This is probably the most difficult Tech@Work column I have ever written.
Fear not, reader, the difficulty is not likely to disturb your Friday end-of-work-week lassitude; it is a difficulty pertaining only to me, and entirely self-imposed: I am thumb-typing it on a Bluetooth mini keyboard onto an Asus tablet computer.
Not because I have to, but because it can be done, though not very easily.
W.B. Yeats in 1916 wrote one of his most witty sonnets, The Fascination of What’s Difficult, in which he laments his propensity to inflict frustrating work on himself – and does it while half-rhyming tortuously on the non-rhyming word “difficult” (he comes up with “colt,” “jolt,” “dolt,” and “bolt”).
Computer nerds, like poets, thrive on technical challenges, and are never so happy as when they are pulling off some ingenious techno-stunt, however needless or pointless it may be – and this column is unabashedly one of those pointless, nerdy stunts.
The fact I am working on an Asus tablet, however, has nothing to do with stunting; I am addressing a gap in my nerdy knowledge, and reporting back to you on my findings.
The Asus Transformer tablet I have in hand is a professional investment that, first of all, allows me to do something about my shameful innocence of the Android operating system.
Android is a Linux-based operating system for mobile devices, like smart phones and computer tablets.
The Google corporation bought the original development company half a dozen years ago, but allows the operating system to be used by pretty much all comers who agree to adhere to the open-source licensing agreement.
Though Apple’s iPad and iPhone get all the gloss and glory in the press, Android – precisely because it is available to be used by a whole host of competitive companies – has quietly been establishing a dominant position in the mobile computer and smart phone market.
Since I make my living in the technology business, it behooves me to be at least moderately conversant with a technology development of this magnitude.
That I chose to learn about it in terms of a computer tablet was also more than just a nerdy whim.
Pretty much all computer and phone manufacturers are looking to get a horse into the sweepstakes of the mobile tablet market Apple ingeniously created with the release of the iPad a little over a year ago.
For all the reservations I have expressed about the value of the iPad – that it is really just a big, expensive iPod with lots of pretty interface features but very limited real-world functionality – there is no arguing with the fact that Apple, as always, innovated its way to another huge market success that has left the less imaginative competition running in the dust to catch up to.
People like computer tablets, and, for better or for worse, they are going to redefine the computer market of the future.
That is why it is so important that the technology develops in a healthy, competitive environment, not one dominated by a company like Apple – a company which, for all its technical competence and marketing brilliance, suffers from a control-freak mindset that ultimately stifles innovation.
About a year ago, I purchased a used iPod for the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre, where I have my day job, so that I could get a handle on the possibilities and limitations our local software developers might face in that new computer environment. (Actually, I bought it from my techno-compeer who also appears in these pages, Andrew Robulack.)
I recently purchased the Asus for the same reason, and I have to say that I regard that decision as the better one.
The Asus, though it lacks the design sophistication of the iPad, has functionality the iPad does not.
First and foremost, it is much more freely interoperable with other computer devices, as my test in the creation of this column is now demonstrating.
An iPad, when you connect it to a computer that is not running Apple’s iTunes software, appears as a camera device, and you cannot access any of the files on it, even though it is really just a dressed-up USB stick. Apple doesn’t want you using the thing for any purposes, or with any software, over which it does not have control.
The Asus, on the other hand, humbly appears on your desktop as just another USB device, and you can readily open and manipulate the files it has on board.
Furthermore, the Asus version of Android comes with a very handy, free implementation of OpenOffice, which allows you to create documents, spreadsheets and presentation – the very software I have been using to create this column, which is now ready to be dispatched to my editor.
So there you have it, techno-stunt accomplished and advisement given: If you are thinking about buying a tablet in the near future, make sure you don’t just spring for the iPad (though it, too, has its virtues); for your own benefit, and for the benefit of this new technology itself, shop your options and check out devices like the Asus Transformer.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.