advantages, you quickly enter a virtuous circle that has the potential for a very high impact with little effort. As we are willing to put in a major effort for content creation, we are really hoping to reap major benefits.
Why iPad has a chance
I have been thinking about this question early on: the one-laptop-per-child project has never been considered as a success. Why was that? Why would iPad be any different — if we except the fact that it’s a “magic device” (I still miss Steve, wish he was still here to read this). OLPC failed for two main reasons:
- absence of a good power network in the regions where it was deployed (or unusable, that’s the case where we deployed SIAB: they have power, but no money to pay for it);
- one more subtle issue was that the teacher was now disconnected from his/her students. While the tradition is that the teacher is at the center of the classroom for a more “oral” teaching, this was now impossible and by just having the laptop in the middle it broke the bond with the students. Realizing that, the teacher just stopped using OLPC altogether.
I also added to this something I have learnt with our Papuan students: it takes them about 4 months to understand the paradigm of the screen-keyboard-mouse-computer when introduced to it. As we have grown up surrounded by computers, this seems natural to us (even though some of us have started computing on screen-keyboards only, before the personal computer revolution - I’m that old, yes). It is not to people who see a computer or a laptop for the first time. With iPad, none of this is here. You interact directly with touch, and what you touch is what you do. One stroke of genius for iPhone was the screen keyboard, which we take for granted now. I believe this is one of the greatest inventions of IT. It just comes up when needed, and I have not seen anyone ever questioning why this is so. Neither adults, neither kids who barely know how to write. If you have kids, you know full well how long is the time of adaptation to touch technology: close to zero. I touch, it reacts. My kids were able to unlock the screen aged 18 months… that’s how natural it feels. It makes for an immersive environment, where the control is yours, immediately (at least with great apps).
As to the issues of OLPC: the first one is addressed with solar power, and the second is naturally addressed by the kit. The iPad is small, unobtrusive, and the teacher carries it around with one hand, keeping its freedom of movement and maintaining eye contact with the kids.
The Deployment - Reaching Stage 1
Day 1: introducing the kit
Let’s be honest one minute: we didn’t intend to deploy two days consecutively. But, we needed to take the projector back for 2 demonstrations on Monday afternoon and evening, and… we got stuck in Jakarta’s traffic to get out, so got there late. If you are willing to replicate this work, be generous with your time. It takes longer than expected always. We were actually lucky to get half of the first day cut like this, it meant we had to go back. Truth is: even though eCan (the projector) is dead simple, there are still three buttons to push: the ON button of eCan, the ON button of the MiFi, and the ON button of the iPad… plus connecting the iPad to the internal Apple TV of eCan. If you are familiar with the Apple environment, it takes a minute or less to learn. If you’re not, it takes one hour.
The method we used to introduce the teacher to the kit was derived from what I saw in SF’s Apple Store years ago: a Genius teaching a grandmother how to use email and the Photos app to interact with her grand children. As I said above, in 3 words: reps, reps, reps. You start by showing how to do it. Ask if they feel comfortable enough to do it on their own. No? Start again. Until they try. Do it once or twice with them. Let them do it. Again. Again. And again. Until everyone is comfortable. Here’s my rule of thumb: every action should be repeated from any point in the process at least 7 times to be understood. After one hour, the teacher was able to power up in sequence or in random sequence. Not a problem.
A few other important things:
- Get the message clear again: you cannot break anything!
- do not keep a table or any furniture between you and the teacher
- body language in check: do not ever show any sign of exasperation
- do not invade her space. Never reach for the device when she is in control. Never enter her class without being invited. Her class is her domain, you are trespassing if you are not a guest. You are just here to help, not to take over. Your ace is the teacher, she is the one by whom your project will succeed or fail, treat her well. Your main goal is to reach a level of mutual trust, so that everyone opens up
- your goal is to help her, and ease off any uncertainty or insecurity she can have with the kit. It’s not to shine… If anything, your goal is for her to shine
- this training should be performed without the kids around. I cannot begin to imagine what kind of pressure this would have been with the kids around, as the teacher may feel observed and judged
- get a second teacher around. That really helps the first one voice her concerns and questions with someone that is on par with her experience and education.
With all of that done, everything in check, we were ready for the big day: deployment!
Day 2: the reward
First and foremost, I remain an engineer. It means: I believe in preparation and hard work, and I believe in the fact that something will go wrong. As a result, I am always over-anxious whenever I am deploying anything. Machines, apps… or the SIAB. What if it doesn’t work? What if Sulis gets stuck? What if the kids cannot relate to the tech? What if we chose the wrong apps? What if…???
