Permalink 11:32:58, by Eric Baber Email , 351 words, 61972 views   English (EU)
Categories: News, Thoughts

Thoughts about app stores

When Apple introduced the App Store it did a couple of things: it brought about a super-smooth path for purchasing content to an iOS device; and it brought about an effective monopoly. If you wanted to sell an app to iOS users, you had to do so through the Apple App Store. Since then the kind-of-shady-is-it-legal-or-isn't-it Cydia store has also come about for people brave enough to jailbreak their devices, but realistically speaking, Apple's own store is still the one and only way of purchasing iOS apps.

The drawback of this is that Apple is able to position themselves as the gatekeeper of what can and can't be sold or purchased, and can set the terms and conditions; the bonus for iOS users is that they don't have to trawl the net for an app they're looking for, but only have to visit one shop and if it's not there, it doesn't exist. Simple.

Over the last couple of weeks we've had two relevant announcements.

First Opera (the browser company) announced that they were launching an app store carrying apps for a variety of mobile operating systems (though of course not for iOS); and then, yesterday, Amazon announced that they were launching an Android-only-for-now mobile app store as well.

The benefits to the consumer are that as app stores proliferate, terms and conditions may become more favourable to both developers and customers, yielding financial or other benefits. The big drawback is that if I as a consumer am looking for an app for a particular purpose I potentially have to go through several app stores in order to see what's available where and at what price. Sure this is what life has been like in the real world forever; but in that sense it feels like it's a step backwards, rather than building on the cleverness that was the original app store and coming up with a next, even cleverer iteration.

It'll be interesting to see how the various app stores take off and what, if any, impact they'll have on the design and concept behind the original Apple App Store.

Permalink 11:17:52, by Eric Baber Email , 85 words, 57130 views   English (EU)
Categories: News, Thoughts

Inkling, McGraw-Hill, Pearson and the iPad

Techcrunch has just reported that McGraw-Hill and Pearson are now investing in Inkling, a company which is making a number of US HE textbooks available via their iOS app. I find this remarkable because Inkling is iOS-only, and even iPad-specific. This indicates that both Pearson and McGraw-Hill are expecting the iPad to sell in significant numbers in the HE sector. Either that, or they know/assume that Inkling will also become available for other OSs, something that Inkling has never to my knowledge suggested. Interesting.


Permalink 02:28:22, by Eric Baber Email , 794 words, 47921 views   English (EU)
Categories: News, Thoughts

Impressions and thoughts from the Consumer Electronics Show

It's the end of the first day of the CES, the Consumer Electronics Show - THE show for anything electronics-related. It attracts around 300,000 people annually, the population of Cambridge as it happens. The show started last night with Steve Balmer, Microsoft CEO, given an opening keynote speech. Today I've attended a number of seminars around the use of IT in Higher Education as well as having a wander around some of the hundreds of stands. Here's a summary of things so far, some of it from an Ed-Tech angle.

Steve Balmer's opening Keynote
In his keynote Steve showcased a number of hardware and software initiatives, in particular the Xbox360 and the new Kinect addition. The combination of Xbox 360 and Kinect allows for the games console to effectively see the user, and a number of games are already out on the market. In many ways it's a next-generation idea to the Wii: the user is the controller, i.e. no hardware controllers are needed to manipulate the game. There are fitness games on the market already whereby the console shows you what you need to do, you copy it, and the Kinect sees you and gives you feedback. Dancing games also featured. It also allows the user to interact with non-games applications such as choosing audio and video files by waving at the console/Kinect combo.

Probably the most-hyped area of electronics in the run-up to the show has been tablets, and so it's no wonder that there are tablets of all sizes on display. These range from the prominent Samsung Galaxy tab to a whole host of no-name Asian manufacturers displaying tablets all way from mobile-phone to A4 sized. Most of them run Android while others run their own operating system. A handful bill themselves as ideal ebook readers, but basically it opens up choice to the customer. In the same way that you can buy TV sets in any size from handheld to so-big-you-need-a-new-living-room, the same will be the case for tablets within the next year or two. For publishers this means that they need to ensure that the content they produce is flexible and adaptive enough to suit a range of display mechanisms. Does this mean that pdf is out and HTML5 is in? Discuss.

