Posted on December 21st, 2010 43 comments
Mobile services have to fulfill information needs here and now
Like many other libraries, the Library of the University of Amsterdam released a mobile web app this year. For background information about why and how we did it, have a look at the slideshow my colleague Roxana Popistasu and I gave at the IGeLU 2010 conference.
For now I want to have a closer look at the actual reception and use of our mobile library services and draw some conclusions for the future. I have expressed some expectations earlier about mobile library services in my post “Mobile library services”. In summary, I expected that the most valued mobile library services would be of a practical nature, directly tied to the circumstances of internet access ‘any time, anywhere’, and would not include reading and processing of electronic texts.
Let me emphasise that I define mobile devices as smart phones and similar small devices that can be carried around literally any time anywhere, and that need dedicated apps to be used on a small touchscreen. So I am not talking about tablets like the iPad, which are large enough to be used with standard applications and websites, just like netbooks.
As you can see, most, if not all of the services in the Library of the University of Amsterdam mobile app are of a practical nature: opening hours, locations, contact information, news. And of course there is a mobile catalogue. This is the general situation in mobile library land, as has been described by Aaron Tay in his blog post “What are mobile friendly library sites offering? A survey”.
In my view these practical services are not really library services. They are learning or study centre services at best. There is no difference with practical services offered by other organisations like municipal authorities or supermarkets. Nothing wrong with that of course, they are very useful, but I don’t consider these services to be core library services, which would involve enabling access to content.
Real mobile devices are simply to small to be used for reading and processing large bodies of scholarly text. This might be different for public libraries.Their customers may appreciate being able to read fiction on their smart phones, provided that publishers allow them to read ebooks via libraries at all.
Even a mobile library catalogue can be considered a practical service intended to fulfill practical needs of a physical nature, like finding and requesting print books and journals to be delivered to a specific location and renewing loans to avoid paying fines. Let’s face it: an Integrated Library System is basically nothing more than an inventory and logistics management system for physical objects.
Usage statistics of the Library of the University of Amsterdam mobile web app show that between the launch in April and November 2010 the number of unique visits evolves around 30 per day on average, with a couple of peaks (350) on two specific days in October. The full website shows around 6000 visits per day on normal weekdays.
For the mobile catalogue this is between 30 and 50 visits per day. The full OPAC shows around 3000 visits on normal weekdays.
In November we see a huge increase in usage. Our killer mobile app was introduced: an overview of currently available workstations per location. The number of unique visits rises to between 300 and 400 a day. The number of pageviews rises from under 100 per day to around 1000 on weekdays in November. The ‘available workstations’ service accounts for 80% of these. In December 2010, an exam period, these figures rise to around 2000 pageviews per day, with 90% for the ‘available workstations’ service.
We can safely conclude that our students are mainly using our mobile library app on their smart phones to locate the nearest available desktop PC.
Mobile users expect services that are useful to them here and now.
What does this mean for core library services, aimed at giving access to content, on small mobile devices? I think that there is no future for providing mobile access on smart phones to traditional library content in digital form: electronic articles and ebooks. I agree with Aaron Tay when he says “I don’t believe there is any reason to think that it will necessarily lead to high demand for library mobile services” in his post “A few heretical thoughts about library tech trends“.
Rather, mobile services should provide information about specific subjects useful to people here and now.
In the near future anybody interested in a specific physical object or location will have access via their location aware smart phones and augmented reality to information of all kinds (text, images, sound, video, maps, statistics, etc.) from a number of sources: museums, archives, government agencies, maybe even libraries. To make this possible it is essential that all these organisations publish their information as linked open data. This means: under an open license using a generic linked data protocol like RDF.
I expect that consumers of this new type of mobile location based augmented linked information would appreciate some guidance in the possibly overwhelming information landscape, in the form of specific views, with preselection of information sources and their context taken into account.
There may be an opportunity here for libraries, especially public libraries, taking on a new coordinating role as information brokers on the intersection of a large number of different information providers. Of course if libraires want to achieve that, they need to look beyond their traditional scope and invest more in new information technologies, services and expertise.
