On Sunday, August 25, 2019, I will participate in a recording of the MobileViews podcast. The planned discussion topic is our favorite tech purchase of 2019. When you get a bunch of geeks together to talk about their favorite tech the conversation could go on for hours, it will be interesting to see the end length of the podcast.

In preparation for the podcast I thought I would write my observations about my current state of Tech, and with a hat tip to Jerry Pournelle, I refer to his Orchids and Onions end of year reviews.

I’ve only made one major tech purchase this year, that is the iPad Mini 5 back in April, which replaced the Mini 4 I had been using for several years. I actually use two iPads daily, the Mini and the iPad Pro 10.5 that I use mostly for work, but also for any “large screen” tablet computing. Frankly, I don’t need two iPads, I bought the Pro when it became the first none 12.9-inch iPad that works with the Apple Pencil. I use the Pencil to handwrite my work notes in OneNote.

Of course, the Mini 5 also works with the Apple Pencil and because of that, had I not bought the Pro the Mini might very well be my only iPad. However, it is harder to write on the smaller Mini screen and I also use the Pro for displaying sheet music and the Mini is too small to comfortably read sheet music.

The Mini 4 had a long life, in fact it is still useful and I handed it on to my wife. However, in the last year I started finding that the A8 processor it has for a brain slower than newer iOS apps expected and I noticed most in my primary use case, reading eBooks in the Kindle app. Basically, I bought the Mini 5 because it is faster than the Mini 4.

The fact that Apple added Pencil support to the Mini 5 is a bonus, the result for me approaches the Apple Messagepad that was my first true PDA/personal computer from Apple. The main difference, however, is that the Newton operating system was designed around the stylus and handwriting conversation to text, which meant you could handwrite input into any application by just writing on the screen and what you wrote was inserted as text at the current cursor location. The conversion was not perfect, but it meant it was possible to not have to switch between keyboard and stylus for basic operation.

I wish that Apple provided a Notes app for iOS that worked as the one in Newton, which worked as a continuous scroll to which you could create separate, dated, pages simply by drawing a horizontal line across the page. I’ve configured a notebook in GoodNotes with a vertical scroll that is similar but has predefined pages so I can’t make my own page sizes.

For the fact that Apple continues to provide a smaller tablet that it updated with a faster processor and support for Apple Pencil, it deserves a big, beautiful Orchid.

Unfortunately, for all the good that Apple did with the Mini 5, it also earned an Onion, mostly because it did not update the physical design to decrease the bezel sizes, and with that provide a bigger screen in the same form factor. It’s obvious to me that Apple held back updating the physical design of the Mini for a future release, which frankly may compel me to want to purchase the next model sooner than I would like.

For the length of time it took Apple to release an update to the Mini, they could have made it even better, so it is clear to me they didn’t really plan to do an update at all. Most likely Apple expected to cancel the Mini but lower iPad sales numbers resulted in their releasing a minimal viable update. Consequently, Apple does not appear to me to be all-in on a small screen iPad and we could equally see the Mini again languish without an update for several years.

I think smaller screen (7 to 8-inch) tablets are perfect for reading eBooks. Amazon will likely always keep their Kindles near this size, but I much prefer the general purpose functionality that iOS provides over the highly customized version of Android that Amazon uses in the Kindle. I hope enough people agree with me to make it worth Apple continuing to sell the Mini as Google really is not much committed to tablets.

Another, subtler tech purchase I made is the Google Titan Security Key. The key is a second factor for two factor authentication (2FA) systems. Two factor authentication combines something you know, like a password, with something that you have, like a fingerprint or a physical USB key.

Google announced their Titan security key late last year but I wasn’t able to order one until May. I ordered one to try using with my Google Pixelbook. The package actually includes to physical keys, one that plugs in to a USB type A port that you use with computers and another that uses Bluetooth that you use with smartphones.

Both key forms are poor decisions by Google. The Pixelbook only has USB type C ports, so to use the Titan USB key I have to use a dongle that makes it larger. Bluetooth is not a secure wireless protocol and shortly after Google announced they were selling this Titan key package they announced that they found a “misconfiguration” that could allow an attacker to communicate with the key or the device to which it is paired.

Given that most smartphones have fingerprint scanners, I am not convinced that a physical key is needed for them, and keys are certainly less convenient. While it’s questionable whether Google should be selling a key that uses Bluetooth, it is down right inexcusable that its USB key is not Type C. One would think Google would at least optimize for their own hardware, but most modern computers now have Type C ports so their USB key should be Type C with a dongle to connect to Type A ports. Google earns an Onion for their Titan Security key.

The software in which I have spent a great deal of time learning this year is Federated Wiki, which is the latest incarnation of wiki software by its original developer, Ward Cunningham. While I have been blogging since the turn of the century, I just started building my own public wiki this year.

I treat my wiki as a public CommonPlace Book that has information on a variety of topics that I have been learning. As of this writing I have 250 cards in my wiki.

When you start at the site origin and click an internal (wiki) link the associated card displays to the right, and clicking links within that second card displays another card to the right, continuing the line up. The line up shows how you got to the current card and provides context for the content on the card. It might remind you of Hypercard, which was the inspiration for the original wiki software.

What I find most compelling in Federated Wiki is the mechanisms it provides to build on the work of others and in the process grow your own personal knowledgebase. If you find a card that someone else has written on their Federated Wiki you can fork a copy to your own site and then add information. Flags at the top of the wiki cards indicate who has copies of that card and whether they are the same, newer, or older. The original author of the card will see that someone has made a newer version, which they can review and fork back a copy to their own site.

You might not know wiki but you probably have at least heard of Wikipedia, which is an indicator of wiki’s true purpose, which is a learning tool. Wiki’s simplicity in linking is similar to the networks in our brain upon which we codify knowledge. For all of the bad publicity social networks gives the Internet, wiki’s learning networks shows the Internet’s power for good. For his contribution to the Internet and to society, Ward Cunningham rightly deserves and Orchid.