Got there early, couldn’t leave
We tried to optimize our time, left as early as possible, to make sure we would be there for 10:30 sharp, to have at least one hour with the kids. Turned out we were on time, stayed two hours, and the principal came to tell us that the parents would be worried sick if the kids didn’t leave now. All of it was a success. No technical failures. No failures at all. I do remember vividly the first moments, and the introduction of each app we showed them, before they took over. Here is how it went, roughly. After the traditional “Hello, how are you,” of course. I love hearing the class say “baik, baik” which means plenty good, literally.
I went in without really having a plan for which app goes first. I thought about drawing, but then I saw that the notebook of the kids was opened on a page of calculus (sums lower than 100 to be exact). So the plan was immediately to carry on with what they were doing, and while Arnaud from Vigasolar, the maker of eCan, was powering up the projector, I started playing with the first table. I was helped by the fact that one of these two little girls is the Teacher’s daughter. I thought if things go bad she will be able to get help from her mother. It did help. A lot. The awkward moment is to get the first kid to touch the iPad. If I have one take home message it’s this one. Once the first kid has touched the device, all is good. Before that, they are impressed by the device, wondering what it is, if they can touch it, if they’re going to break it. Given that they’re well disciplined, even putting it in front of them 1 inch away from their hand is not enough. The critical moment was Sulis taking the finger of her daughter and taping it on the iPad. Everything else went easily and naturally.
I am wondering now if I shouldn’t have started with one of my toddler games. Maybe a jigsaw puzzle would have been easier to get them to touch the screen? Or maybe Winnie the Pooh? I’m thinking that I need a string to pull, either one character they know, either we introduce one character and use it in all the content that we produce for them. Who doesn’t like cartoons?
Math board is a great app, with a few shortcomings though: I couldn’t separate sums from subtractions, for once, and the drawing board is great, as it lets the kid lay the operation on the side before answering, but the touch target to drag it is way too small for their fingers. I suppose with training it gets better, but I’d still lay a target of at least 72x72 pixels there.
At that point, I had only one iPad out. Did a few operations with the two girls, a lot of smiles, some encouragements from their friends, and then… the table behind started to interact. The screen was mirroring the iPad, so they started talking and giving directions. I passed the iPad to the next table, the teacher was in control, and went to open more boxes. Felt like Christmas morning at that point.
Ink for iOS
I have already said all the good I think of this app. It’s basically a white sheet, without any controls, and is ideal for what we’re doing there. It is so minimalist that it is simple, as in really simple. Pictured is Arnaud showing two kids how to draw. He starts with drawing a sun, and they jump in after 3 seconds. I just lived the surprise and the smile on their faces. Something really amazing happened then: they started to pass the iPad to each other. We had switched the projector to this iPad (that’s one of the benefits of the Apple TV embedded in eCan. 4 fingers gesture, swipe left, get the screen), and the other kids were seeing the drawing live on the screen. Mirroring is magic. Really. And then, as you look at the picture, you will see what it does for engagement. In less than a minute, there were 5 more kids around. In less than 2 Arnaud did not have access to the iPad anymore, 10 kids were drawing on a turn-by-turn basis. That was the first high point for me: it’s working, it’s working… they’re so into it that they do not care whether it’s a tech or not, they’re just using it.
Remember that the only tech they’ve ever seen is a 30 years old TV that is in the house of the chief of the village. That’s it. There is no barrier of entry with the current tech, that much I’m sure of. I remain truly amazed by what I saw: adoption spreading like fire, and the kids passing the device and drawing together.
I don’t know if there is any psychological indication into this, but the first thing they drew was a landscape, followed by houses (“Is this your house?”, “No, it’s the house I want to build”), followed by boats (“my Father is a fisherman, that’s his boat”).
I didn’t think much of that one at first, but it did hit a chord. Shandy started playing with some kids at another table, snapping their picture and getting them to type their names on the picture. And then changing the font and color, and all thee cute things girls do. Lesson learned: I’m too old to think about these things. Besides, I’m white, and the kids are impressed by me. Shandy is young, local, and she has an extraordinary contact with kids. So, they did play a lot with skitch.
And: as I said above, the kids were not surprised by the keyboard popping up, it just felt natural for them to find the letters and tap on them to get the text in the box. Another note: it appears to be fun for kids to try to find a letter on the keyboard. They concentrate, smile when found, and express a deep satisfaction when they see the letter popping up.