The future of mobile information services lies in the combination of location awareness, augmented reality and linked open data. Maybe libraries can help.
Posted on March 4th, 2010 3 comments
Location aware services in a digital library world
This is the third post in a series of three
While library systems technology and mobile apps architecture make up the technical and functional infrastructure of mobile web access, mobile library services are what it’s all about. What type of mobile services should libraries offer to their customers?
As stated before, the two main features that distinguish mobile, handheld devices from other devices are:
- web access any time anywhere
- location awareness
It seems obvious that libraries should take these two conditions into account when providing mobile services, not in the least the first one. I don’t think that mobile devices will completely replace other devices like pc’s and netbooks, like Google seems to think, but they will definitely be an important tool for lots of people, simply because they always carry a mobile phone with them. So in order to offer something extra, mobile applications should be focused on the situational circumstance of potential access to information any time anywhere, and make use of the location awareness of the device as much a possible. But does this also apply to services for library customers? That partly depends on the type of library (public, academic, special) and the physical and geographical structure of the library (one central location, branch locations).
As a starting point we can say that mobile library services should cover the total range of online library services already offered through traditional web interfaces. However, mobile users may not want to use certain library services on their mobile devices. For instance, from an analysis of usage statistics of EBSCO Mobile at the Library of Texas A&M University, generously provided by Bennett Ponsford, it appears that although the number of searches in EBSCO mobile is increasing, only 1% of mobile searches leads to a fulltext download, against 77% of regular EBSCO searches. These findings suggest that library customers, at least academic ones, are willing to search for books and articles on their mobile devices, but will postpone actually using them until they are in a more convenient environment. Apparently small screens and/or mobile PDF readers are not very reader friendly in academic settings. This may be different for public library customers and e-books.
So, libraries should concentrate on offering those mobile services that are wanted and will actually be used. In the beginning this may involve analysis of usage statistics and customer feedback to be able to determine the perfect mobile services suite for your library. Libraries should be prepared for “perpetual beta” and “agile development”.
There are two main areas of information in which libraries can offer mobile services:
- practical information
- bibliographical information
This is no different from other library information channels, like normal websites and printed guides and catalogues.
Practical information may consist of contact address, email and telephone information, opening hours, staff information, rules and regulations of any kind, etc. In most cases this is information that does not change very often, so static information pages will be sufficient. However, especially with mobile devices who’s owners are on the move, providing dynamic up to date information will give an advantage. For instance: today’s and tomorrow’s opening hours, number of currently available public workstations per location, etc.
The information provided will be even more precisely aimed at the user’s personal situation, if the “location awareness” feature is added to the “any time anywhere” feature, and up to date static and dynamic information for the locations in the immediate vicinity of the customer is shown first, using the device’s automatic geolocation properties. And all this gets better still if the library’s own information is mashed up with available online tools, like showing a location on Google Maps when selecting an address, and with the device’s tools, like making a phone call when clicking on a phone number.
Bibliographical information should be handled somewhat differently. Searching library catalogues or online databases is in essence not location dependent. Online digital bibliographical metadata is available “in the cloud” any time anywhere. It’s not the discovery but the delivery that makes the difference. We have already seen that mobile academic library customers do not download fulltext articles to their mobile devices. But mobile customers will definitely be interested in the possibility of requesting a print item to be delivered to them in the nearest location. WorldCat Mobile, like “normal” WorldCat, for instance offers the option to select a library manually from a list in order to find the nearest location to obtain an item from. It would of course be nice if the delivery location would be automatically determined by the mobile request service, using the device’s location awareness and the current opening hours of the library branches.
The funny thing here is that we have the paradoxical situation of state-of-the-art technology in a world of global online digital information being used to obtain “old fashioned” physical carriers of information (books) from the nearest physical location.
