Friday, April 30, 2010

iPad, iType, iSeek, iConsume, iLearn and iCreate

I'm two weeks into my ownership of the iPad, and, like many others, I have spent some time sitting back to reflect on this new device and what I've learned about it thus far and what it might mean for libraries.

I said in my first post about this device, that it is designed primarily for a new type of user, those focused on consuming content. I still believe this, but will note that I'm now more convinced that it also has a role in content creation.

As a content consumption device, it clearly excels. It offers a bright screen, entirely large enough for comfortable viewing of all types of media. It's easy to use and insulates one from the intricacies of the operating system and most programs. It simply works and works well.

I learned very early (say around the end of day one of my ownership) that having this device without the cover is to put oneself at a major disadvantage. Apple should really include these covers with the units, as the cost to do that for them would be quite marginal, I'm sure. Holding the unit without the case might provide esthetic enjoyment in seeing the usual excellent design of the device, but the unit feels a bit slippery because of its size and your concern that you don't want to drop it and crack the screen. The shell, by itself, really only provides you with edges by which to hold onto it. The case, while hiding the sleek case, provides a tractable surface that your fingers can easily grasp and puts you at ease in using the device.

There are other obvious benefits to the case, the first being that it allows you to tilt the unit when using the screen keyboard. This is very important if you are to have any chance of using it effectively. But I note that when I do this the continued need to hold your hands so that they hover over the screen keyboard convinced me that this method of entry is only good for Tweets, Facebook, and email. Content creation of a more substantial nature is best achieved by, as you'll see in the picture of my unit above, buying a Bluetooth keyboard and using that. Yes, it means carrying another device (and as one person said to me, now how is this different from having a Netbook?), but with it, you'll likely be able to leave your notebook behind in a high percentage of normal day-to-day mobile situations. Plus, when you are doing only short bursts of data entry, you can carry just the iPad sans keyboard and you’ll be just fine.

I’ll also note that interacting with the unit, particularly with a detached keyboard, does require learning some new skills. Since there isn't a mouse, many of the functions you performed with that device are now achieved by interacting directly with the screen. If you want to go back and edit the sentence you wrote, you tap the screen to place the cursor and then use the keyboard to edit. This is quickly learned and it’s not really burdensome; it's just different. More importantly, I suspect that it is highly indicative of a growing trend we'll see in computing where interaction through the screen will permanently eliminate external devices like the mouse and eventually even the keyboard. Particularly as voice recognition continues its continual march towards ease-of-use and accuracy.

Apps availability for the iPad is still largely based on the iPhone apps, which, while usable, do suffer noticeably when the screen resolution is doubled. However, a steady stream of new iPad specific (or both iPhone/iPad) apps are emerging, and it's clear that this new platform will offer some substantial enhancements in functionality and display capabilities. I've downloaded a number of additional apps beyond those I use on the iPhone, including GoodReader, ABC, Pages, Keynote and Numbers and, while many of these are early versions, it is clear they will offer much promise in later versions. The iBook store at this point only holds a faint candle to the offerings of Amazon's Kindle store. While I'm sure this will also change, I still find the Kindle largely superior for reading most newspapers and books because of the far superior annotation capabilities the Kindle offers. Again, this will likely change with further releases of the iPad software, but for now Kindle is still the clear winner, in my opinion, for e-books and e-newspapers.

So what does this mean for libraries? What I think the iPad has convinced me of is that we in libraries also have a new platform, a new content consumption and creation device, wrapped in a powerful new user-friendly computing environment. It will enable us to better serve information and knowledge seekers and creators. This won't happen without some creativity on our part in order to exploit this platform to its fullest. Doing so, however, will help many to see the relevance of our institutions in the new information landscape. How?

Obviously, devices like these make content all the more accessible, and, if we're talking about libraries, we're not just talking any content, we're talking quality content, placed in context—an important distinction that we don't market enough to both our current and future users. Discovery tools (like Primo) will obviously migrate to these platforms and that's an important step, but, once they get there, users will start looking for ways to also integrate them with other applications and data on the local platform, such as the PDF/DOC tools (GoodReader, iannotate or Papers) that allow you to load a personal library of materials for use on your iPad. If, from within those applications, we can build ways for users to click on citations in those bibliographies or footnotes and then link directly into the discovery tool to find and retrieve those documents from libraries and/or aggregate databases of scholarly articles (like Primo Central), we'll be empowering the user in new powerful ways. Other functions might allow the easy annotation, extraction (with appropriate footnotes) and the citation of those documents directly into the body of new papers being developed. Providing ways for researchers to build new papers and then to submit them to reviewers and automate that whole process could be another valuable extension that could easily be supported via these platforms. Once papers are created, making it possible to deposit it in repositories will help us to further the role of libraries in capturing and furthering knowledge.

So, after two weeks, what I believe we need to keep in mind is that this is a new device that is light, capable and will facilitate and accelerate our ability to help people find quality content, load it, annotate and atomize it, recombine it, enhance it and build extensions of existing knowledge in order to create new knowledge. It's early in the life cycle of this technology, but I'm very excited about the future I see for it and similar devices that will inevitably follow.