Tag Archives: iPad

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“Memory of Colors” by Jaime Ocampo-Rangel

A version of this article has also been published on the photography site The Luminous Landscape.

Memory of Colors is the name of large-scale ongoing photography project by the Colombian/French photographer Jaime Ocampo-Rangel. His wife Lia Ocampo-Rangel, a videographer, also contributes to the project.

The project involves recording portraits of individuals from distinctive cultures in remote parts of the world. The photographs show individuals or small groups of people against a monochromatic background. The color of the studio-like backdrop plays a major role in the project because Ocampo-Rangel associates different cultures with different dominant “natural” colors. This can be based on the color of their skin, their clothing, their ornaments or something more abstract.

Girl from Ethiopia's Mursi tribe against a dark brown background (c) Jaime Ocampo-Rangel

The resulting photographs have been displayed as larger-than-life prints at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and at a Paris art gallery, Polka. A collection of 1300 pictures has just been released in collaboration with Fotopedia in the form of an iPhone/iPad app. There are plans for a traveling exhibition on a Memory of Colors sailing boat that will tour six continents starting in late 2010.

A man with a mission

The indigenous people covered by the project are gradually disappearing: they are losing their cultural identity by merging with other cultures and due to their constant exposure to global cultural influences.

An extreme example is the impact of the discovery of oil in the Arabian peninsula. In the span of less than 50 years, this changed relatively isolated sheikdoms struggling to get by, into an affluent nation with bustling financial centers (Dubai, Abu Dhabi).

A more sweeping historical example is the colonization of much of the world by a series of seafaring European superpowers (Spain, Portugal, France, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands) between the 16th and 19th centuries. This  lead to the introduction of new cultures, new languages, new religions, new industries and above all new rulers for many continents and subcontinents.

The goal of the Memory of Colors project is to record the disappearing world heritage from the perspective of a former fashion photographer, Jaime Ocampo-Rangel. Jaime also hopes the project will increase the world’s awareness of the value of these cultures among the general public, the indigenous peoples themselves and their respective governments.

This quest is quite similar to that of the Canadian ethnographer Wade Davis (a National Geographic staff member) who stresses that the disappearance of cultural diversity in what he calls the ethnosphere is much more dramatic than the ongoing disappearance of biological diversity in the biosphere. Wade Davis held an impressive 20 minute lecture on endangered cultures at the 2003 TED conference that can be viewed online.

The Photographer

Jaime Ocampo-Rangel was born in Colombia (yes, in South America), and subsequently lived in Miami, Spain, New York and now Paris. In his earlier period he became an accomplished fashion and advertising photographer. As his work from this period is becoming increasingly tricky to find (because he has switched to a very different type of work), I have included one example here.

Example of commercial photography by Jaime Ocampo-Rangel

His transition from Vogue-style fashion photography to almost National Geographic-style photography started in 1999 when he met and photographed the Kogui people of Colombia. The Koguis stayed relatively uninfluenced by the Spanish rulers and by modern society because they withdrew to the mountainous Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region and avoided contact with “modern” society. Ocampo-Rangel now describes his encounter as “a spiritual and artistic revelation” that lead him to seek out and document such cultures around the world. The project has been ongoing over the past 12 years, initially in parallel to his glamor photography.

It is worth noting that Ocampo-Rangel is not a typical documentary photographer: he has a specific message he wants to convey and he uses his photographic stills to convey an emotional message to the viewer. The still images are thus not intended to tell a story together with a writer’s text and thus differ from the journalistic approach used by say National Geographic or an award-winning Dutch documentary photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien (who also photographed African tribes like the Mursi depicted above).

Ocampo-Rangel is also not a trained anthropologist or ethnographer like Wade Davis (who also does photography). Although the two think along surprisingly similar lines, Ocampo-Rangel doesn’t worry about scientific niceties like whether the holy Sadhu’s of India or folkloristic French villagers belong to the same category as indigenous tribes such as the Kogui or the Tuaregs of the Sahara. Jaime Ocampo-Rangel is more a portrait photographer with an eye for striking images who wants to convey the message of the disappearing human diversity to a global audience.

To better understand what drives him, you may want to watch one of the video clips made by Jaime and his wife. Jaime’s narrative, with a voice reminiscent of both Sir David Attenborough (the confiding whispering tone) and Jacques Cousteau (the enthusiasm and the accent), give you some impression about his goals and hopes.

