eReader gets Cleantech bill of health — so why are magazines reporting the opposite?

eReader gets Cleantech bill of health — so why are magazines reporting the opposite?

Amazon KindleAmazon’s Kindle offsets its carbon emissions in the first year of use, according to Cleantech’s report The environmental impact of Amazon’s Kindle. But Radimir Bobev of Device Magazine has reported the story differently, claiming “E-Books not such a Green Option, According to Research“. Bobev may not be a regular reporter on green issues — the article spells ‘carbon dioxide’ as ‘carbon dioxied’ 50% of the time. The bottom line is that a typical book costs 17 pounds of CO2 to produce, while the Kindle generates 370 pounds and the iPad generates 286 pounds. According to the Cleantech report, this suggests that the average Kindle buyer buys three books a month, meaning they would have reduced their carbon emissions using the Kindle within seven months, and the iPad within six months.

So why does Bobev maintain that e-Books are “not such a green option”, and why does he claim that this is “according to research”?

This is, of course, incalculable.

As opposed to carbon costs, which go largely uncalculated.

All reports of the nature of the Cleantech report are, of course, laden with assumptions. There are perhaps fewer assumptions regarding the Kindle, which only performs one function, than the iPad which performs many, but they are assumptions nonetheless. This notwithstanding, attempts to quantify what costs what are necessary if we are to understand what is ecological living and what is not.

More importantly, we need to learn to distinguish between a hair-shirt mentality towards environmentalism, and sound choices, and again between sound-choices and ‘tech will save the day’.

Which is more environmentally friendly, to drive a twelve-year old car with a two-generations old engine which has already lost much of its performance vs fuel expended, or a brand new car? Put in those terms, a brand new car of the same specifications sounds like a safe bet. But what about the environmental cost of manufacturing the new car? Every manufacturer will happily declare the miles per gallon — though you may struggle to get anywhere near this in real life — but I have yet to see a new car advertised with its carbon offset cost of manufacture  declared. A 2004 analysis by Toyota found that as much as 28 percent of CO2 emissions of a typical petrol-burning car occur during manufacture and transportation. Another study by Seikei University put the pre-purchase number at 12 percent. 1 Rivals criticised the Toyota Prius for having dramatically higher manufacturing carbon-offset costs, which mean that it may be the unenvironmental option for drivers who keep a low mileage.

Which is better — new or old? High-tech or lowfi? The answer is inevitably that there is no one-size fits all. Information is required — and yet, in an information saturated society, we very rarely get to see the kind of information which Cleantech has calculated for us.

This in itself is not assisted by journalists who report the news backwards.

A glimpse of the future – alternative input methods for the iPad

A glimpse of the future – alternative input methods for the iPad

Handwriting recognition, voice recognition and external keyboards are now all available for the iPad and iPhone. Although these open up the offering for more uses in content creation, each has its problems, and what we are seeing is a glimpse of the future, but not yet the future itself.

A friend contacted me via FaceBook after my article about using the iPad instead of paper. She pointed out that, as a disabled person with limited use of her hands, new devices could even pose a threat: people with limited hand use could struggle with them, and, in an increasingly paper-free world, could find their employment prospects diminishing. She used Dragon Naturally Speaking on a desktop, but was aware that nothing of the kind existed for the iPad.

Quite by coincidence, Dragon released their voice recognition app for iPhone and iPad the next day. This morning I’ve been trying it out. It’s pretty good (especially for a free product), but it isn’t without problems, and I want to compare it to two other means of getting your stuff in: handwriting recognition, and an external keyboard.

Voice recognition
I was frankly amazed that Dragon want to give us voice recognition for free. And they do, kind of. What actually happens when you download their app is you download a link to their voice recognition server. It first asks you for permission to upload the names from your contacts list — although it promises to take the names only, and not to spam your contacts. Dragon is a reputable company, and I was happy to agree. Basically, you then talk, and it listens, in UK English (otherwise known as English), US English (ie, American) and German. It prefers you to use an external microphone, like the one that comes with the iPhone (but not the iPad), though it seems happy enough with the built in one. You need to tell it where the punctuation is, which will interrupt the flow of anyone used to dictating for a secretary, and you have to enunciate clearly. After a few seconds, it stops, and uploads it to the server, which then sends back the text. There doesn’t seem to be a training mode, and, a lot of the time, it gets stuff right. But there are also occasions when it just comes back with gobbledegook. I tried writing this article with Dragon Dictation, and didn’t get beyond the first paragraph. I’m sure, though, that as I get used to it, the accuracy will increase. A bigger issue, though, is that it requires 3G or WiFi to work properly. The write-up on iTunes says WiFi, 3G or Edge, but I’ve tried it with Edge and it listens politely to what you have to say, and then tells you that the server connection was lost. And so was your text. For some reason, it doesn’t store it and try to send it later, which would be useful. Bizarrely, the examples it gives are of someone running late for a meeting, using it to send an email message. If you really were running late for a meeting, you would have to be running late somewhere with good WiFi or 3G connection. The other thing is that it only listens for a bit, and then stops to upload the audio file. Fair enough, and probably something that can be got used to, but this is not yet the input device to end all others. According to the website it can be up to 5x faster than using a keyboard. This slightly begs the question: how fast can you type? And how long does it take you to make a correction?