Two-screen devices
Similar to tablets I've seen two two-screen devices, the Kno and the Acer Iconia. Both are billed as having been developed for the educational market as they allow for either viewing a book in a traditional manner (two pages displayed side-by-side), or else viewing the text on one screen and making notes on the other one either with a stylus or a virtual keyboard. I'm going to see if I can try both of them out; so far, my iPad virtual keyboard has convinced me that I still need a physical one. Let's see if either of these two devices do a better job of allowing me to input text via their virtual keyboards.

These are everywhere, again in all sizes. Most rely on the use of special glasses, and now deliver really excellent visual quality. Some render a 3D image without the use of special glasses but these, in my book, still leave a lot to be desired. You either have a good picture but have to sit in exactly one position, or else allow you to move around more, but then lack in quality. That will probably be improved on over the next 2 - 3 years though.

A while ago we came across Siftables - cubes that sense each other and then react to each other in different ways depending on what they've been programmed to do. At the time these were very much in the prototype stage but are now beginning to be commercialised by Sifteo. These could have a whole range of educational uses: each cube could contain a letter, and when put together to form words could give the user feedback (e.g. pronunciation modelling, correct/incorrect spelling). Each cube could contain a number or an operator, and users could practise arithmetic with them. This is one to watch and I'm hoping to get a trial set of cubes and work with Sifteo to produce some educational games.

This is probably the coolest thing I've seen here. It's basically a room with screens all around. The demo videos that run around you really make you feel like you're in a church, in an open field or wherever - very neat. I could see this being used in a whole variety of ways - taking a learner into space, inside a human body, inside molecules or atoms etc. Rendering such environments would be a bit of a job but the end result would be neat.

That's all for now, maybe more tomorrow!


Permalink 10:08:37, by Eric Baber Email , 973 words, 21005 views   English (EU)
Categories: News, Articles

Thoughts on the Dell Streak

Yesterday I received a Dell Streak and already like it a lot. I thought I'd put down a number of impressions in writing.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Streak is a bigger-than-a-phone-smaller-than-the-iPad device that calls itself a "tablet". It's got a 5"/12.7cm screen, which makes the whole thing just barely fit into a shirt pocket. It'll very comfortably fit into a jacket pocket though, and it somehow feels like it's aimed at the type of person who would be wearing a (suit) jacket.

One of the first thing that strikes about it is the fact that it's designed to be used in landscape mode, unlike most phones, which are designed to be used in portrait mode. The physical home, menu and back buttons are down the right-hand side, and the home screen is always displayed in landscape mode and doesn't rotate unlike any of the other screens, so it immediately tells you what the whole machine is about - consuming content, basically, rather than making phone calls. Yes it's also a phone but my guess is that you'd look pretty silly with it stuck to your ear; used as a phone it would definitely look like a throwback to the first carphones of the 80s.

I say "you'd look pretty silly" because I haven't actually used it as a phone yet, and my guess is that I'm not alone in that. It's clearly designed for people who read and input text a lot - to that effect it's got a full (virtual) QWERTY keyboard whenever text entry is required, unlike the phone-style keyboard input of most mobiles. The expanded screen size makes inputing text much easier than on, say, the Nexus One given the increased likelihood of actually hitting the right keys; having said that, the iPhone is pretty much the same size as the Nexus One and text-entry on that is good, so maybe it's as much a software issue as a hardware one.

On that note - software - the thing that irks me most is that the Streak (in the UK at least) is still on Android 1.6 rather than 2.1 or even 2.2 like you can get on the Nexus One. Attempts to update it have so far eluded me; chances are it would take a manual update of a type "not supported by Dell", which is annoying given that it's a brand-new device.

What else. Reception is excellent - usually at work I get one or at most two bars on most of my phones. On the Streak I'm getting four and even occasionally five. Whether it's actually lying to me a la iOS who knows, but download speeds are better than on other phones I've used at my desk, so it seems to be accurate.

I've also installed Kindle and have downloaded a couple of books I'd already started reading on it. Reading on the Streak screen so far is good - I've always struggled with reading any decent amounts of text on the Nexus One or the iPhone, but this screen is big enough to display a decent amount of text in a reasonable font size which is nice. And a praise for the Kindle architecture - it's great being able to read a book on another device, close it down, fire up Kindle on another one and immediately carry on reading where you left off without having to remember where you'd got to. Very nice indeed.

