More Farmer’s Market Tech

We’ve played with a lot of different technologies at the farmer’s market. Electronics used outdoors need to be rugged, easy to protect from rain, and usable in bright sunshine.

Back when we made people order fryers in advance, we brought a Panasonic ToughBook so we could take the deposits and enter the orders on QuickBooks. We stopped doing this when we started bringing chickens on spec, rather than just to fill orders. Because every cop car in the country seems to be equipped with one of these, used ToughBooks are plentiful and affordable on eBay and other places.

An iPad is also good, and has enough battery life to last all day, which the ToughBook never had. I haven’t used my iPad for serious work at the market yet, just to goof off during slow periods.

This is about to change! I’ve been playing around with the Square Register, a dinky little credit card reader for smartphones and tablets, and it’s pretty cool. You can take credit card and debit card payments from anyone, and the money ends up in your bank account after about two days, with a flat 2.75% fee. It works really well.

The farmer’s market is one of the last bastions of, “Whoops, I ran out of cash, so I can’t buy your stuff,” and as a vendor, this is a problem I want to solve!

I’ve also used Wells Fargo’s smartphone app to electronically deposit checks, which involves taking a picture of the front and the back. This is a great idea, but it’s too time-consuming when you get a lot of checks for small amounts, especially when the checks insist on fluttering in the breeze as you try to get a clear picture. For big checks, yes, absolutely. For smaller ones, it’s easier to go to the bank and deposit them the old-fashioned way.

I’m an audiobook addict, and over the years I went from listening to books on cassette to listening to them on an MP3 player — first a Rio 500, then an iPod Nano, then an iPod Touch, and now an iPhone. The farmer’s market is too busy for this, but it’s nice when doing farm chores and during the half-hour drive each way.

I’m always amused at how products that are initially marketed to urban hipsters seem to be useful down on the farm.

Every Farmer Needs a … Used iPad?

My old first-generation iPad has mysteriously become the property of my son Karl, so I took a look at the price of a new one. Yikes!

On the other hand, used, first-generation iPads have fallen to around $300, or about one-third the price of a new one that’s similarly decked out with 3G and lots of memory. iPads are built like tanks and have bright screens, and are up to the challenge of being used at a Farmers’ Market.

One practical use for the iPad is accepting credit cards, using teeny-tiny card readers like the one from Square, which plugs into the headphone jack. Square has made their product very easy to use (they’re saying, “Use it at your next garage sale,” and they’re giving it away for free. I like it — the money shows up in my bank account within a couple of days.

So I’ve purchased a used first-generation iPad and am very happy with it. It has 3G, but I haven’t activated it, since so far I haven’t needed it, and I’m not going to pay for it until I do. Since 3G-equipped units don’t seem to cost more than WiFi units when purchased used, it’s a good idea to get all the bells and whistles, just in case.

Google: Are the Smart People Leaving?

There’s a stage in every company’s development when the smart people leave and the company runs on autopilot from then on, in a zombie-like half-life. It happened to Hewlett-Packard when Dr. Hewlett and Dr. Packard passed on; it happened to Apple when Steve Jobs left the first time, and it happened to eBay and PayPal ages ago (as anyone who has ever tried to find an actual human being to help them with a problem knows to their sorrow).

Now I’m wondering if it’s happening to Google. Their “new look” for Gmail is a train wreck. Where did all the emphasis on tiny, faint gray text come from? Is everyone over thirty supposed to find a new mail provider right now?

Some mail threads are extended by adding comments to the top of the existing material, so there needs to be a “Reply” button at the top of the message as well as the bottom. Where did it go?

I’ve found no advantage in the new look, and, so far, I’ve heard of no one else who does so, either? So why is Google riling us all up by telling us that the old look will soon go away forever? It’s not as if they don’t have hundreds of thousands of servers! They can keep the old version, the one their smart people designed before they all left, as a sort of shrine to the company they used to be.