Augmented reality, as a link between the physical and virtual world, may be a valuable extension of mobile services. A frequently mentioned example is scanning a book cover or a barcode with the camera of a mobile phone and locating the item on Amazon. It would be helpful if your phone could automatically find and request the item in the nearest library branch. Personally I am not convinced that this is very valuable. Typing in ISBN or book title will do the job just as fast. Moreover, bookshop staff may not appreciate this behaviour.
A more common use of augmented reality would be to point the camera of your mobile device to a library building, after which a variety of information about the building is shown. The best known augmented reality app at the moment is Layar. This tool allows you to add a number of “layers”, with which you can for instance find the nearest ATM’s or museums, or Wikipedia information about physical objects or locations around you.
There is also a LibraryThing Local layer for Layar, with which you can find
information about all libraries, bookshops and book related events in the neighbourhood. It may even be possible to find a specific book in an open stack using this technology.
All these extended mobile applications suggest that users of apps may not just be a specific group of people (like library customers), but that mobile users will be interested in all kinds of useful information about their current location. Library information may be only a part of that. Maybe mobile apps should be targeted at a more general audience and include related information from other sources, making use of the linked data concept.
A search in a library catalog in this case may result in a list of books with links to related objects in a museum nearby or a historic location related to the subject of the book. Alternatively, an item in a museum website might have links to related literature in catalogs of nearby libraries. Anything is possible.
The question that remains is: should libraries take care of providing these generic location based services, or will others do that?
Posted on February 21st, 2010 11 comments
Technology, users and business models
This is the second post in a series of three
Mobile access to information on the internet is the latest step in the development of information systems technology, as described in the previous post in this series. The two main features that distinguish mobile devices from other devices are:
- Access to the web literally any time, anywhere
- Location awareness using GPS or the mobile network
Let’s focus on web access first. There are two main ways in which information providers can provide access to their data: by a mobile web browser or by apps.
The easiest way to provide mobile access is: do nothing. Users of mobile internet devices can simply visit all existing websites with their mobile browser. However, in doing so they will experience a number of problems: performance is slow, pages are too large, navigation is difficult, certain parts of websites don’t work. These problems are caused by the very physical characteristics of mobile technology that make mobile internet access possible: the small size of devices and displays, the wireless network, the limited features of dedicated mobile operating systems and browsers.
Fortunately, technological development is an interactive, reciprocal, cyclic process. Technology continuously needs to find solutions to problems that were caused by new uses of existing technology.
Many organisations have solved this problem by creating separate “dumbed down” mobile versions of their websites, containing mainly text only pages and textual links to their most important services and information. In the case of libraries for instance “locations and addresses“, “opening hours“, etc. See this list of examples (with thanks to Aaron Tay). Another example is LibraryThing Mobile, which also has a catalog search option. In these cases you have to manually point your browser to the dedicated mobile URL, unless the webserver is configured to automatically recognise mobile browsers and redirect them to the mobile site.
Of course this not the optimal solution for two reasons:
- On the front end: as an information provider you are complete ignoring all graphical, dynamic, interactive and web 2.0 functionality on the end user side. This means actually going back to the early days of the world wide web of static text pages.
- On the back end: duplicating system and content administration. In most cases it will come down to manually creating and editing HTML pages, because most website content management systems may not offer manual or automatic editing of pages for mobile access. Some systems offer automatic recognition of mobile browsers and display content in the appropriate format, like the WordPress plugin “WordPress Mobile Edition” that automatically shows a list of posts if mobile browsers are detected. This is what happens on this blog.
Because of this situation we are witnessing a re-enactment of the client-server alternative to static HTML that I described previously: mobile apps! “Apps” is short for “applications“, apparently everything needs to be short in the mobile online web 2.0 age. Apps are installed on mobile devices, they run locally making use of the hardware, operating system and user friendly interface of the device, and they only connect to the internet for retrieving data from a database system in the cloud (on a remote server).
