Adventures in Alpha Land

Episode 14: Preview of Alpha Anywhere Tablet Features

Dan Bricklin and Selwyn Rabins continue the discussion of Alpha's new tablet app building tools that was initiated in episode 11. These features are still under development, but this is a good opportunity to learn about the type of apps they will make possible.
Show Notes

00:00 Adam: Intro to episode 14.

01:14 Adam: Can you talk about usability and the form factor of tablets, Dan?

01:36 Dan: Standard HTML browser controls have been designed for a mouse, not for someone standing up.

02:15 Dan: We've been working on touch optimized controls.

02:40 Dan: Custom editors will take advantage of the tablet's ability to do data collection.

04:18 Dan: This will be aimed at field workers, factory workers, hospital workers, not at what a normal person needs for text messages.

04:39 Selwyn: Customized editors will solve the problems of keyboard entry across a large screen.

07:21 Adam: What other types of functionality do you get from these editors?

07:51 Dan: We're building editors for all kinds of data types, like photos and audio.

09:34 Adam: Will these editors be able to show up anywhere on the screen?

09:52 Dan: It will be up to the programmer.

10:15 Adam: How about very long forms that are multiple pages long?

10:46 Dan: The forms are live. Depending on the data it can hide or show different parts of the form.

11:23 Adam: Are you taking the app interface and making it more of a form metaphor?

11:40 Dan: You may want to drill down to multiple forms.

12:25 Selwyn: It would be simple to build a UX component that needs to move between forms.

13:08 Dan: The forms will be based on a new HTML template system that makes complex forms very simple to build.

13:56 Dan: You need to experiment with what you're building. You need to make the development time as short as possible.

15:29 Adam: You've made a big point of driving down the cost of tablet development.

15:51 Dan: Our goal is to be able to start from an existing database and create an application in a matter of minutes.

16:27 Selwyn: In a wizard driven environment you should be able to describe a hierarchical database and build a complex form automatically.

17:29 Selwyn: One of the key goals is to allow designers who don't know Alpha to customize the look and feel of forms.

17:51 Selwyn: Another goal is to build large forms that don't have a big impact on the DOM.

18:19 Adam: Can editors be based on blocks of data?

18:50 Selwyn: You could have editors that come into use for specific data.

19:18 Adam: That extends the original goal of Alpha to handle one-to-many relationships.

19:37 Dan: Think about doing inspections with multiple parts.

19:57 Adam: The details may be different kinds of mechanical components within a complex assembly.

20:23 Dan: Also the form definition can be changed on the fly.

21:00 Adam: So the forms are self-modifying.

21:08 Dan: And the templating system is extremely powerful.

21:15 Selwyn: Most form products deal with flat files, our forms initiative handles complex hierarchical data.

21:57 Dan: We should also talk about what we've been doing with photos.

22:30 Selwyn: Photos are very important in mobile applications. We will handle photo storage in the file system, so you can capture large numbers of photos while disconnected.

23:45 Selwyn: It will be better to push those photos to Amazon S3. This will reduce load on the alpha server.

25:12 Selwyn: The opposite is also true to pull down photos and videos from S3.

26:07 Dan: All the stuff Selwyn is talking about is built-in and automatic.

26:58 Adam: So it will just be a matter of clicking check boxes?

27:15 Selwyn: Exactly. You can set these properties when creating a photo field.

28:01 Selwyn: It's like connections to SQL databases.

28:40 Dan: And credentials are kept on the server, not the mobile device.

28:49 Selwyn: There is no possibility of exposing your credentials to someone using your app.

29:02 Adam: This also sounds like a large cost savings, since data is on a server. but the large media files are on S3. Amazon can worry about the storage.

29:36 Selwyn: There is also a delivery consideration, because S3 storage is optimized for delivering these files. You get better performance and reduced load on your servers.

29:57 Dan: At 5 o'clock when everybody comes back to the office and starts uploading their files, you don't have a heavy load on the corporate servers.

30:06 Adam: So S3 can handle a burst better than your own server.

30:16 Adam: What about tools for manipulating images?

30:36 Dan: We are adding ink as a data type, so annotations to images can be recorded and managed programmatically.

33:54 Adam: So ink is a data type stored separately from the image?

34:20 Dan: Yes. It's stored as a series of points or strokes, with details on the type of ink used.

36:12 Dan: Sometimes handwriting is best.

36:30 Dan: With tablets we can replace paper for handwritten notes.

37:32 Adam: From a database point of view there is a lot of potential for ink as data, such as combining annotations on a map from multiple people.

38:37 Dan: The information is there for that.

40:28 Dan: The tablet is opening up a lot of opportunities to do better data capture at the source.

40:44 Adam: This reminds me of the term "affordance" I once heard from you. It makes new types of operations possible.

41:08 Dan: Yes. Let's use it in this case.

41:11 Adam: So ink allows new types of visual, spatial applications to be developed.

41:36 Dan: I've seen people use handwriting for a lot of stuff that I never thought they'd use it for.

42:15 Adam: Can you give us an example?

42:17 Dan: A student with cerebral palsy could only write in large movements, but handwriting capture could would at a high zoom level and then shrunk down to normal size.

44:30 Dan: Ink is just one of the new features. We are making what has always been available with Javascript possible in a simpler form.

44:09 Adam: Moving on, if people know Javascript they can create custom editors for new kinds of data collection.

44:16 Dan: There are many different types of things people will be able to do.

45:30 Adam: You were telling me that pinching and other gestures will be possible.

45:38 Dan: You will be able to resize images and move them around.

46:26 Adam: What new features for back-end data integration will you add?

46:48 Selwyn: We're putting in a big effort to use REST API services.

47:48 Adam: So I could call an API to do face recognition on images?

48:20 Selwyn: If the service is available as a REST API, you could do that.

48:44 Adam: Any other major areas you want to talk about?

48:52 Selwyn: We're building on top of a very strong technology foundation.

50:09 Adam: This is going to take some evolution to go beyond standard clipboard data entry.

50:40 Dan: We think we are making this type of application inexpensive enough to allow experimentation.

51:47 Adam: The real-time ability for people in the central office to interact with data collected in the field has huge potential.

53:01 Dan: Somebody could be sitting at their desk and watch an image appear with an area circled and a handwritten note on what needs to be addressed. We want our system to do whatever they want quickly and inexpensively.

54:20 Adam: Every time I talk to you guys I start visualizing new use cases. We've talked about inspectors, but first responders would need these capabilities too.

54:55 Dan: You would expect the forms they'd use to allow fast and easy input from the field.

55:18 Adam: This is all very exciting. Let's do this again in a month.