The iPod Touch as the Ultimate PDA

I’ve turned my iPod Touch into the ultimate PDA. It wasn’t hard, because it’s pretty good out of the box. But I had to adjust a few things:

Enable Calendar Sync. Karen and I keep our days coordinated through Google Calendar. When we make an appointment, we enter it on our iPod Touch’s calendar immediately and “invite” the other person so they’ll know what’s up.

The iPod Touch will stay current with your Google Calendar (or whatever calendar package you use on your PC) whenever it’s connected to a wireless network. I really like Google Calendar, but the iPod Touch will sync with Outlook Calendar and plenty of others. It works great.

Enabling sync with Google Calendar is simple but uses an obscure menu on the iPod Touch. See the Google documentation for step-by-step instructions.

Shared List Manager. Another great applications is Zenbe Lists, a simple to-do list manager that runs on the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and costs $3.99. You can also use your to-do lists onlne. You can share to-do lists with other people, too. Karen and I have a shared shopping list, which is way more convenient than I expected! When one of us is in the store, we look at the list to see what’s on it, checking off things as we put them in the shopping cart.

I used to use a Palm PDA, but it was compromised by not having third-party apps and not having a wireless interface, so it basically only got updates when you plugged it into your PC. With all the free wireless around these days, I get updates in town as well as at home.

File Sharing. Another application I like very much is Dropbox, which allows you to share directories between your PC and your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad — and also between your PC and laptop. And it’s free! I use for all kinds of documents and files I like to keep around, including works-in-progress. For simple things like notes, I use a companion program, PlainText, a free program that I like better than Apple’s Notepad program.

Entertainment, too. I’m still using a first-generation iPod Touch, and it seems to run everything perfectly well. I even have the free Netflix application on it, so I can watch streaming video when I’m bored. I lust after the new fourth-generation iPod Touch, but even the oldest ones are good.

But mostly I use the iPod Touch for serious things — email, time management, to-do lists, Google Maps, and plenty of random Web browsing to find information.

Avoid Disappointment: Get the 3G iPad

If you’re thinking about getting an iPad, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by getting the Wifi-only version. Get the 3G version, even if you aren’t convinced you’re willing to pay for 3G. Here’s why:

I’ve had an iPod Touch for a long time. An iPod Touch is basically an iPhone without the phone — and without 3G. It runs iPhone apps wonderfully, and I use it for everything: email, appointments, note taking, music, audiobooks, movies, Web browsing, games, shopping lists — you name it.

The problem is that it only has wifi, and this means that anytime I don’t have a wifi signal, there’s a lot that I can’t do. This can be very frustrating, especially when I’m around people with iPhones, who have constant access to the Web over 3G, and who simply don’t have this problem. Having to drive to a different part of town to find free wifi so I can check email (or whatever) really detracts from the value.

With the iPad, you are given the opportunity to deal yourself the same kind of misery. People tell themselves, “I don’t need 3G, because I won’t use the iPad anywhere but home and work.” They’re fooling themselves, because the “use it anywhere” nature of the iPad is one of its biggest advantages. If you buy the wifi-only version, you’re likely to be disappointed, and also stuck with an expensive iPad that isn’t what you need.

With the 3G version, on the other hand, the worst that will happen is that you’ll pay more up front for the iPad itself. You don’t have to sign up for 3G service, and even if you do, it’s month-to-month with no contract. You can cancel it at any time and avoid the ongoing expense of 3G. Compare this to the wifi version, where you’re basically out of luck when you realize that 3G is mighty handy! And 3G on the iPad is a lot cheaper than 3G on my cell phone, oddly enough.

I’m very fond of my 3G iPad and I use it all the time when I’m away from home. A laptop is too heavy and klunky to take with me everywhere, but the iPad works just fine. I can do all kinds of work wherever I am with the iPad. I use the Apple slipcase with it (I think it’s indispensible), and also a small Samsonite netbook case to carry the iPad, a spiral notebook, and some other necessities.

The iPad is not a cheap device, so you need to make sure you get full value from it. And that means 3G.