A disadvantage of this solution obviously is that you have to multiply development and maintenance in order to support all mobile platforms that your customers are using, or just support the most used platform (iPhone) and ignore the rest of your end users. Alternatively you can support one mobile platform with an app, and the rest with a mobile web site. Organisations have the choice of developing apps themselves from scratch, or using one of the commercial parties that offer library apps, such as Boopsie, Blackboard or the recently announced LibraryThing Anywhere, that is meant to offer both mobile web and apps for iPhone, Blackberry and Android.
- TU Delft mobile app for iPhone (powered by Blackboard). University wide, including library. Haven’t been able to test this because I have an Android phone. An Android version will be developed. For other devices they offer a mobile website.
- Duke University mobile app for iPhone. University wide, including library. For other devices they offer a mobile website.
- Santa Clara County Library mobile apps for iPhone and Android (powered by Boopsie).
- WorldCat Mobile (powered by Boopsie).
An alternative solution to the client-server and “dumbed down” models would be to use the new HTML5 and CSS3 options to create websites that can easily be handled by all PC and mobile webbrowsers alike. HTML 5 has geolocation options, and browsers are made location aware this way too. The iWebKit Framework is a free and easy package to create web apps compatible for all mobile platforms. See this demo on PC, iPhone, Android, etc.
Some say that HTML5/CSS3 will make apps disappear, but I suspect performance may still be a problem, due to slow connections. But it’s not only a technology issue. It’s also a matter of business models, as Owen Stephens and Till Kinstler pointed out.
Apps can be distributed for free by organisations that want to draw traffic to their own data, ignoring the open web. This method fits their clasic business model, as Till remarked, mentioning the newspaper business as an example.
But there is also another side to this: apps can be created by anybody, making use of APIs to online systems and databases, and be shared with others for free or for a small fee, as is the case with the iPhone Apps Store, the Android Market, the Nokia Ovi Store, or the newly announced Wholesale Applications Community (WAC). This model will never be possible with web based apps (like HTML5), because nobody has access to a system’s web server other than the system administrators. It is also much too complicated for developers and consumers of apps to host web apps on a server that mobile device users can connect too.
And there is more: independent developers are more likely to look beyond the boundaries of the classic model of giving access to your own data only. Third party apps have the opportunity to connect data from a number of data sources in the cloud in order to satisfy mobile user needs better. To take the newspaper business example, I mentioned this in my post “Mobile reading“: general news apps vs dedicated newspaper apps. The rise of the open linked data movement will only boost the development and use of the mobile client server model.
In my view there will be a hybrid situation: HTML5/CSS3 based web apps and local mobile apps will coexist, depending on developer, audience, and objectives.
What services library mobile apps should offer, including location awareness and linking data, is the topic of another post.
Posted on February 16th, 2010 11 comments
The connection between information technology and library information systems
This is the first post in a series of three
The functions, services and audience of library information systems, as is the case with all information systems, have always been dependent on and determined by the existing level of information technology. Mobile devices are the latest step in this development.
If you made a typo (puncho?), you were not informed until a day later when you collected the printout, and you could start again. System and data files could be stored externally on large tape reels or small tape cassettes, identical to music tapes. Tapes were also used for sharing and copying data between systems by means of physical transportation.
Suddenly there was a human operable terminal, consisting of a monitor and keyboard, connected to the central computer. Now you could type in your code and save it as a file on the remote server (no local processing or storage at all). If you were lucky you had a full screen editor, if not there was the line editor. No graphics. Output and errors were shown on screen almost immediately, depending on the capacity of the CPU (central processing unit) and the number of other batch jobs in the queue. The computer was a multi-user time sharing device, a bit like the “cloud”, but every computer was a little cloud of its own.
There was no email. There were no end users other than systems administrators, programmers and some staff. Communication with customers was carried out by sending them printouts on paper by snail mail.
I guess this was the first time that some libraries, probably mainly in academic and scientific institutions, started creating digital catalogs, for staff use only of course.
