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A Paradigm Shift in Calculators

Since its introduction to the marketplace back in the early 1970s the calculator has remained essentially unchanged, except for the ever-expanding plethora of things it can calculate. Basically we get a box with keys on it and a small screen at the top. Over the years the size and type of the screen has changed and the number of keys has increased, but the building blocks are pretty much identical to what we had been over 40 years ago. Yes Hewlett-Packard championed calculators that used Reverse Polish Notation, which altered the order in which we entered numbers and functions, but it still didn’t change how we approached the calculation of mathematical formulas.

When the smartphone came along it quickly displaced many other devices, such as radios, walkie-talkies, video players, and you-name-it. It therefore came as no surprise that calculator apps were among the first things to be seen on smartphones. As expected, most of these calculator apps emulated existing technology and provided nothing more than a touch-screen version of the tried-and-true box-with-buttons device. We still approached the solving of problems in exactly the same way, only now we pressed on virtual buttons instead of real physical buttons. The paradigm remained unchanged.

The word paradigm is defined as “a typical example or pattern of something; a model”. When we talk about shifting a paradigm we refer to altering the very way we do something. So, when I say that the app MyScript Calculator is a paradigm shift, I mean quite literally that it alters the very way we perceive what a calculator is and how we interact with it.

First up, this calculator has no emulated numeric buttons to press. Instead we draw out the formula we want the calculator to perform. In the following two screen captures you see first the script I wrote with my fingers, and then the converted script along with the answer to the problem:

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If this was all the app was able to do, it would hardly be a big change....

 

 

Sure, scratching out the formula instead of typing it in does shift the paradigm slightly, but not much has changed insofar as how we approach the issue of solving a problem. The example I gave above is still a linear statement of a problem in which the math-to-be-calculated is on the left of an equal sign, while the result is alone in on the right. However, MyScript Calculator goes way beyond that and allows the unknown (the number you wish to calculate) to be anywhere in the equation, on the left side of the equals or on the right, and there can be formulas on both sides of the equal. Look at the following example:

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As you can see, I’ve used a question mark to denote the value that needs to be calculated. As it stands, the formula cannot simply be entered into a traditional calculator. Before you can do that you have to get the question mark ALONE on the right side of the equation. If you are good with math you’ll know how to do this, but as questions become more complex, even those of us with the know-how find it tedious to have to do this work in advance. It’s like having to pre-wash your dishes before you put them in the dishwasher. With MyScript Calculator the answer of 225 is worked out based on exactly what I drew:

Screenshot_2014-03-14-10-09-53

To drive home this point, here’s an even more complex example:

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There’s no question that this free app (available on Android and iOS) fulfills the definition of a paradigm shift. Not only does it alter the way we input formulas into a calculator, but it uses that change to completely alter the type of calculations we can perform. If there were a top 10 of paradigms shifts brought about the smartphone, this app should certainly be on it.

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