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ipad screenshotGreat though touch-screens on tablets and smartphones are, one of the drawbacks with them that I’ve found is that the experience of typing on them isn’t a particularly nice experience.  It’s all too easy to type the wrong character and it’s one of the things that is always frustrating about typing notes on an ipad, how much time you have to spend correcting what you’ve typed.   So I was really interested to see a tweet today about a technology that has been around for a litle while that makes raised buttons appear from the surface of a touch screen when needed.  Checking out the article from Business Insider and then browsing around for some other information about the technology, including this Techcrunch blog post and the website for Tactus Technology, the company developing this idea, and it looks like a really interesting idea that could make typing on a tablet a much nicer experience and avoid having to cart around a chunk of peripherals such as add on keyboards.

Essentially the technology seems to consist of a fluid layer that can generate raised buttons as and when needed. It’s quite intriguing to see buttons suddenly morph (?) out of a flat screen.  But what you get is a small raised button that looks like it will be easier to touch and reduce the chance of mistaken keystrokes.  I’d be intrigued to find out what the buttons actually ‘feel’ like but they look like being a really useful feature.

Ideally this technology would be integrated into the design of the smartphone or tablet and driven by the software although I see that they’ve also worked on an interim approach using a case.  It will be really interesting to see how they get on with getting this technology integrated into mainstream devices and when we might see the first production examples of the technology.  It also strikes me to wonder whether the fine-definition of the technology would let you develop a tablet that could display braille writing.

KPCB 2012 Internet trendsMobile trends
Although I’d picked up the growth of mobiles and tablets overtaking sales of desktop PCs and laptops, one thing that hadn’t become obvious to me was that we now seem to be approaching the time when the number of tablets/smartphones in circulation outnumbers the numbers of desktops/laptops.   December’s Internet Trends survey from Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers shows, in the graph reproduced here, that they’d expect that stage to be reached globally sometime this year.

Although I’d probably have a couple of caveats about smartphone adoption in the developing world slightly skewing the figures, and whether people might ordinarily have more tablets/smartphones than desktops/laptops, it nonetheless emphasises the point that mobile internet access is now mainstream.  For many people it may be their preferred means of accessing your services and their expectation is going to be that it should just work, and give an equivalent or better experience than the ‘traditional’ desktop browser experience.

But numbers of devices doesn’t yet map to the amount of usage of our websites.  For us our traffic is still under 10% from mobiles/tablets, so even if the numbers of devices in circulation is reaching parity, we aren’t yet at a stage where the majority of our use is coming from those devices.  But looking at the trends, that day is on the horizon maybe.

One of the interesting concepts in KPCB’s slideshow is the ‘asset-light’ idea.  KPCB 2012 Internet treands screenshotThe idea that more and more people, perhaps younger people especially, may be less inclined to wanting to own or acquire physical ‘stuff’ and have a more ‘mobile’ (as in being able to move more readily) lifestyle.  Characterised as having your music on spotify or iTunes rather than on physical CDs, or renting rather than buying your textbooks.  It also has in mind for me a personal version of the concept of ‘Just-in-time’ the production strategy based around reducing inventory in favour of delivery of items when you need them.  It’s the concept of ‘on-demand’ rather than ownership ‘just-in-case’.

Potentially, as characterised in this blogpost on Fail!lab it might mean major changes to our library websites, or even the concept of websites.  It’s a good and interesting thought.  For a while we’ve certainly been pushing content into places where students go, such as pushing library resources via RSS feeds into our VLE.  But these spaces are still websites.  Yet once you’ve got a stream or feed of data then you could push or pull it into numerous places, whether apps or webpages or systems.

The idea in the Fail!Lab blogpost around Artificially intelligent agents doing the ‘heavy-lifting’ of finding resources for users is something that Paul Walk raised as part of his Library Management Systems vision (slideshare and blog post) so it’s interesting to see someone else postulating a similar future.  For me it starts to envisage a future where users choose their environment/tools/agents and we build systems that are capable of feeding data/content to those agents and are built to a set of data sharing standards.  It suggests a time where users are able to write queries to interrogate your systems, whether for content or for help materials or skills development activity, and implies a world of profiles, entitlements and charging mechanisms that are a world away from the current model of – go to this website, signup and pass through the gateway into a ‘library’ of stuff.

I read an interesting blog post on the BBC Internet blog today  (tweeted by @psychemedia) about their new Antiques Roadshow play-along app that got me thinking about whether sound might be an interesting alternative to QR codes for QR code link to libwebrarian.wordpress.comadding links to videos.  Apart from the interesting play-along game of guessing the valuation before it is broadcast, what I found interesting was the idea about using a sound to pass information.  The BBC app uses ‘audio watermarking’ to send out signals during the TV programme.  These signals are inaudible to listeners but can be picked up by the microphone and interpreted by the app on the phone or tablet.

Obviously the BBC are able to broadcast sounds as part of their programmes in a way that isn’t available to most.  But with websites and videos many of us are now effectively acting as media producers.  I’m particularly thinking about the series of short animations that we’ve been producing over the last couple of years introducing topics like ‘Avoiding plagiarism’ or ‘Evaluating information’.  These short animations all tend to end with a link to somewhere to go to find more information and we’ve started adding QR codes to this screen to give people an easy way of following the link via a mobile device.   It would be interesting to see if it might be possible to add a sound to the end of the animation that passed on the link.