Extra note: if I’m ever coding an app like skitch, I’ll add one option to disable the autocorrect from the keyboard’s accessory view. I’m wondering now why it hasn’t been done.
Try this one. It allows to quickly create an iBook, it’s a clean and easily accessible app. The kids love it. Highlight: being able to capture images, movies and sounds directly from the app. Now your book just turns into and adventure. Guess how long it takes to figure out that the picture you drew in Ink for iOS and saved by a simple pull can be imported from your Photos library? Well, not long. So, there you are, now, able to create your own adventures.
Come to think about it, recording movies felt like magic to them. Again, they had never seen a camera, didn’t know that you can capture moving images just like this.
Note to self: there is a lag when projecting a movie to the Apple TV. My guess is it’s due to a conversion as the image is scaled-down to S-VGA. I’ll need to work on that.
iWrite Words (Cursive writing)
That’s the last app we tried, and a big success. It’s fun, the kids enjoy forming the letters on a big screen by following the dashed lines. Big takeaway: the sounds that reward the letter having been drawn correctly are a win. When we’re implementing the next phase and developing some specific apps for them, we should always keep in mind that sound makes things fun, and the reward system will drive engagement.
and then more…
I worried about engagement and adoption beforehand. All of a sudden, at the end of the period, we suddenly had the third graders, curious, who bursted into the classroom. Twenty more kids at once. I believe they saw the screen from outside the classroom, and were just drawn to see what was happening. If you ever doubted it: interactivity is high, and there is a social component I have some trouble framing correctly. There is much more to it than just the tech and what we suppose we can do with it.
What we’ve learnt
A lot! Beyond the details above, I have been taken back to the time I coded my first toddler app, and was trying it on my Son and his Cousins. They were 3, 4 and 5 years old at the time, and I got an invaluable amount of information on UI from them: touch targets, animation times… That experience was as rich and fulfilling. Here is one new rule I will apply for design: it should be so natural that a 6 years old will not turn to you asking what to do. Of all the apps we used, only Ink passed that test with flying colors. With one exception: the UIAlertView asking permission to access the Photos library. We quickly pressed the OK button so that they do not wonder about it… Alert views are a necessity, I know that, but they interrupt the workflow of the kids, and they are bad. In case you’re wondering, any button with a label on it is bad as well. And app localization in bahasa Indonesia is inexistent. I have so many of these simple facts in my notes that I still need some time to make some sense out of them. One member of our staff is a trained psychologist, and we will be comparing our notes as well. I am particularly interested by human-tablet interaction, and group interactions as well. A lot will undoubtedly come out from these studies.
I’ve learnt that I have a fantastic team (I never doubted it, but it’s good to see them at work). So here’s to them:
- Shandy is my secretary and my local lifeline during the day. She compensates for my lack of knowledge of the Indonesian language, she’s kind and always optimistic, and connected really well with the kids. As she also takes care of all the admin I cannot or do not want to do, a lot of credit goes to her for making this happen.
- Audrey is dealing with iBooks and content creation. She is a trained professional for publishing and education, really enjoys what she is doing and it shows. She was our photographer on the day, and she captured some really great moments.
- Catherine is our latest addition to the team, a fresh psychology graduate who is taking on the task of analyzing what is going on there without having clear directions from me. Quite a daunting task, but she is doing well, and has already come up with suggestions and observations that make it worth. I have been convinced from the beginning that being a dev and a scientist, I would miss some important facts related to the human behavior. And working with first graders means we get direct exposure to those human behaviors — something probably closer to anthropology than psychology, we’ll see what comes out of it once we are at least able to formulate the right questions.
Content, content, content
That’s our next step. We’re going to follow up and go back there weekly for a start, and start now to work on enhancing the content. In the books: and app to help kids to learn how to read. We are nearly at the end of the year, they finish on June 22, so there is little we can do now, but let them play with the apps, and use the experience as we develop at the same time the biggest part of the reading app. I’d try some of them on the kids if they were localized, but in English that’s a no-go. As I said, we are developing some iBooks, and we’ll have the Maths book ready for the beginning of next term, in mid-July.
All of it is exciting, it’s mainly a matter of organization, planning and delivering the right things at the right time.
At the same time, we are seeking some additional funding (stage 1, the pilot phase, was internal funding, it made things easier and way faster) at the district level, the best thing that could happen is that we train the teachers in-house, as the Surya Institutes actually delivers 108 teachers per year, and let them go back to their school with 20 kg of tech, ready to teach with new methods and equipment. Because, when you start reaching 108 schools every year, you start having a real impact on education. And you start changing the lives of 5000 additional kids every year. And everything you have done, every droplet of sweat that evaporated in that classroom, everything makes sense.