As it’s a free product, I’m inclined to give this four stars out of five. You are certainly getting a lot more than you pay for. I imagine Dragon will refine this product as time goes on. Right now, though, it’s perhaps suitable for short emails, but you wouldn’t want to risk an extended document on it, and you would certainly need to be able to go back and correct what you had written.

Handwriting recognition
Handwriting recognition has always been the Holy Grail for pad/slate devices. That’s Holy Grail in the sense of magical but potentially disastrous to attempt to attain. The original PalmPilot series offered highly accurate handwriting recognition, as long as you learned their special alphabet. As far as I’m concerned, this was the high water mark: the alphabet wasn’t hard to learn, and you could go quite quickly at it taking notes with the supplied stylus.

Slate-type laptops, by contrast, had woeful handwriting. There was a fad in, I think, about 2003, when NHS IT managers started turning up at meetings with slate-type laptops. It lasted a couple of months. The handwriting recognition was just terrible, and it was always quicker to write something on paper and type it up later. I never had one, and I never missed it.

The iPhone and iPad have no built in handwriting recognition, but, for a few £s, you can get WritePad for iPad. It’s a pretty decent app that makes good sense of my handwriting pretty well most of the time. Much more accurate so far for me that voice dictation, but also slower. I don’t know about anyone else, but I personally struggle to write with my finger. I’ve purchased an inexpensive stylus — about £4 for two — which is a bit of coated foam rubber on the end of a short metal tube. It works fine, but dragging foam rubber across the iPad’s screen is relatively slow: much slower than writing with a pen on paper, and also slower than using the on-screen keyboard, with about the same level of accuracy. It also drains the battery rather more quickly than typing with the keyboard does.

I would probably give this three stars out of five. It’s better than the dictation software in terms of accuracy, but not for speed, and, also, you have to pay for it.

Sooner or later someone is going to manufacture a fast stylus for the iPad, and this software will have been improved to the point that it’s always accurate. But, again, this is not yet the future.

External keyboard
Back in 2002 I met a journalist with a fold-out keyboard typing up their stories on a PalmPilot V. They rattled away, and told me that, without the keyboard, the device wasn’t much use, but, with the keyboard, it could replace a laptop for writing while on the field. External keyboard makers seem to have been a bit slow off the mark with the iPhone, but now the iPad is out, there are a fair few choices. I’m typing this article on the Apple bluetooth keyboard. I could also have chosen the iPad specific keyboard with a docking thingummyjig, but I went for the one I would be able to use with my laptop as well. This is version 2 of the keyboard. Version 1, as used by a colleague, went through a set of batteries in a few hours, and, from that point of view, was fairly useless. That’s correct. They require batteries. All of the external keyboards except (perhaps, I didn’t try it) the docking kind require their own batteries, and connect to the iPad via BlueTooth. That’s ok, and the batteries in this keyboard seem absolutely fine. But BlueTooth drains the iPad’s batteries a lot more quickly than I would like. You can’t quite see the gauge going down as you type, but, if you’re used to using the iPad for hours on end with little change to the battery charge state, then the keyboard is a bit of a shock. Perhaps I should have gone for the docking one after all, although I would have found that less convenient for a large number of reasons, of which the most important is that I want to position the keyboard and the screen in different places, and not necessarily close to each other.

I would still give the external keyboard solution five stars out of five. It’s something extra to carry, doesn’t fold down like the PalmPilot ones did, and drains the battery. But it does give you exactly the same typing experience you had with a laptop or desktop, and I can rattle away without having to make any adjustments at my maximum typing speed.

So, what next?
Most people can’t type. I learned when I was nine years old, and it’s been one of the most important skills in my life. But most people peck at the keyboard, a process which they find slow and frustrating. The iPad and iPhone built in virtual keyboards, with a bit of practice, can probably be as good for non-typists as the Blackberry keyboards were. But that’s still not great. The future, surely, must be in handwriting recognition and in voice recognition — skills that everyone (or almost everyone) has, which leverage the power of the device to make it a true content creation platform.

I confidently except to see real advances in both these areas over the next six months. The market is big enough to be attractive, and there are rich prizes for the company that gets it right first.

However, if you want to use the iPad for writing right now, go with the keyboard. The other solutions will just frustrate you.

But can it replace paper? iPad in business

But can it replace paper? iPad in business


Before the iPad came out, lots of people argued that it was just an underpowered net book that would be another Apple flop, rather like the Newton, or a marketing-only success powered by the willingness of the Apple fanbois [sic] to buy anything with the Apple logo on it. After all, wasn’t it just an oversized iPod Touch?