Fotopedia’s iOS App

The Fotopedia Memory of Colors app, released on Feb 23, runs on the iPhone and the larger iPad. It costs only 3$ (initially even less). The interactive app covers over 1300 images of 40 cultures throughout the world – obviously significantly more than what can be shown at expositions or even in a book.

The Fotopedia Memory of Colors app on the iPhone

As all Fotopedia products, Memory of Colors allows you to browse the photographs while accessing corresponding Wikipedia articles and Google maps markers. The Google Maps markers are not intended for zooming in and finding exactly where the images were taken: the “pins” just show a general area rather than a specific village or valley. This may be intentional. Many of the tribes are small, and tourism would further impact their way of life.

Fotopedia’s software is easy to use and allows you to browse the images in different ways, the most important here being per culture or per country (see screenshot). To my taste the images could have been more rigorously selected. Sometimes you find very similar images, or even alternative crops of the same photo. This is obviously not a big deal because the browsing is fast and you are free to browse any way you like. But it would have been nicer to distinguish between photos that are worth exhibiting or including in a photo book and those which are useful if you want to actually study the people.

The overall app can be seen as an iPad-based equivalent of  a coffee table book or National Geographic (which is to some degree a coffee table magazine). The information about some tribes is very limited (because of limited Wikipedia content). There is no information from the photographer about individual photographs or photo shoots – unlike what you would expect in a real documentary. To my surprisingly you can save/post/e-mail medium-resolution copies of the images. Photography buffs may be pleased that the EXIF information about lenses and ISO and shutters speeds is still intact.

Photographic Equipment

Although the impact of fancy photographic equipment is overrated by most amateur photographers, it is worth describing the setup that Jaime uses – if only because he lugged this equipment to various remote deserts, the Andes mountains and Siberia. And to highlight the similarity with the equipment used in fashion photography.

The camera is a medium-format Hasselblad camera with, for example, a 100 mm lens (70 mm in full-frame terms). The digital back on the Hasselblad is one of various generations of Phase One digital backs. The backdrop and reflector panels are standard studio stuff. The lighting is normally a single strip-shaped Elinchrome softbox (obviously battery-powered). As in the blue image below, you can see traces of a reflector on the left side of the face. Jaime mentioned that he used to lug 100 kilograms of equipment around, but that he now travels lighter.

The Colors

Colombian (Guambianos) girl (c) Jaime Ocampo-Rangel

The colors are an important part of the project. Although it sounds like something that  emerged at some point during the project, it is surprising that Ocampo-Rangel’s term

Rainbow of human existence

is echoed in (the much less artsy) Wade Davis’ phrase

Polychromatic world of diversity [of people]

I am unqualified to judge whether a color indeed matches the “spirituality” of a particular people, but the strong reliance on background colors does make a difference.

Note that in many cases the background color is consistent – even if the color doesn’t occur in one of the individuals clothing. But sometimes multiple colors are used for a single people. I suppose that a true artist should be allowed break rules, including his own.

It some of the less important images the background cloth is a distractingly wrinkled. As the cloth presumably can’t be ironed during a trip to the desert, it might help to either wrinkle it more (so that it becomes uniform) or to stretch the cloth to minimize the problem.

World Tour and Sponsorship

As you may have concluded by now, Jaime Ocampo-Rangel thinks big. His next major step in the Memory of Colors project is to travel around the world in a sailing boat. The trip is a combination of visiting more indigenous cultures and docking at major cities to display his work. Stills and video will be projected after dark onto the white sails of his boat. The purpose is to spread the word that these valuable cultures are vanishing.

The trip is supported by the UNESCO and other sponsors. The trip is currently planned to start at the Eiffel Tower (situated along the Seine River) due to its proximity to UNESCO’s Paris-based headquarters and to sail to South America (Brazil, Venezuela and his native Colombia), via Panama and the Panama Canal, to visit Australia, Asia, Africa, and to finally cross the Atlantic a second time to hold an exhibition at the United Nations building (situated along the East River in New York City).