Emotional roller coaster
I’m an engineer. Until I became a father I got my kicks out of creating machines, materials and software. There is a sense of fulfillment when you get a product out like no other. The birth of our children was the biggest emotion I lived. Between those is what I experienced on Day 2. Seeing the kids connecting with the tech, validating some of our thoughts, and teaching us so much in two hours, was an incredible feeling. It is hard to describe if you have not lived it, although I think the devs of the apps I have mentioned above will know what I’m talking about after reading this excerpt. It is a sense of wellness, of joy, that is communicated by the children. I was left emotionally drained after these two hours. And physically exhausted as I sprung my back (again) while flying back from France the day before we deployed, had to endure the 1.5 hour car ride to the village on so-so roads, and my emotions ate the remaining physical strength I had left. Yet, it’s good to be tired. Feeling complete. Kids have that power to make you feel amazing (to take you down as well, but that was not for today).
Where do we go from there?
We’re going higher, I hope. To Papua, maybe? We picked the location to be close to the pilot study, and intend to continue with this. In case you are wondering, the kit stays there, it’s a present, and we would be despicable if we took it back after showing it to the kids. Next year, the first full year with the kit and the content developed, is going to be interesting. I am hopeful that the kids will explode the national statistics and outperform everyone in calculus and reading. Many of these children are out of school when they reach their tenth birthday. Anything we can give them during these 4 years or so should be a huge benefit. Oh yes, I forgot to mention: we also connected them to the internet. We’re going to teach them how to use Facebook (I know, I don’t like it but even in Mauk they’ve heard of that) and have created a Tumblr blog for them. I’m really longing to see what they will make of all this. Exciting times ahead!
Mobile In Singapore
All right, I’m stuck in Singapore at the moment, waiting for some stupid paperwork to clear out and get back to Jakarta. To my family, whom I’m really missing hard, to my job and my employees, that I’m missing as well. In the meantime: bored, coding, writing up some stuff… and spending time in Starbucks and other public wifi locations. It’s actually quite positive to see the gear people are using and how they’re using it.
Singapore, in that respect, has always been a good indicator for me, of where the puck is going to be in a few months. In mobile, particularly, it is very interesting. The networks are really good, the high income per capita means that people buy a lot of gadgets and renew them. So overall, that’s a good landscape to probe. I’ll pass quickly on mobile computers: Apple should be proud, more than 60% of laptops used in various cafes are MacBooks (air is majority, followed by the 13” MB). Mobile is more interesting.
We are in Asia and the presence if Samsung can be felt everywhere. Malls, users, ads, TV-billboards sponsored by S., you name it. It does definitely show in the devices people carry. I was really surprised 2-3 years ago to see iPads everywhere. It was adopted by business straight on, you would never see a rep with a laptop anymore, and this is still pretty much the case. The iPhone easily dominates the phone market as well. On the iPad side, it’s a ratio of 10:1 versus Samsung tablets. Anything else is a zero, I’m afraid. I haven’t seen one Windows mobile table in use (that’s quite justified from my tests). No other android tablet is actually visible. Not quite shocking, but the real life picture is quite dramatic when compared to cold statistics. There’s a new contender, compared to my last stay, though: phablets.
I don’t really believe those are a good idea, for various reasons, but they are selling well. In the ratio of 1:5 with respect to the iPhone. Again, to be honest, I have only seen Samsung phablets, nothing else from their competitors. Not sure what the deal is, I know they are aggressive commercially, maybe the kit is better as well… The phablets use is very interesting as well. I have not seen one used to power apps other than Mail, FB or Twitter. That’s by no means scientific, but I haven’t seen any with a web browser opened. Contrast that with the iPad, where 75% of the iPads you see are actually running safari or rss readers or games of some flavor at any time… To me, this means two things:
- phablets are used as bigger phones
- there is no app market for phablets. I actually still have to see one running an app, been here for 10 days and have seen quite a few.
I am currently challenging my own views, I thought that there was a market for a different device (5” or so), as it would open the door for different apps and usages. It appears, for now, that this vision is plain wrong. We will see how this turns out. I would still be curious to know if there are apps designed specifically for phablets?
iPhone branding denied in Brazil
The French journal Le Figaro has a nice paper here, where they indicate - to my astonishment - that Apple may be liable for the use of its brand “iPhone”.
