Information Use on the Move

Another IET Technology Coffee Morning, this one presented by Keren Mills, from the Open University Library.

Keren spent 10 weeks at Cambridge through the Arcadia Programme, funded by the Arcardia Trust. It’s a three-year programme in to improving library services, especially moving research libraries in to the information age. She wanted to find out what people actually wanted.

When you talk about mobile libraries … people think about vans full of books. But widespread perception that mobile internet is slow and expensive.

Students are in to texts, though – 58% of OU student respondents to Keren’s survey already receive text alerts (and continue to receive some) from their bank or whatever.  A student services pilot in sending texts was successful, sending prompt SMSs to students to remind them about study, upcoming TMAs, and so on. Students felt the university cared about them and were thinking about them – even if they didn’t need the reminder they appreciated the communication. Feedback survey showed most students wanted exam date notification and results.

Mobile-friendly websites: AACS noticed people using our websites using mobile devices.  50% of student respondents access mobile internet via their phones; 26% once a week or more. Very little interest from Cambridge students – might be younger than OU ones (on average) but they’re local to the University.

The perception is that mobile browsing is expensive – it’s better than it was, but still costs.  Some better than others – Virgin currently cap 3G data at 30p/day for up to 25Mb.

Only 26% of student respondents have downloaded apps to their phone and would so so again – higher than for overall, but not much.  iPhone might be changing that. (E.g. app being developed by KMi – the Virtual Microscope project and some others.)

Use of media on phones – students view photos most (75%)! Staff listen to music more (60%), and have more podcasts/journal articles/e-books exposure.  Students don’t, probably because we don’t prompt them to.

(An interesting discussion ensued about authentication to get access to e-journals.)

OU Library have been working to make their site more mobile-friendly. They’re using autodetecting reformatting software, which tries to suss the resolution, strips out the pictures, and reformats it.  It’s the same content, navigation and so on.

Students were particularly interested in location details and opening hours, and being able to search the catalogue. So they’re trying to make that easier. Moving towards a more CSS-based system in the future.

Safari – information skills site – has recently been overhauled.  Developed some mobile learning objects for reinforcement and revision – cli.gs/mSafari. Using their LO generator developed in-house.

Also – iKnow project – mobile learning objects, currently under evaluation.

About 33% of OU respondents have used text reference services (e.g. rail enquiries); a further 26% said they might, having heard about it through the survey.

General pattern of increased interest among OU students than others, probably because of our distributed area.

There are a range of mobile devices and emulators available in the Digilab.

Discussion

The autodetect and reformat software doesn’t work well with mobile version of Safari – so the Library site treats iPhones and iPod touches as ordinary browsers. Best practice is to give people the option of using mobile or standard version.

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A new Babel

There’s an explosion of platforms to develop applications on at the moment, which is exciting in many ways – lots of new environments and possibilities to explore.  But it makes life harder for everyone – people who are making things, and people who are choosing things.

Back in the mid to late 90s, it was pretty much a PC world.  If you wanted a computer, you knew that if you had a PC, then (apart from a few vertical niche markets), you’d have access to pretty much any new software or tool that came out.  People who made things could develop for the PC and know that nearly everyone (who had a computer) could use their stuff, apart from the small minority of people who’d deliberately chosen a computer that didn’t use what everybody else was using.

And then in the late 90s to the mid 00s, it’s was pretty much a web world.  For the most part, if you had a computer and an Internet connection, you’d have access to pretty much any new tools that came out.  People who made things could develop on the web and (with a bit of futzing around with browser-specific stuff), pretty much everyone (who had a computer and an Internet connection) could use their stuff.

But now there’s not just PCs, Macs and Linux computers, there’s not just Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari, there’s also the iPhone, Android (G1 – HTC Dream etc), Windows Mobile, Symbian/S60  (e.g. Nokia N97 and N86, out today), and the entirely new environment (webOS) for the Palm Pre (due any minute).  All of these are separate environments to use and to make things for.

