Thursday, 28 January 2010

Implications of the iPad: diversification is the new trend

In one day many words have already been written about the Apple iPad. I won't attempt to describe it here - for that see the walkthrough above, or read Stephen Fry. Instead I'll discuss how technology is developing, as demonstrated by the iPad.

I've owned an iPhone for two years. In December I also bought an iPod nano. Why? I wanted something more lightweight to go running. I don't need the iPhone's large screen when running, and the nano is so lightweight I can strap it to my arm. It has the right form for its function.

The iPad has its place as well. It isn't a phone replacement - I can't put it in my pocket, and I can't even make calls with it. Neither is it a laptop replacement. I could take the iPad with me instead of a laptop for a day or two, but it is missing too much for me to use it as my main computer.

So what is the iPad? It is something different. It's an appliance, not a computer. It is designed around its form factor (think A4 pad or photo frame). It is better than a phone or laptop if I want:
  •  to show my family photos in the living room,
  •  to read a magazine in bed, 
  •  to study journals on the train,
  •  to check my agenda discretely in a meeting.
Until now we have thought about convergence in IT. The iPad is evidence that convergence is over.  Diversification is the new trend, as computing power spreads through a range of appliances whose form fits their function. It points to a future in which every appliance is a computer on the Internet. We'll use tablets like we use paper. We'll have networked TVs & radios. We'll use walls and tables as displays. We'll have projectors that turn any surface into a computer. The primary user interface will be touch.

Some of these products are already available, albeit with rough edges (iPlayer on Freesat, Pure Sensia radio). Others exist as convincing demos (Microsoft Surface, MIT Sixth Sense). The iPad is here. It is smooth, slick and makes a convincing demonstration of what is to come. It is cheap(ish), has good battery life, and has the right form for its function. Apple's tablet will get cheaper and better each year, while other manufacturers will build them running Windows, Android & Chrome OS too.

Whatever the organisation wants our staff and students will buy and use these appliances. How does the university respond? We must understand diversity and embrace it.

At the moment our starting point is "IT = computers". We provide a desktop workstation for our staff and think that's sufficient for most needs. We expect our students to provide their own laptop and do their work on that. We streamline our business processes, but with client software which only works on one OS. We embrace the web with our portal, but assume it will be viewed on a large screen.

Computers are getting cheaper and are disappearing into the furniture. Access from a phone or tablet will be as common as access from a laptop or desktop. We should stop worrying about issues such as whether the university or the individual buys the device. This won't matter - you will naturally use any computer or appliance you come across. The OS won't matter either, any more than you worry about what OS your washing machine runs. The web will be the new common layer.

Information Technology isn't about computers, it's about information. We must think about:
  • how we store information, index and catalogue it,
  • how we share information within and outside the organisation,
  • How we break down silos and connect up the dots, 
  • how we access information easily but securely,
  • how we provide the data people need without overwhelming them with trivia.
These are deep, tricky questions. We can glimpse some answers through concepts like tagging, linked data, and the intelligent learning systems we use today for spam filtering.

Imagine a digital dashboard on the web. An evolution of our portal displays timely, relevant information: orders to authorise, todays calendar, and emails ordered by priority. As the dashboard is standards compliant and designed to be used at different resolutions you can view it on any device. You check items from your phone when out and about. In the office and around campus you display the dashboard on your tablet. While you prefer your desktop workstation for composing longer documents you like the tablet's intuitive touch interface for dealing with quick tasks.

William Gibson said that the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed. The iPad is here from the future, and the rest of it will be along sooner than we think.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Forget Groupware

JP Rangaswami on his blog Confused of Calcutta decries the way we use email: "ninety per cent of e-mail is generated by the firm and never leaves the firm". JP sees this as evidence that firms are ignoring their customers. He says "whatever we do in the enterprise, we need to ensure that the walls of the enterprise do not keep customers out". It is the stuff which crosses boundaries that is interesting and important.

At least it is possible to email people outside the organisation. In other enterprise systems you can't contact people outside the organisation at all!

My university implemented a calendaring system some years ago. Many academics don't use it. They do however use Doodle lets them schedule appointments with their collaborators in other organisations. Our internal-only calendar system doesn't - so no wonder people won't use it.

Regular readers will know I believe in the importance of network effects. The value of a network grows with the number of connections in the network. Small internal networks became massively more valuable when they were linked to form the Internet, the network of networks.

We need to link our small internal collaboration tools to form the equivalent. To coin a phrase forget Groupware, think Globeware.
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Monday, 18 January 2010

Information Literacy and the role of universities

Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Universi...Image via Wikipedia
What is Information Literacy and why is it important? In the words of Barack Obama:

"Rather than merely possessing data, we must also learn the skills necessary to acquire, collate, and evaluate information for any situation... Though we may know how to find the information we need, we must also know how to evaluate it. Over the past decade, we have seen a crisis of authenticity emerge. We now live in a world where anyone can publish an opinion or perspective, whether true or not, and have that opinion amplified within the information marketplace. At the same time, Americans have unprecedented access to the diverse and independent sources of information, as well as institutions such as libraries and universities, that can help separate truth from fiction and signal from noise."[1]

Information literacy should not be confused with technical IT skills (how to operate a computer). IT skills are important, but Information literacy is fundamental. University libraries have for many years helped teach students to evaluate and assess information sources. This role is now more important than ever due to the wealth of information available online. "Information literacy (IL) is recognised internationally as an essential competence for participation in education, employment and society"[2]

Universities should embrace the goal of educating their students to be critical thinkers. It is almost a indictment of our times that we need to explictly state this. State it we must, least some of the broader purposes of a university education are forgotten.


1st October 2009

Information literacy strategy development in higher education: An exploratory study. Sheila Corrall, International Journal of Information Management, Volume 28, Issue 1, February 2008, Pages 26-37

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