In essence, for those who don’t speak French, the Brazilian company Gradiente Electronica SA, registered the trade name “iPhone” in 2000. It has been argued by Apple lawyers that the brand was not used for 5 years, and therefore was in the public domain, so that they were entitled to use it from 2007. Now, while this is true, the Brazilian company seems to have used a loophole in the local laws to get that right back, and has produced an Android-based “iPhone” (can’t put enough upper quote marks around this one). Here’s a link to the product here.
At this point, that looks like an escalation in legal extortion compared to the Proview (China) case that raged last year. I am now curious to see how much they want to license the name. Because, honestly, who believes that Apple is hurting their legitimate business which didn’t exist a year ago by using the “iPhone” branding?
Concept: The Dumb-Smartphone
I have been thinking for some time that things do not add up on the Android front. This has been emphasized by Horace Dediu in several posts about market share and internet usage share, and there’s a piece from Business Insider that summarizes well the questions I have. In one sentence: if Android is indeed winning, where are the users? Without any further analysis, we are led to one conclusion: Android-based phones have replaced dumb phones, but the users switching from dumb to smartphones have not switched their habits. Meaning, they use their smartphone just as their old phone. And they certainly may find it less convenient than the old (dumb) phone.
Based on that lemme, let me introduce a new phone model. It would be a smartphone in the sense that it executes apps, for instance will let you communicate on Skype of FT if you’re on Wi-Fi, will choose the right messaging service for you, be smart-touch enabled, have your contacts in a good enough cloud-based database, etc. But that’s all. Here’s the picture:
I’m working on a iOS course and skinned in 10 minutes the main interface with the 4 buttons (that’s the AutoLayout chapter by the way). The Dumb-Smartphone has 4 functions plus one hidden function. Phone takes you to the dial screen, Message takes you to the SMS (or email, the app should choose by itself, and not display any choice menu) screen, the Contacts button take you to your address book, and the Valet button calls a Siri-like or live help. The hidden function is obtained by long-press on the Valet button, or maybe any button, and I call it the “Oh! Shit!” button. Meaning you launch the “Oh! Shit!” function and it calls 911 for you, while communicating your location, name and picture (option to call either police or ambulance?).
Why a dumb-smartphone? Well, my father-in-law, when he heard that Nokia was discontinuing the dumb phones and their spare parts pretty much everywhere, went out and bought 5 or 6 of them. He figured that this will be enough to last for the rest of his life. And definitely does not want to use anything that is more complex than 2 buttons to 1) phone and 2) SMS. That’s it.
Back to the picture: I’ve also but a case around the screen, which is how I’d envisage the rest of the phone. Square-like shape, one ON/OFF button à la Apple in the top right, a bit fat square button in the top left corner to act as a universal back button (no space for fancy things like a UINavigationBar), and volume buttons. For the latter, I did hesitate 30 seconds because it would be so easy to have a swipe up and down to adjust the volume, but that essentially prevents the user from doing it while he/she is phoning. That’s also why, given the size of the device, I’m placing them in the middle of the left side, as they will be harder to hit accidentally. I just realize that I’ve probably inverted the sizes of the two grids for the speaker and the microphone, but I’m too lazy to do so. The typical size is smaller than a 3.5” iPhone, with a square touchscreen with a diagonal of just 3”.
Anyway, anyone interested to make one? I’m sure that there is a huge market for it. Another $1 phone (with subsidy) that costs less than $100 to make. I’m making an app based on that interface, I’ll probably open-source it as a tuto next September when I’ve put things together.
Credits are due for the icons. They all come from The Noun Project, and were authored by Dmitry Baranovskiy (phone), Alexandre Mendes (Room Service), Romeo Barreto (Mail) and dsathiyaraj (contacts).
rMBP User Experience
The title can be misleading but bear with me one minute, please.
I’ve owned a 15” retina Mac book pro for the past 6 months, and it is without contest the best computer I’ve ever owned. The screen itself is such a game changer that I defy anyone to go back to non-retina after experiencing it.
There’s one thing that feels odd, though. For the past 6 years, I’ve had to restart my Macs usually twice a year. Meaning, one system update required a restart and going up one version of OS X required another. It may come as a surprise to Windows users, but my machines do not crash, and I don’t turn them off, so I’m almost never seeing the grey startup screen.
That is, until I got the rMBP. If I remember well, I’ve had to restart that machine 4 times in 6 months. Mainly to pluck some (java induced) security holes, and I can remember at least 3 updates correcting some bugs related to the retina screen. That’s very un-fruity, and is probably a testimony of how hard it has been and remains to push so many pixels at once.