It’s a nightmare.  As a user, or a developer, how do you choose?  How do you juggle all the different environments and still get stuff done?

Because juggling multiple environments is where things are.

This is all part of an ongoing transition.  When computers first arrived, there were lots of people for every computer.  Microsoft started out with the then-bold ambition “a computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software” – a computer for every person.  Now we’re well in to the territory of lots of computers for every person.

This makes for harder work for everyone – to get the best out of things as a user or developer,  you need to be polyglot, able to move between platforms, learning new tools routinely.

It’s also, though, a hugely exciting range of opportunities and possibilities.   We are very much still in the middle of a golden age of information technology.

Gadgets gadgets gadgets

It’s been a great time for gadget enthusiasts recently. By ‘recently’ I mean the last few months, but of course, the last thirty years or so have been pretty good on the gadget stakes.

Anyway – there’s the iPhone and its phoneless little sister, the iPod touch, there’s the Asus Eee (and its distant cousin the XO from the One Laptop Per Child project), and now there’s Amazon’s Kindle.

iPhone and iPod touch

I have an iPod touch and it’s absolutely marvelous. The interface is just so right. I mostly use it for wireless web browsing. It’s physically slightly smaller than a PDA, but the web experience is so much better. The finger scrolling and text resizing is a wonder.

The Wifi just works. It’s been a nightmare on every PDA I’ve ever used – endless fiddling and tweaking and unreliable. It’s not always smooth on laptops either. But everywhere I’ve tried the iPod touch, it’s been a dream. If it’s a new network, it asks if you want to connect first, and then – boom (as Steve Jobs would say) – you’re in. If it’s a network you’ve connected to before … you’re just connected. The experience is the antithesis of the configuration fiddle of Bluetooth, which was my least-loved technology until fairly recently. (It’s now Adobe’s PDF plugins for browsers.)

The web experience is so wonderful you can even use the execrable Outlook Web Access on it without it being too painful.
The text entry is way better than I expected. In my own personal and highly unreliable testing, I scored 26 wpm on it, versus 31 wpm using predictive text on my phone, and I expect the difference will reduce as I build up practice on the iPod touch. (For comparison, my legible handwriting is 35 wpm, illegible scrawl is 50 wpm, a PDA fold-out keyboard rates 86 wpm, and a full-size keyboard is 104 wpm. Worst score ever was 6.4 wpm for handwriting recognition.)

The down side is mainly stuff it simply doesn’t do. The Calendar is next to useless since you can’t add entries (and I can’t sync it with my work calendar, but that’s true of anything ever, and I can at least see it via the web). You can’t sync or suck down fresh data by wireless. Except, of course, if you want to pay money to iTunes for a fresh tune.

This is part of the secret of Apple’s success with hardware, though: if they can’t do it well, they simply don’t do it, which makes the total experience so much nicer.
Sitting around the house, reading the very latest news, watching silly YouTube videos, catching up on what friends and interesting people are up to via their blogs … all via a tiny thing that sits in one hand … it feels like I’m living in the future.

Mini-laptops (Eee, XO)

These are very impressive at first glance, and lots of fun. It’s clearly a new form factor niche between PDA/smartphones and more full-function small laptops/tablet PCs. It’ll be interesting to see if that is a big zone outside of us initial technical enthusiasts.

Personally, the form factor is out of a sweet spot for me. They’re too big to fit neatly in to a jacket pocket (like a PDA/fold-out keyboard combo, or my iPod touch), but if I’m going to have to carry something in my hand or bag anyway, I’d rather have a larger tablet PC.

The price point is extremely attractive, but I hear that Dell has slashed prices on its Vostro range of full-function laptops to $400, so that reason for them is less compelling too.

Amazon Kindle

This is the newest device here – announced officially yesterday. It remains to be seen whether it’ll ever be available outside the US.

