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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
Over the past few months rumours about a new Apple device – variously dubbed the iSlate, the iTablet, and the iPad – have abounded. The wait is finally over; on 27 January Apple announced its new device, the iPad. Here are some thoughts of mine about the iPad, in particular from the point of view of publishing.
If I had to summarise the iPad in one word, it would be this: convergence. It brings together a multitude of features and functionalities that are already available on the market: a screen not too big and not too small (9.7 inches – nearly the same as most netbooks); wireless access and, in some versions, 3G access; a touch-screen (“virtual”) keyboard roughly the same size as that on a netbook; and multimedia, web-browsing, e-mail and general computing capabilities. So what’s new?
Well, not much really – at least not in terms of general functionality. But then the same could be said about the iPhone when that came out (all it really did was converge disparate functions which were already available in different devices), and that proved a groundbreaking formula which other mobile phone manufacturers have yet to rival. Is the iPad therefore likely to revolutionise the consumer market yet again? Let’s see.
First, some facts. The iPad has a 9.7 inch screen (nearly the same size as the Kindle DX – that’s the large one). It’s 0.5 inches thin and weighs 1.5lb, which is very thin and fairly light. It doesn’t have a physical keyboard; instead the screen can be used as a keyboard for inputting text. A final figure is the price: starting at $499 that’s half the price of what many people were predicting. If you want 3G in addition to wireless connectivity the price goes up, as it does as well for more memory.
Steve Jobs in his launch presentation went to great lengths to outline that what they were trying to build was a third type of device, between the mobile phone and the laptop. He more or less acknowledged that that space is currently being filled by netbooks, but stated that they were just “small, cheap laptops”. The iPad, meanwhile, is “the best”: “the best way to experience the web, email, photos and videos”. A tall order. So will it garner some market-share from the netbook market? Almost certainly, since it is lighter and even more compact since the keyboard is effectively integrated into the screen, and because the screen quality may well be better than that of most netbooks. For some, though, the absence of a physical keyboard will prove uncomfortable, so this feature is unlikely to allow Apple to entirely corner this market.
Another of the main device-genres it is going head-to-head with is the dedicated ebook reader such as the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. And it will almost certainly steal some of its market share since those two devices are fairly limited in what they can do (allow you to read books, and, in the case of the Kindle, also do some limited websurfing and emailing), and are black-and-white only. The iPad offers significantly more at an only slightly higher price. However, dedicated ebook readers will still have one over the iPad in terms of ease of reading. Ebook readers typically deploy a technology called e-ink; this makes reading off their screens nearly as comfortable on the eyes as reading off paper. The screen on the iPad meanwhile, like those on computer monitors and mobile phones, is backlit, making it tougher on the eyes to do extensive reading (and, incidentally, draining the battery much more quickly). So for some consumers the added functionalities of the iPad will be attractive, while others will prefer a device which does less, but does that better.
Apart from the hardware, though, the other big selling point for the iPad is the expansion of its iTunes store to not only offer music and apps (which, incidentally, also work on the iPad – a huge bonus), but also “ebooks” in epub format. I put “ebooks” into quotation marks because the epub format does not just support text, but also embedded audio and video, animations and more. This will allow publishers to create much richer content, and distribute it easily and directly to the consumer. Whether this will constitute a complete revolution is questionable though. iTunes really was the first of its kind when it first came out – the first mechanism for buying music in pretty much any way a customer might want to buy it – on a song-by-song basis, the entire album, the entire album plus a video, etc. In the case of educational content, though, this isn’t the case: there are already a multitude of channels available through which customers can buy digital content: http://www.ebooks.com , http://shop.ebrary.com , http://waterstones.com/ebooks , publishers’ own websites and so on. Apple will no doubt point towards its new media-rich format, but again that’s not new; companies such as http://www.blankpage.ch already provide this on a range of platforms, meaning consumers don’t have to buy yet another piece of hardware. So this will make it a bit more of a challenge to Apple to convince customers that their offering is unique.
What it almost certainly will do, though, is drive the market towards devices of a similar size with colour, multimedia capabilities, ultimately on a screen which will become better and easier on the eyes than the current one. This in turn will push the market towards content that is multi-media rich: instead of just plain text, consumers (I hesitate to call them “readers”) will be more interested in content that mixes the written word, audio, video and more – much like CD-ROMs have been affording us for nearly two decades now.
So what does all of this mean for publishers?
All in all therefore a mixed bag with regards to whether the iPad will herald a revolution or merely an evolution. Of course, what may just make the day for Apple is the iPad’s form factor – the look and feel which Apple is so good at, and which has made millions of people hold the iPhone in their hands and say “wow”. As they say, watch this space.
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