Bob animation screenshot showing QR codeOne piece of technology that does something along those lines is Chirp.  This tool ‘sings’ information from one device to another.  (For an example of Chirp in action have a look at Thomas Cochrane from AUT’s presentation at last year’s mLibraries conference.) This tool is only available for iOS devices at the moment but apparently they plan to offer it on other devices eventually.  It also differs from the BBC ‘audio watermarking’ in that it is an audible sound.

Looks like a potentially useful way of providing follow up links on videos at least.



Ok so it’s not a bus full of books
I must admit that whenever someone talks about mobile libraries my first thought is still about a library on wheels.  In my defence for much of my library career it has been a bus full of books.  And a lot of my time has been spent on trying to find ways of getting technology onto the bus – from psion organisers to mobile networks to satellite systems to finally almost reliable mobile phone signals… if you can just move your mobile library a little way down the road (of course it’s easy to get approval to do that…).

But mobile libraries is now about providing library services through mobile devices and is now a big deal, with a lot of effort into developing mobile services for libraries and it’s own international conference series, m-libraries .  Mobile is big business and increasingly ubiquitous, (Pew Internet recently reported that 85% of american have a cell phone) (and the BBC recently reported on the surge of mobile use in Africa)

But in the last few months I’ve become less convinced that ‘m’ or mobile is really the most appropriate term for this whole area, and looking through Google’s recent ‘Navigating the new multi-screen world’ report, (and blog) started to crystalise it for me.  Their survey had the comments that 60% of smartphone use and 79% of tablet use was in the home, not out-and-about.  And it makes me wonder whether ‘mobile’ is really the right word to use.  Looking at Google’s survey they report quite distinct contexts between mobile phones and tablets – one short-focus and short bursts, the other more leisurely use.  Yet we categorise these devices into  a single set and call it ‘mobile’ when how people use them, what they are doing, and when and where, are quite distinct.

What I think we are wanting to do is to make our services available to whoever needs them, wherever they are, whatever part of our service they want to use, whenever the want to use them and on whatever device they choose to use.   In reality our users might not actually be ‘mobile’ or using a phone, to benefit from the tools and technologies that the ‘mobile’ developments need to offer.

I’m starting to think that ‘mobile’ actually breaks down into several distinct areas, some of which aren’t actually ‘mobile’ at all:

  1. Services for users who are ‘on the move’ e.g. location based – where’s my nearest library, where’s the nearest library to me with a free PC/this book/SCONUL access etc
  2. Services to users who want to do something quickly – and mobility isn’t especially relevant but might be a context – e.g. find some resources and bookmark them for later, book or reserve something, look something up/quick reference – and that might equally be look something up quickly on a mobile while sitting in front of a PC
  3. Services for users with more time to engage in activities -regardless of device – but that might be a tablet or an ebook reader or a smart TV
  4. Designing for multiple screen sizes – from small phones through to 60″ flat panel smart TVs and beyond – mainly with responsive web design rather than with autodetect systems
  5. User experience, usability and accessibility, which has to underpin all user interactions, whether on desktop or tablet or phone, but needs to adhere to the same basic principles.

It seems to me though, that while you might characterise these areas as somehow distinct, that there are connections and relationships between them, a workflow almost, where you might start something on one device and follow up on another, and where your personalised environment remembers where you are and what you are doing and meshes them all together.

So there’s a new ipad coming out soon,, not apparently ipad3 but just ‘the new ipad’.   So next year when there is the next version what do we have?, the new ‘new ipad’ and the old ‘new ipad’, it seems a bit confusing, I wonder why not just ipad3 or ipad 2S if they really had to.

Another things that strikes me about the ipad is the figures they showed at the launch about the sales.  These showed that Apple shipped 15m ipads which was more than the number of HP PCs that were sold.  That seems to suggest to me that Apple see the ipad as being a mass-market tablet device.  But isn’t the price a bit of a barrier?  At that price I can see the Apple fans buying a new version each year, but if you’ve already got an ipad or ipad2 are you really going to be buying a new one quickly?   If Apple are looking at the PC market then the likely PC replacement cycle must be around 3-5 years I would have thought.  Will Apple really be able to encourage people to spend the price of a decent spec-laptop every couple of years?  I would wonder.

ipad iOS 5 screenshotI’ve been part of a few discussions this week about various aspects of mobile and tablet devices, from the institutional data security aspects through to the implications for website development and for helping library staff to support users using these types of devices.  So it was interesting to hear about another aspect, app collection management, blogged about here by Emily Clasper. 

It was good to see the thought processes about the requirements for buying and maintaining the apps set out so clearly.  And to read the conclusion that, ‘choosing content for the iPad was pretty much the same as developing any library collection’.   It’s reassuring to see that the standard tried and tested library acquisitions processes of  stock objectives, stock plans and stock policies still have relevance to digital devices and apps.

I do wonder though if there is a bit of a difference compared with other library selection processes.  In a lot of cases library material is being pre-selected by the library stock supply industry and presented to librarians for them to choose from, so there is some weeding out of unsuitable material.  There are tools to help stock selection that may not yet have caught up with a need to include apps. And finding apps can be a bit of a hit and miss affair.  

Apps can also be quite unreliable and prone to bugs, but you could say the same of computer games and many libraries have been happily lending them and using them for a long time.  But you do have to factor in time to update the apps at regular intervals.

I’d also wonder about the detail in some of the license conditions with some of the apps.  Tablets are pretty much expected to be ‘personal’ devices, so the license conditions on an app aren’t likely to cover their use on a shared device in the library.

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