In early March 2011 Jaime told me he had already received substantial sponsorship commitments from the UNESCO and other sources. This reassures me that Jaime has the skills to actually get such a dream off the ground. But the project is still searching for additional sponsorship from both individuals (“minimum contribution 5€”) and especially from organizations. This is not just money needed to finance the costs of the voyage, but also to pay for the facilities and time to convert the resulting raw photographic and video material into a book and especially a film for broadcast on various television networks.

The most obvious types of sponsors that come to my mind include (note that I don’t know the list of current sponsors):

  • magazines and museums related to travel and the peoples of the earth,
  • government agencies committed to the welfare of cultural minorities,
  • companies that are strongly associated to color and its emotional impact (paint, fashion, lighting…),
  • the photography industry,
  • the broadcasting, publishing and movie industries (the movie and book side), and
  • travel agencies that specialize in responsible forms of tourism (a tricky one?).

Last but not least, donations can also be done by providing what Jaime called “professional skills”. That is how I got into fixing some of the more glaring bugs in his English (these kind of details don’t have priority for the master). So, for example, support from a professional copywriter or advertising agency would really help get things rolling. The web page on sponsoring indicates how you can contact Jaime. It is OK to contact me about this topic if you have questions, but keep in mind that I do not represent him. I am merely occasionally in touch with Jaime to help out a bit.

FotopediaStatsBanner

Fotopedia – statistics (2/2)

Part 1 of this article provided some graphs showing the rate of growth of Fotopedia. The main conclusion was that the growth was steady (“linear” for geeks), but not enough to propel Fotopedia into the realm of the really well-known sites. Part 2 contains additional data as well as presenting the data in better ways.

The data

Figure 1. Fotopedia statistics (click to zoom in)

The left column shows the amount of photos in Fotopedia. From top to bottom:

  1. The number of photos in the entire Fotopedia database
  2. The number of photos in 3 Fotopedia Projects: Heritage, Japan, Amsterdam.
  3. The fraction (in %) of all Fotopedia photo’s within these projects (#1/#2 or for those who speak MatLab… #1./#2).

The middle column shows the number of articles. From top to bottom:

  1. The number of articles in the entire Fotopedia database
  2. The number of articles in the same 3 projects
  3. the relative fraction (in %) of all Fotopedia articles within these projects (#1/#2)

The right column shows the average number of photos per article:

  1. The average photos/article in the entire Fotopedia database
  2. The average photos/article in the 3 projects

Conclusions

Apart from some anomalies (spikes due to unusual contributor activity or to database cleanups), the conclusions from the previous article are still valid: there is constant growth, but at a relatively slow rate.

Both “constant” and “relatively slow” worry me: the site should exhibit exponential growth in this phase of its lifetime. Thus, for example, the release of version 2.0 of the Fotopedia Heritage app for the iPad (which happened a few weeks ago) hasn’t led to increased community activity – although it undoubtedly temporarily attracted some traffic to the servers.

PS: software tooling and more detailed view

I switched to using fancier software tooling to generate the graphs. The previous posting simply used Excel. Although this is party meant as an exercise to brush up on these scripting skills, the use of MatLab scripts allows me to automate a bit more and get more control over the output.

Thus, for example, the next diagram shows the daily increases in the number of photos and the number of articles. The vertical scale is logarithmic because of the large ratios between the various plots.

Daily changes (click to zoom in)

These plots confirm the constant growth: although a bit deformed by the logarithmic scale, the black and the blue plots shows no real increase or decrease over more than 2 months of monitoring.

Note that sample points with <= zero units/day are represented as 0.1 (10^-1, the baseline in the plots). Note I have no access to data for the Japan and Amsterdam Projects before November 15th.

iPad Camera Connectivy Kit

I tested moving photos from a Canon 5D Mark II to an iPad. This can be useful if you need some extra storage, want to view the images on the iPad, or want to mail them.

The 5D2 uses Compact Flash memory cards, so the iCCK’s  SD card reader (right side of photo) won’t work. But you still have two options using the iCCK’s USB adapter (left side of photo):

  1. Plug a Compact Flash card reader into the iPad via the iCCK. This didn’t work for me: the iPad complained that it couldn’t handle the power drown by the reader.
  2. Connect the camera via its miniUSB-to-USB cable, via the iCCK to the iPad. This kind of works. After reading a several files, the program crashes.

Apple states on its website, that repeating the process helps: the import restarts where the previous one failed, and you will ultimately reach the end. The number of files you can read between crashes is variable: sometimes one or two, sometimes dozens.