More than 3 million sales later, the iPad, with an associated boost to Mac sales, has propelled Apple to #3 computer manufacturer in the world. The argumentative continue to argue that it can’t replace a desktop and is reconciled to being an expensive toy for the selfish. However, in real life iPads are making their way into business.

Almost the first thing people ask me when they see my iPad in a meeting is “can it really replace paper?” 1 That’s my favourite question, because it was my main reason for buying it in the first place.

A little context. Every since I stepped into corporate life in the UK, I’ve been faced with swathes of attachments that have to be printed off before meetings. Most of the papers have no life beyond the meeting. This is not a public sector waste issue. It was exactly the same in the private sector, and it was exactly the same working for an arts organisation. It’s also the same for a host of voluntary organisations and charities I’ve been involved with. It is a facet of the wired age: the more we use our computers, the more we produce documents, and the only way we know how to use them is by printing them off.

Of course, most of us are gradually learning to read our emails on-screen, read PDFs on screen, and make as many notes as we can directly onto the computer. While we’re at our desks. Away from our desks, it’s a different matter. A laptop is fine for working on the train, and ok for working at home. But take one into a meeting, and the picture changes. Some companies have, of course, so embraced digocracy that all meeting rooms are equipped with specially designed tables to keep laptops out of sight but fully active, with good protocols for sharing data and switching from one laptop to another for the main screen. But this is unusual, and, the last time I was in such a meeting room, we mainly used paper and the person tasked with presenting struggled to get their laptop hooked up.

In a directors’ meeting, putting up a laptop is like putting up a barrier. People can’t tell whether you are looking at your documents, doing your emails, playing solitaire, or a mixture of all three. In a full Board meeting, putting up a laptop (unless you’re doing a presentation) is a gross breach of etiquette. In a one to one meeting, it’s just plain weird.

I used to use a PalmPilot — back in the days of the Palm V whose battery went on and on, and the form fitted neatly and simply into a jacket pocket. For some reason, the market dictated that Palms had to go into colour, become fatter like iPaqs, and have shorter and shorter battery life. Eventually I gave up.

The PalmPilot was great for taking notes, though it did annoy some people who assumed I was playing solitaire. But it was no good for reading documents. Just too small, and not widely compatible. For some reason the iPhone never bothered with handwriting recognition, which I’ve always felt was a missed opportunity. It’s great for reading emails and websites in corridors, and for quickly grabbing information, but if you use it in a meeting more generally people again believe you are doing email. Many boards ban mobile phones altogether. And rightly.

So, the iPad. The form is big enough to read documents. Use something like Penultimate 2, and you can write notes as you go. How good? Very good. I’ve been using the iPad for all meetings for which I’ve received electronic documents since the day it arrived. No-one has yet accused me of typing out my emails (lack of a physical keyboard a real boon for that), and, as people can see over your shoulder, they know you aren’t playing games. Unless you are of course, in which case you might as well take a Sudoku book into the meeting. But don’t expect to keep your job long in that case.

There are a few issues that seem like they might be troubling, but aren’t. And there are a couple of things that could do with resolving.

First off, battery life is really, really good. Unless you use a bluetooth keyboard, which drains it rather more quickly, the iPad really is good for ten hours. Long enough even for the most exhausting meetings. Second, glare from the screen is nowhere near the problem you might imagine. You can reposition the iPad as much as you like, and no-one really minds. If you keep moving a laptop, people ask if you’re alright.

On the down-side, Word compatibility is not 100%. The big issue is when people send you Word documents that have other documents embedded. The iPad can’t read these in Mail: it just replaces the embedded document with a file name. Not at all helpful. The result is that you have to manually save each of the files on a lap/desktop before hand and either email them to yourself or drag them across on something like Files HD. This is cumbersome and annoying. I’ve actually just had to ask the person who sends me these documents to send them as separate attachments. This isn’t really a big issue, as they are the only person I’ve ever met who does do this. But it’s nonetheless not full compatibility.

Also, if you’ve got documents in an older version of Apple’s own iWork, the iPad’s iWork won’t open them. That’s right. It happily imports Word, PowerPoint and Excel (though you can read these in Mail without importing them into anything else), but it insists you buy the up to date version of Apple’s own software if you want to read your iWork files.To me, that’s a bit cheap and un-Apple like. Never mind.

The other slight gripe is that if you shell out for the VGA adaptor, you discover that (just like the iPhone), it only displays from particular apps. YouTube, Keynote, probably a couple of others. But you can’t put up an email, a web-page, or (for example) an egg-timer. That’s a bit cheap, too.

All in all, I’ve worked out that I will save more than twice the cost of the iPad in the first year by not printing stuff out. I won’t gain all the benefit of that, as work won’t contribute to the iPad costs (and it shouldn’t). But I’ll certainly get a lot of benefit: even voluntary organisations that pay mileage would baulk at reimbursing for the cost of paper and toner.

Verdict: a Winner.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Just in case you are wondering, I still work for the NHS, and I bought the iPad myself. No public money went into the funding of this article
  2. best with one of those cheap spongy stylii that you can get for a couple of quid

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