One of the biggest conversation pieces here at the ICTCM is the Texas Instruments NSpire, their most recent entry in a long line of calculators. Here’s a firsthand look at it; click to enlarge, and then just take your time to look at the thing and think about it:
On the right there is a normal-sized TI-30-something scientific calculator. That should give you an idea of the scale. Here’s another shot with me holding it, which should also give an idea of the size of this thing; and another shot which gives a better view of the screen.
But let’s go back to that first photo. First of all, yes, the NSpire does actually have not one but two keyboards. They snap in and out; the one that’s un-snapped is just a duplicate of the TI-84’s keyboard. The one that’s snapped in is, well, let’s just say “busy”. The first thing you notice is that there are buttons between the buttons. The little rounded buttons are a kind of alphanumeric keyboard. Well, really the first thing you notice is that this thing is big. Really big. It’s hard to get past the big-ness of the thing. How can the massive size not be a factor in getting kids to use the thing? Would you want to whip this out on the bus to do your homework, knowing that doing so clearly identifies you as the kid that needs to get beaten up?
From what I can tell, the NSpire is supposed to be a full-featured computer algebra system in a handheld device. If that’s so, then it certainly wouldn’t be the first time TI has tried to market such a thing. That honor would go to the TI-92 graphing calculator, which I owned about 10 years ago and, honestly, I really liked it, even though apparently I was the only person who did, because it was a marketing disaster and got banned by the AP Calculus exam to boot. (It was banned from the AP not because people didn’t like it but because it had a QWERTY keyboard.)
I am not sure what the NSpire brings to the table in terms of CAS functionality that isn’t already available in industry-standard CAS computer software like Maple or Mathematica. I overheard one person giving a rave review because it treats functions as geometric objects, whatever that might mean. I don’t think that a function is a geometric object — the graph of one certainly is — so I’m a little in the dark here. I believe it means that you can enter in a function and view it dynamically in multiple representations, so if you have a graph of a function with the tangent line drawn at a point, for instance, you can go to a split-screen view and set up a spreadsheet that shows all this data, and then if you move the point of tangency the stuff in the spreadsheet changes as well. More here (complete with annoying music).
There is also a computer software-only version of the NSpire, so you can use the CAS without owning the calculator. That sounds more likely to be useful. The downside is that, according to the TI rep with whom I spoke at the vendor booth this morning, TI is ditching Derive — its simple and very serviceable CAS that has been around since forever — to focus solely on the NSpire line of products. They have already quit producing Derive and will cease tech support for it in 2010. I think this is a huge mistake, and TI will end up paying for it in the end. But that’s the subject of another post.
Isn’t the NSpire just really, really over the top here? I think so. After a certain point, you simply cannot cram more and more stuff onto a proprietary device. You will either make the device too expensive, too bulky, too confusing to use, or too proprietary in the sense that the device is trying to reinvent software applications that already exist in a simple, affordable, and ubiquitous way. (Think MS Excel, versus the proprietary spreadsheet on the NSpire.) I think TI crossed all four of those boundaries years ago, and the NSpire is just a step further — several steps further — in a direction that is really just a dead end.
The thing doesn’t even have a touch screen, for goodness sake, which is so easy and cheap to implement that it’s unfathomable why you wouldn’t build one into the calculator instead of having hot-swappable keyboards. Swapping keyboards, for gosh’s sake. What kind of user interface is that? Are students — who are used to iPhones and, at worst, the 12-15-button interface of a cell phone — supposed to see the NSpire as a device they will actually adopt and use?
The session I attended this morning went into this issue, regarding just how far can you possibly push the technology of the graphing calculator before you simply must abandon the format and move through a paradigm shift. More on that later, though.