So the good news is that the iPad can reads heavy-duty RAW files from a Canon 5D Mark II and display these (although you can’t zoom in all the way). But the crashing Photo application and Apple’s workaround are not very user-friendly. This problem was known back in April and is still an issue in iOS 3.2.2.

Fotopedia

Fotopedia is a photography-centric encyclopedia founded in 2009. It aims to provide a dynamically growing collection of high-quality photos on topics of general interest. Some examples of topics covered by Fotopedia:

  • Barcelona (travel)
  • FC Barcelona (sports, fans)
  • Antoni Gaudí (Barcelona architect), but even
  • Barcelona Metro (special interest).

The company stresses in interviews that it was founded by five ex-Apple employees with a user-interface background. This bit of name dropping is forgiveable as there is actually something clean and elegant in both their concept and their design.

Fotopedia is growing rapidly and currently has over half a million photos on 40,000 topics or articles. Its ease-of-use, track record, and its recent launch of a high-profile iPad/iPhone App suggest that it may well find its way into the short list of Web 2.0 household names. In fact, their planned series of free “coffee table books” for iPad/iPhone apps may be attractive enough to serve as a killer app for the iPad (which is partly a coffee table device).

Example of articles ("Black cat") with photos (our cat) and rating (+1).

Fotopedia?

As the name suggests, Fotopedia is a hybrid between

  1. Wikipedia – the concept of a community-driven encyclopedia.
    Fotopedia incidentally extracts authoritative descriptive texts for its “articles” from Wikipedia.
  2. and photo sharing sites like Flickr or Picasa with massive amounts of user images.
    Fotopedia, however, is only for “serious” pictures – there is no point in putting your party photos in Fotopedia.
    And, again, Fotopedia can interface to Flickr to easily import hand selected “serious” photos when the photo has a suitable license.

Fotopedia stated that it aims to combine the permanence of Wikipedia (articles and photo sets remain available, but gradually improve), but with the ease-of-use of Flickr. So the challenge is to mobilize significant numbers of users, each with their own interests and expertise, while not deviating too much from the authority of Wikipedia. I will come back to content reliability later.

Importing from Flickr

Fotopedia supports easy imports of photos from Flickr into Fotopedia when the photo has appropriate sharing licence. Fotopedia software simplifies the process to a few mouse clicks if the keywords and article names match well:

  • The registerd  Fotopedia user has control over which images are imported. This acts as a quality filter. You don’t want a “Aunt Jane drunk on Times Square” photo in the encyclopedia for Times Square.
  • A (registered) Fotopedia user is not limited to his own Flickr images. Any Flickr photo with appropriate sharing licence can be imported – without permission of the original photographer (although Fotopedia abides by the original sharing conditions).
  • A user can attach an image to a specific Fotopedia article using knowledge that the Flickr keywords didn’t provide. You can attach a Flick “Eagle” photo to “White-bellied Sea Eagle” if you know your Australian birds well enough.

Fotopedia and Wikimedia Commons

As far as I know, there is no formal collaboration between Fotopedia and Wikipedia. In any case, Fotopedia is essentially a direct alternative to Wikipedia’s own Wikimedia Commons: both are collections of high quality images for articles covered by Wikipedia. I won’t call this competition, as both are trying to achieve similar goals and certainly Wikipedia is entirely non-commercial.

The overlap between the two may explain why there is no automation support yet for importing Wikimedia Commons images. That would make a lot of sense because those images are already quite well linked to Wikipedia and thus Fotopedia articles. And Wikimedia Commons images were uploaded with the intent to serve as (backup) encyclopedia illustrations.

We will have to wait and see how the relationship between Fotopedia and Wikimedia Commons develops. Given the quality standards of the latter, they probably need to see what level of quality developes in Fotopedia before they accept any kind of formal relationship.

When is it useful?

Use as .. illustrations for an encyclopedia

Fotopedia itself stresses the encyclopedia side and actually has guidelines and a ranking system that stress this:

Is this a great photo to illustrate Golden Gate Bridge?