As to apps, the Android Market now has everything I want, and a whole lot more. One curious thing that struck me is that when logging into the Market via the Streak it serves me up predominantly paid-for apps; when logging in from the Nexus One it serves me up predominantly free ones. Fluke? The fact that the Streak is running 1.6 and therefore perhaps supports fewer apps, and those happen to be fee-charging? I have no idea, but it's definitely a marked difference. I doubt it's as a result of the OS version - I've been able to find and install every app on the Streak I'd already had on the Nexus One, so it doesn't seem to be a matter of fewer apps being supported on 1.6. I wonder if anyone else has noticed this difference?

A minor thing - having a larger screen-size also makes it easier to keep the home and adjacent screens tidier. It's nice being able to put more of your commonly-used apps on the home screen. As I say a minor thing, but nice nonetheless.

Another not-quite-so-minor thing - I do miss the trackball that the Nexus One has. Occasionally, e.g. when scrolling through tweets on Twidroid, it's far easier to accurately scroll through and highlight content via the trackball than it is with your finger. I'm sure I'll get used to not having one, but initially I do miss it.

And finally one huge irritation - the charger is a non-standard, i.e. non-(micro) USB one. Yet another charger needed!!! How very annoying. What's wrong with micro USB, Dell??

However, on the whole, I like it. I'm still trying to decide who this machine is aimed at: it tries to - and succeeds at - integrate social networking (it has a built-in Facebook app which works better than any other one I've previously used). However, the price (£500) and size (brick) means it's unlikely to be attractive to kidz. Instead, it's likely to appeal to thirties-somethings - people who do do the social networking thing but also want something a bit heavier-weight on which to do proper e-mails and view work-related documents (it comes pre-installed with Quickoffice). A substantial market-size I'm sure, so this may well be the first of a tranche of similar devices.

If anyone else out there has used one feel free to add your own comments. And if anyone has managed to update their OS to 2.1 or 2.2 I'd love to hear how!


Permalink 14:29:05, by Eric Baber Email , 564 words, 25573 views   English (EU)
Categories: Thoughts, Events

Of teachers and mobiles

Earlier this week I gave a talk at a UK university. The audience was made up of lecturers from a variety of disciplines, and the theme was "Learners in the 21st century". My opening gambit was to poll the audience on a number of issues - "How many social networking channels do you use", "How much of the assigned reading do you think your students do", things like that. The polling itself I did via polls set up at http://www.smspoll.net, a neat website that lets you set up polls that allow people to vote via SMS from their mobile phones. So, the first thing I did was pull up the first poll, ask the audience to get their mobile phones out, and to vote via SMS. The purpose of the whole exercise was 3-fold - 1) so I could get a feel for the audience, 2), to prime them on a number of issues I'd be discussing, and 3) to show them that mobiles can be used meaningfully for teaching and learning.

After the session, one of the delegates came up to me and said that she and a number of her colleagues had felt excluded (her word) because they didn't have mobiles, or that their mobiles didn't have the necessary functionality. I accepted her feedback, but also pointed out that it was almost certainly the case that any mobile would be able to send SMS messages, and that maybe they just weren't familiar with doing so. She was, however, clearly still somewhat upset at having been excluded. (Turns out that the polls received 24 votes out of about 80 people in the audience).

I must say I was taken aback. I hadn't anticipated that there would be anyone in the room who didn't own a mobile (though I anticipated that some of them may have left theirs in the staff room or whatever), but this is clearly the case. I've been pondering ever since whether I was unreasonable to expect all members of my audience - university lecturers - to have a mobile. So there's a question for you - was I being unreasonable?

In terms of a bigger picture, even if I personally was unreasonable to have that expectation, what should we (society as a whole) expect from our educators? The theme of the conference overall was "Designing Learning in the twenty-first century". So there's clearly a theme here: we know that our learners learn/live their lives differently from those in the 20th century, and we need to keep up with developments. So there seems to be an acknowledgement here that we need to understand our learners better in order to serve them better. If this is the case, then isn't it our duty as educators to farmiliarise ourselves with our learners' lifestyles? I'm not saying that all teachers should go out and buy themselves every games console under the sun along with all of the most popular games, but isn't mobile-phone literacy nowadays as much of a 21st-century skill as computer literacy? And how can we as educators prepare the next generation of the workforce if we're not comfortable with the major trends of today ourselves?

So, over to you - was I unreasonable in my first expectation (that all lecturers would have mobile phones), and do you think it's fair to expect educators to be familiar with current "currency" if they're the ones educating the next generation?

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Thoughts and links to articles about a variety of ICT and education-related topics. Where an article or resource is referred to in the header of a blog post please click the header to read the article.

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