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January 11th, 2011:

The Importance of Sideloading

You haven’t seen much of me here since the first of the year because I set myself a target for writing fiction, and, micracles of miracles, I’m sticking to it. Blogging is second priority, and if I spend my creative hours working on stories, I’m likely to post a lot less in this space. (What posts I do write I hope to make longer.)

Anyway. CES 2011 is now history, and I followed it more closely than I might have in past years because I’m actively shopping for an Android slate. (I hate to call them “tablets;” we’ve had tablet PCs for almost ten years and there’s one on my desk.) I played a little with a Samsung Galaxy Tab at a Verizon store in Tampa in late November and was much impressed, even though the demo unit did not have any kind of ebook reader installed. (Wireless carriers are pushing video hard, because video will use up a lot of deliciously profitable minutes.) I’ve played with Apple’s iPad as well and have been just as impressed, but there’s a huge worm in it for me: Apple wants to absolutely control its content ecosystem, and sideloading of apps is a gnarly business. Sideloading an iPad is easier with books and music, but I’d like to try my hand at slate apps, and I’m not going to work in a playground with barbed wire around it. The open-source Android just suits my temperament better. I have some faint hope of programming Android apps in FreePascal, but Android is really a Java-like platform (apps run on the Dalvik VM, which has its own specific register-based bytecode set) and a Pascal-to-Dalvik compiler is unlikely, as much as it has precedent in the ancient UCSD P-system.

Sideloading is important in a number of ways. (The term as I use it simply means the ability to get apps and content onto a device locally through a cable or a plug-in memory unit, rather than from a tightly-controlled online store or cloud locker of some kind.) I don’t have a lot of ebooks yet, primarily because the e-ink display on my Sony Reader makes my head hurt. Furthermore, the ones I do have are a very mixed bag, from many different sources and in many different formats. I have novels, but I also have tech books, many of which have intricate art and layouts that don’t reflow. A lot of things I’ve picked off Usenet are image scans of transformer catalogs and ancient manuals for Fifties Heathkits, none of which are legible on low-res e-ink screens. I need a good high-res color display, but more significantly, I need the ability to install arbitrary apps to render any arbitrary content format, including minority formats like DjVu, which I don’t favor but must deal with occasionally. I could readily sideload the files on an iPad, but the apps to render them are another matter.

Sideloading of ebooks is still a geek thing, primarily because the ebook business is so damned young. If you can get everything you want from Amazon or Apple, cool–and almost everybody is starting from scratch, with little or no existing ebook library to deal with. In years to come, people will be jumping from device to device and reader to reader and store to store, and at each jump must face the question of how to pack along the books they’ve already paid for. DRM makes this hugely more difficult, but even in a world without DRM, different kinds of content would require local storage transfer and different rendering apps, not all of which will be readily available from the current vendor’s store, especially for new devices incorporating new OSes.

Sideloading also allows local scanning for malware, which will become increasingly important in coming years, certainly for apps but probably for compromised content files as well.


Any slate I buy will have to support sideloading of both apps and content. Android seems to be the OS for that, and I’m now watching the Motorola Xoom, a dual-core 10″ Android slate running the Honeycomb version of Android. There’s some weirdness involving the SD slot (the CES prototypes didn’t have it) but without that, there’s no sale. More intriguing for many reasons is the Notion Ink Adam, (above) which does have a MicroSD slot and 2 USB ports, and the intriguing PixelQi display. Its Android OS is a custom version that anticipates some of the Honeycomb features but is technically V2.2 Froyo with a proprietary UI. (Their blog is worth following if you’re interested in slate technology.) I just hope they don’t do a FusionGarage thing, but if they can hang in there they’ll be a contender.

I must emphasize that I’m being careful and I’m not in any particular hurry. Much of my personal Jedi self-training in recent years could be summarized as Stop wanting stuff. Buy, or buy not. There is no “want.” When jump I, know you will!