Encyclopedic articles obviously benefit from well-selected or even custom diagrams. But Wikipedia’s articles already have illustrations as well as significant collections of browseable illustrations per topic. But the power of Fotopedia might be that it is easier to submit a few “nice” photos about an article than to write the actual article.

powered by Fotopedia

Use as .. “free” stock photography

The founder of Fotopedia, Jean-Marie Hullot, indicated that he got the idea while helping his children find photos for school reports. So you can see Fotopedia as a (largely) freely accessible source of images. It thus can serve as a free competitor to commercial stock photography sites like Gettyimages or Veer. These sites feature photos that can be easily licensed (at commercial rates) to anyone in search of a specific type of image for a specific purpose.

Many Fotopedia contributers (including myself) only impose mild licensing restrictions. For example, most of my own recent images to Fotopedia are (in the Creative Commons jargon) “by-nc-nd“: you have to say the image was made by me (via a link), can can use it freely for non-commercial use only, and you cannot create a derived work without the photographer’s permission. Similarly, I am actually using such licensing conditions from others so that I can provide the example images in this article.

powered by Fotopedia

Use as .. a site for photography enthusiasts

There are also signs that Fotopedia can be seen as another site for photo enthusiast (like Photo.net or Photosig). To some degree, the photographers will always compete to see who has the best photo of  Westminster Abbey or even of a black cat. This is encouraged because Fotopedia appears to prefer “National Geographic” quality photos (when they can get them) over basic photos that are clear but not meant to be esthetic. Thus Fotopedia doesn’t encourage images of say an elephant next to a person, event though that can be effective to show the elephant’s size.

Fotopedia is, however, not ideal as a club site for photographers because

  • photos in the actual encyclopedia part need to be linked to an article in Wikipedia
  • images in Fotopedia are not allowed to have visible watermarks and can be readily downloaded (regardless of what licensing type your chose)
  • photo sites typically have large numbers of “portraits”, “architecture”, “nature”, etc photos and are organized to get attention for the more recent ones as well as the best ones
powered by Fotopedia

Use as .. a giant travel book

And finally, some people see Fotopedia as a travel book. Many articles are directly linked to geographical locations (as in the collaboration with UNESCO for the iPad where photos, Wikipedia topics and Google maps are seamlessly integrated): you get attractive pictures of faraway places. This should cause companies like Lonely Planet or National Geographic to rethink their long-term strategies.

Although this offers a service similar to Google’s Panoramio (5 million images linked to Google Maps locations), Panoramio “just pins photos to the globe”: there is no machine readable information about what the photo is really about, and the geographical coordinates in Panoramio can be very inaccurate if the submitter was sloppy.

powered by Fotopedia

Use as .. a generator for coffee table books

Although Fotopedia’s link to Google maps adds significant extra value to the proposition “Fotopedia as an ever-growing travel book”, you could also create other combinations of Wikipedia topics that are visually interesting but where location plays a secondary role:

  • an architecture encyclopedia: buildings, architects, architectural styles, cities, definitions
  • clothing, street fashion, regional costumes, haute couture
  • airplanes (or trains or ships or cars): planes, airports, airshows
  • birds (etc): male and female pictures, natural habitat, images in different locations, feeding habits
  • musicians: band members, concerts (until the band gets too famous and bans photography), fans

You could see the above as Web 2.0 counterparts for any existing photo book category: You can buy commercial photo books (say about “Andalusia“). Alternatively, you can make your own photo book (“Andalusia 2010“) based on your own material if you are sufficient motivated and skilled. But with Fotopedia you can collectively create an ever-changing online collective work (“Andalusia“). In fact, Fotopedia uses a “Project” concept (such as Mountains of the World) to bundle hundreds or even thousands of related topics.

powered by Fotopedia

Business models and copyrights

The Fotopedia service and support software is currently free. The company runs on venture capital (see their web site): unlike Google or Facebook or WordPress.com, there is only advertising in a corner of the Fotopedia site. This probably doesn’t cover the developers, computers and organizational staff yet.

Presumably the idea is to first become big and famous, and then work seriously on models that do generate serious income. The risk, however, is that the people who provide and review the images for free may see themselves as co-owners of the Fotopedia phenomenon (like Wikipedia): if you donate material to the public domain, you may not like it if someone else manages to earn money on this. This sensitivity probably requires a delicate balance between goodwill and keeping advertising unintrusive versus making the endeavor financially sustainable.