The form factor seems just right: close to a paperback book. But the interface and design! It’s just so ugly and clunky, particularly by comparison with the iPhone and iPod touch. I read somewhere that the intention was to make it seem more serious than most gadgets, to appeal to less techie, more bookish people. I think that’s a mistake (lots of techie people are heavy readers too, and they are surely the main market for this), but even if it isn’t, nobody actively wants something that’s hard to use. I’ve not actually played with one yet, so I could be wrong in my extrapolations from the demos, but it certainly doesn’t look pretty and easy-to-use.

The eInk display looks good, and is definitely the Right Thing if you’re trying to replace books. I really hope eInk technology moves on even further – it seems so much better than LCDs.

Not requiring a monthly contract is a very smart move as well. And it doesn’t need cables to get fresh content! You pay to download a book (via One-click, which I always worry about enabling, but then I’m paranoid about accidentally spending money) and it’s beamed to your Kindle via a 3G mobile network.

(It’s a US-only version of 3G, with patchy coverage, which is a potential big problem. I think wifi would’ve been a better choice – at least with wifi, you can set up connectivity yourself at home or at work for fifty quid or so. With 3G phone networks, you have to wait for the network provider to set it up.)

But having said it doesn’t require an ongoing contract, you have to pay a subscription to get a newspaper downloaded. Eh? When I can see newspapers’ websites for free on my iPod? I don’t think so.

And the pricing gets more surreal. You have to pay to get access to blogs. I’m sorry? Pay, to read a blog? You must be joking. And it offers access to ‘the top 250 blogs’, which misses the entire point of blogs. Most of the blogs people will want are way out there in the long tail (like this one!) – hardly anyone reads them, but the few who do are often personally connected.

And yet more questionable. You can read your own documents (Word, PDFs, images) on the device … if you pay to have them converted and downloaded. I have to pay … to read content that I actually wrote and own myself? No.

It offers free wireless access to Wikipedia, which is great … but not the rest of the Internet. Because you might visit the newspapers’ websites, or blogs, instead of paying! This is an extreme walled garden, and, like all walled gardens, doomed ultimately. (Although ‘ultimately’ can be an awfully long time coming – see e.g. Facebook.)

Content is king, and they seem to have the right content initially – plenty of bestselling novels. Unlike every other eBook, including Sony Reader. The price point looks clever too – $10 rather than $25+ for hardbacks.

But the DRM! Oh, the DRM. Electronic books offer the potential for you to do so much more with a book than the traditional paper-based format – to search, annotate, share, edit, comment, cut-and-paste or even, dare I say it, mash up. But the DRM stops you doing anything but a cut-down crap version of the first two in that list. I can lend a book I’ve enjoyed to a friend, scrawl marginal notes on it and give it to a colleague or student, release it in to the wild with a BookCrossing sticker, donate it to a charity shop, or even sell it second-hand – perhaps on Amazon (!). I can’t do any of that with a Kindle eBook.

OU course materials would render much more nicely on this than – to take a random example! – on Open Learn. Students could transfer the PDFs of course materials to their Kindle – for the appropriate fee, naturally – and take a whole stack of units with them everywhere. There’s plenty of bookmarking, but it doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of annotation, which many students find invaluable in studying.

Long-term something like Kindle will overtake books, and generations of readers will form the same attachment to eBooks that the Baby Boomer generation has with print books and Gen X has with the Internet. But it won’t be Kindle that does it. I can see, using a version of Martin Weller’s VLE succession model, that this is another step along the line to a rosy future.

I still think there’s a big window for local print-on-demand for books, though. Amazon’s ability to corral vast quantities of quality content in to electronic format shows that it can be done, and if the deals can be done for an eBook reader, they can surely be done for a proprietary print-on-demand system.

Update: Apparently it can’t read PDFs, at all, even via the paid-for conversion system.  Another nail in the coffin.