Sat
Jan 10 2009 1:34pm

Foundation and the iPhone

 A few weeks ago I replaced my pretty-much-dead Palm OS handheld with an iPod Touch (which is basically just an iPhone except without the phone part). I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. (I’ve actually been having a lot of good serious productive time with it; well-designed applications that track things I want to keep track and display the information in accessible, appealing formats are improving my life on several fronts.) And as I did when I got my first Palm OS unit, I feel like I’m following in a path blazed back when World War II was still a going concern. It’s just that where the Palm OS is a step toward the goal, the iPhone OS is largely there except for the holography.

It’s Isaac Asimov’s world; Apple just sells it.

From Foundation, Chapter 4:

Seldon removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt. Men said he kept one beneath his pillow for use in moments of wakefulness. Its gray, glossy finish was slightly worn by use. Seldon’s nimble fingers, spotted now with age, played along the files and rows of buttons that filled its surface. Red symbols glowed out from the upper tier.
He said, “That represents the condition of the Empire at present.”
He waited.
Gaal said finally, “Surely that is not a complete representation.”
“No, not complete,” said Seldon. “I am glad you do not accept my word blindly. However, this is an approximation which will serve to demonstrate the proposition. Will you accept that?”
“Subject to my later verification of the derivation of the function, yes.” Gaal was carefully avoiding a possible trap.
“Good. Add to this the known probability of Imperial assassination, viceregal revolt, the contemporary recurrence of periods of economic depression, the declining rate of planetary explorations, the…”

He proceeded. As each item was mentioned, new symbols sprang to life at his touch, and melted into the basic function which expanded and changed.

On my unit:

Graphical tabulation of food safety!

Immediate access to global repositories of information, as predicted by Ted Nelson! (Who is not Ted Holden the Usenet crank of yore, and I really need to stop spelling “Nelson” as “Holden.” Thank goodness for last-minute proofreading.) Some data subject to manipulation by agents of competing agendas, as predicted by John Brunner!

Ingenious subversion of the lack of persistent background connections with the help of electronic mail for the instant transmission of messages to users of the global network! And more transmission of more messages to other users!

Monitoring of the performance of my avatars in a continental-scale world simulation!

Asynchronous aggregation of disparate information sources in a personalized matrix!

So. Yeah. Now to find out why Star’s End isn’t coming up in Google Earth.

Oh, and as for “Men said he kept one beneath his pillow for use in moments of wakefulness,” I do keep mine at hand—on the bedside table rather than under the pillow, admittedly. But yes, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I will read a little and also poke at Twitter and NetNewsWire. Just because I can. Not sure if this makes me part of the problem, or of the solution, or both.

6 comments
Christopher Davis
1. ckd
I too recently moved from Palm OS to the iPod touch. Of course, one of my major applications is eReader...and I have the Foundation trilogy loaded on it. (Ironically, two other Asimov books are among the ones that I can't read on the iPod due to DRM, and are even soon to disappear from my Fictionwise bookshelf.)

I wouldn't trust mine under the pillow either (without a much more rigid case at least) but it sits nearby when I'm in bed. (The "headboard" is actually a small bookcase, so there's plenty of room to slip it in among the dead tree editions.)
Winchell Chung
2. Nyrath
You can also find analogies with the pocket computer that makes an appearance in Niven and Pournelle's The Mote In God's Eye. It can hook into the ship's network to pull up videos and other data, function as a clock and appointment reminder, and other iPod like features. The only thing it lacks is a touch interface, it requires a stylus.

The "minisec" from Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Imperial Earth has similarities too, but it has zillions of buttons and no monitor. It needs an external monitor to display large amounts of data.
Damien Walter
3. damiengwalter
On either the Touch or iPhone, I highly recommend Stanza. Its by far the best e-reader available, on this platform or any other. Instant access to millions of books, and a great selection of SF mags and books via the Fictionwise bookstore.

I agree with this article wholeheartedly. The first time I picked up an iPhone, I felt like I had stepped into an out take from Bladerunner.
Alexander Gieg
4. alexgieg
Interestingly enough, after using a borrowed iPhone for a while I concluded I didn't like it and went back to my old Zire (yes, the monochromatic one, even though upgraded from 2 to 8 MB RAM).

I guess I just feel a stylus and some kind of hand writing method to be a better interface for these devices than the (disgusting) "dripping with body oil" touch screen one. Besides, eReader, Mobipocket Reader, small note takings and two or three games for when I'm bored are the only actual usages I have for such a device.

Anyone in need of more, specially of web surfing, will find PalmOS devices severely lacking nowadays, not doubt about that. It's just not my case. YMMV.
Pablo Defendini
5. pablodefendini
My first PDA was a Palm III, and I loved it. Graffiti became like second nature, and I still revert to it sometimes when writing very fast, oddly enough. I remember reading on that device very fondly. I eventually moved on to a Palm V (and what a sexy machine that was, with its metal skin and sleek shape), flirted with Handspring for a bit, but went back to the Palm V. The iPhone, however, is a whole other beast—I can't imagine my life without it now. Although I do think I wouldn't mind stylus input either.

Palm's new, hail-mary device, the Pre, just introduced at CES this week, bears watching.

As for readers, yeah, Stanza is best in class, I think. But that doesn't mean it's still not got a long road ahead of it—there's very little formatting support, which drives me, as a maker of eBooks, a bit crazy; and the desktop app is a disaster. That said, Lexcycle (the makers of Stanza) are getting better all the time.
Chris Meadows
6. Robotech_Master
If I might be permitted to blow my own horn a little, I blog a lot about e-book apps, especially for the iPod Touch/iPhone platform, on TeleRead. Here's my comprehensive review of the main e-book apps available for it—Bookshelf, Stanza, eReader, iSilo, and a self-contained "app-book." Hope folks such as Bruce will find it helpful.

As it happens, I also keep my iPod Touch on my bed with me (not under my pillow, but lying on the matress next to my body) in case of moments of wakefulness—either so I can check the web and email and Twitter with it, or lull myself back to sleep with some Enya or Easy Relax Ultimate/Binaural Beats. Since I pulverized my leg bone, I'm not as nimble as I used to be so I can't just leave it connected to speakers and hop out of bed to change the playlist.

(Ah, I wish I had a computer capable of running iTunes that I could put in my room at the foot of my bed connected to speakers, so I could control it with the "remote" application and let music lull me to sleep that way, rather than have to do it on ear buds.)

I truly am amazed at the usefulness of my iPod Touch. I hadn't expected to be able to make so much use of it, but now I find I can do about 90% of the things I usually do on the 'net with it, from in bed. (It's like the old gag about adding "…in bed" to the end of cookie fortunes. I can check my email…in bed. I can write a (brief) LiveJournal post…in bed. I can read Girl Genius or xkcd…in bed. (Though I miss out on the xkcd alt text gag until I can view it on a desktop computer again. :P) I can instant message…in bed. It's rather lazymaking.)

By the way, Bruce, I would recommend you check out TwitterFon. It beats the pants, shoes, and socks off of Twitterific, IMO.

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