How photos are reviewed

Like Wikipedia, anyone can upload images to the site, anyone can link shareable images to existing encyclopedia topics and can help in the quality control. The option that you can link images that are by someone else to articles is interesting: you can thereby add information and structure, but can also create mis-information and chaos.

The Fotopedia model has the same mindset as the proven Wikipedia model, but works slightly differently. Registered users can vote (thumbs up/down) on the suitability of an image in the context of an encyclopedia article. Essentially the general public is asked to help by judging whether a photo of, say, the Colosseum in Rome

  • is technically acceptable (e.g. correct exposure, reasonable resolution, sharp)
  • adds value to any existing images. Today, there were 31 accepted or “Top” or approved images of the Colosseum. In addition there were 30 “Candidate” images that had been submitted, but were awaiting further endorsements.
  • indeed shows the Colosseum (which can be hard to judge if you only see a small detail)
  • is on-topic enough (what to do about a hypothetical “stray cat in the Colosseum” or “street performer in gladiator costume outside Colosseum”?)
  • is it visually pleasing?

So registered users are thus responsible for promoting “candidate” images to or “top” images. This incidentally requires 5 endorsements (including the original poster). A thumbs down vote cancels a thumbs-up vote and can ultimately lead to demoting “top” images back to “candidate” images. Users can explicitly reporting bigger issue (like “inappropriate content” or “this photo doesn’t match this article”).

The iPad and UNESCO connection

Logo of the Heritage app

On August 14th 2010, Fotopedia and UNESCO jointly released an app called “Fotopedia Heritage” for iOS that allows you view Fotopedia images on an iPad in conjunction with (“mashup of”) Wikipedia and UNESCO information about the location, along with its exact (!) location in Google Maps. You can also view travel information. There is an extensive, but excellent interview with the Hullot about this app on YouTube.

You could see this app as a coffee table quality photo book about the 900 UNESCO Heritage site. The look and feel resembles browsing through a copy of National Geographic containing 900 locations or groups of locations illustrated with on average 25 pictures per location. But obviously all this is very interactive compared to a printed magazine, and the set of pictures you find can vary from day-to-day.

Although the app allows you to upload new material from the iPad, more features are available using a web browser or Fotopedia’s “client” software (from PCs running Windows or Macs running OS X).

Note that the database of UNESCO locations, as used in the app, is not quite at the level as the official data: some well known sites (Luxor, Yosemite) have internal locations. For others, the UNESCO data shows subsites but some of these subsites are missing – typically because either no photo’s are available or because there is no corresponding article in the English version of Wikipedia. Example: the Monestary of St. Simeon at Aswan is not covered, even though it is on UNESCO’s list as component 088-009, because nobody created a Wikipedia page for it yet.

Fotopedia projects

In the near future Fotopedia plans to launch a series of app-like products similar to Fotopedia Heritage. These will be electronic coffee table books on interesting cities (like Lisbon), architecture, or special topics like mountains or orchids. These are currently being prepared as “projects” whereby Fotopedia sets up the table of content and a target for the number of required pictures.

How you can help

Obviously, you can help Fotopedia in general and the UNESCO Heritage app in particular by adding any high-quality material you might be willing to share.

You can help me by signing up at Fotopedia, and checking out my photos there: especially photos linked to more obscure topics could use some votes. Feel free to issue a thumbs-down where appropriate. Fotopedia surprisingly suggest using your social networks to campaign for votes and even provides a button to simplify generating an e-mail for this.

Antoni Gaudí

Antoni GaudíAntoni Gaudí

Slow iPad backup issue

The problem

The “backup iPad” function in iTunes backs up only one or two files per second. This is no problem for large files (which may take longer), but particularly applies to very small files. Some applications have hundreds or even thousands of such small files. One application consisted of 80 MBytes made up of 6000 small files. It thus took 1-2 hours to backup those 6000 files – despite the fact that only 80 MByte were being backed up.

Furthermore, the backup progress bar may seem to freeze during specific parts of the backup process (when large series of small files are being processed). Apparently the progress bar show what percentage of the data that needs to be backed up has been processed. This is normally acceptable, but in this extreme case the user is likely to conclude that the process has crashed. In my case, backing up only 80 MBytes (out of a total backup of 1.5 Gbytes) took the majority of the time.

Symptoms

Before updating the iPad’s firmware using iTunes, Apple backups any user data on the device.

The main symptom is that this backup process takes very long: hours. And that it takes much longer than it originally took when the iPad was brand new. And much longer than one would expect for the amount of data being moved across the USB cable to the PC or Mac and to a local or network drive. Suggestions in forums to use better USB cables are incidentally unlikely to help.

On a PC you can watch this backup data accumulate in a directory (used by iTunes) named, for example,

C:\Users\Peter\AppData\Roaming\Apple Computer\MobileSync\Backup\a40DigitHexNumberProbablyIdentifyingyourDevice

There are utilities available by m4ko.de that automate the analysis of what files are being backed up (but you need to find the iTunes backup directory manually anyway).

The above has been observed back in April 2010 (and the issue is still not resolved in iOS 3.2). They also concluded that many applications generated hundreds or thousands of files, and that this essentially makes it look like the iPad backup process hangs. In my case one application (Granimator) consisted of least 6000 files with graphical elements. I can tell because the .mdinfo files contain the orignal file names like “Documents/packs/GP_moving_brands/shapes/white/4/shape_0445.png” which happens to belong to one of the Granimator shape packs. And the m4ko utilities can tell because they look at a domain name inside the .mdinfo files. Granimator is incidentally creating its own workaround for this problem – but this doesn’t help other applications.

Technical analysis

The cause seems to be:

  • every file that needs backing on the iPad up results in two files on the PC: the backup file named [hashnumber].mddata and a file with metadata named [hashnumber].mdinfo
  • there are a few log and manifest files that list the hash values of all backuped files – but these are not relevant here
  • somehow, only a few files per second can be backuped in this way – even if the files are only 1 kByte each
  • particularly the application AppleMobileDeviceService.exe and AppleMobileService.exe respectively read 1 MB/s and write 0.5 MByte per second to the local device (127.0.0.1) according to the Resource Monitor. Note that 127.0.0.1 may have a strange web address depending on the content of your hosts file, but this is just a distraction. This detour of the writing of the data via the TCP/IP network stack within the PC may explain some of the performance overhead.

Way forward?

Various Apps have been discovered that exhibit this problem – so the issue is clearly a design problem that makes the iPad (and iPhone and iPod Touch?) pretty much incompatible with applications that install hundreds or thousands of tiny files. Apple can solve this by either changing their backup method, or by adding an extra rule that developers need to adhere to get their App accepted for distribution via the App Store.

iPAD usability study

The Nielsen Norman Group published a study of the iPAD’s ease-of-use. Nielsen Norman specializes in usability research for software and web sites. They say this study is a bit preliminary, but is based on:

  • expert reviews. This includes checking the user interface against the company’s general usability guidelines.
  • monitoring seven users trying to execute tasks on the iPad. Six of these users had no prior iPad exposure.

Given the positive reception of the iPad - mainly due to its perceived ease-of-use and “fun factor” – the report contains a surprising amount of critical notes. Implicitly the report suggests that Apple has sometimes chosen for good looks (like typographic clarity) at the cost of usability. A rough summary:

  1. It not always easy for the user to know whether touching something on the screen will trigger an action. Read: more cross-application user interface conventions would be helpful.
  2. It is not entirely predictable what will happen if you “click” on such an object. It may do just about anything: what happens if you click on a photo. Read: more cross-application user interface conventions would be helpful.
  3. Some important navigation features are missing for non-browser applications. In particular there is no convention on how to achieve “undo” or “back”. And consequently many applications just don’t provide these operations. Read: more cross-application user interface conventions would be helpful.

Ironically Apple is often accused of being too prescriptive and protective – which Apple then ritually justifies by saying that such rules and restrictions are needed to provide the superior user experience that its customers expect.

Obviously many of the issues discussed in the report are not the result of sloppy design: they are part of an ongoing struggle of how to design interfaces that can work intiuitively across dissimilar devices (desktops, iPads/TVs, handhelds) and dissimilar applications (passive content viewing, active content browsing, content creation, gaming). One example mentioned in the (pretty readable) article: using a mouse you can click on almost anything that you can see. With a “fat finger” however, clickables need to be correspondingly large targets. Another example of a fundamental issue is that you can standardize the controls used by applications in a particular environment. But, once a web site opens up in the browswer, you are confronted with a likely different set of conventions.