Then came the PC (Personal Computer). Terminal and keyboard were now connected to the computer (or system unit) on your desk. You had the thing entirely to yourself! Input and output consisted of lines of text only, one colour (green or white on black), and still no graphics. Files could be stored on floppy disks, 5¼-inch magnetic things that you could twist and bend, but if you did that you lost your data. There was no internal storage. File sharing was accomplished by moving the floppy from one PC to another and/or copy files from one floppy to another (on the same floppy drive).
Later we got smaller disks, 3½-inch, in protective cases. The PC was mainly used for early word processing (WordStar, WordPerfect) and games. Finally there was a hard disk (as opposed to “floppy” disk) inside the PC system unit, which held the operating system (mainly MS-DOS), and on which you could store your files, which became larger. Time for stand-alone database applications (dBase).
Then there was Windows, a mouse, and graphics. And of course the Internet! You could connect your PC to the Internet with a modem that occupied your telephone line and made phone calls impossible during your online session. At first there was Gopher, a kind of text based web.
Then came the World Wide Web (web 0.0), consisting of static web pages with links to other static web pages that you could read on your PC. Not suitable for interactive systems. Libraries could publish addresses and opening hours.
But fortunately we got client-server architecture, combining the best of both worlds. Powerful servers were good at processing, storing and sharing data. PC’s were good at presenting and collecting data in a “user friendly” graphical user interface (GUI), making use of local programming and scripting languages. So you had to install an application on the local PC which then connected to the remote server database engine. The only bad thing was that the application was tied to the specific PC, with local Windows configuration settings. And it was not possible to move the thing around.
Now we had multi-user digital catalogs with a shared central database and remote access points with the client application installed, available to staff and customers.
Luckily dynamic creation of HTML pages came along, so we were able to move the client part of client-server applications to the web as well. With web applications we were able to use the same applications anywhere on any computer linked to the world wide web. You only needed a browser to display the server side pages on the local PC.
Now everybody could browse through the library catalog any time, anywhere (where there was a computer with an internet connection and a web browser). The library OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog) was born.
The only disadvantage was that every page change had to be generated by the server again, so performance was not optimal.
In the meantime the portable PC appeared, system unit, monitor and keyboard all in one. At first you needed some physical power to move the thing around, but later we got laptops, notebooks, netbooks, getting smaller, lighter and more powerful all the time. And wifi of course, no need to plug the device in to the physical network anymore. And USB-sticks.
Access to OPAC and online databases became available anytime, anywhere (where you carried your computer).
The latest development of course is the rise of mobile phones with wireless web access, or rather mobile web devices which can also be used for making phone calls. Mobile devices are small and light enough to carry with you in your pocket all the time. It’s a tiny PC.
Finally you can access library related information literally any time, anywhere, even in your bedroom and bathroom.
It’s getting boring, but yes, there is a drawback. Web applications are not really accommodated for use in mobile browsers: pages are too large, browser technology is not really compatible, connections are too slow.
Available options are:
- creating a special “dumbed down” version of a website for use on mobile devices only: smaller text based pages with links
- creating a new HTML5/CSS3 website, targeted at mobile devices and “traditional” PC’s alike
- creating “apps”, to be installed on mobile devices and connect to a database system in the cloud; basically this is the old client-server model all over again.
A comparison of mobile apps and mobile web architecture is the topic of another post.
Posted on January 22nd, 2010 6 comments
New models, new formats
Recently I have been experimenting a bit with reading newspapers on my mobile phone (a G1 android device), or maybe I should say “reading news on my mobile”. I looked at two Dutch newspapers that adopt two completely different approaches.
“NRC Handelsblad” publishes it’s daily print newspaper as a daily “e-paper” in PDF, Mobi and ePub format, to be downloaded every day to the platform of your choice. In order to read the e-paper you need a physical device plus software (mobile phone, PC, e-reader, etc.) that can handle one of the available formats. On my G1 I use the Aldiko e-reader app for android with the ePub format. The e-paper is treated as an e-book file, with touch screen operation for browsing tables of content, paging through chapters or articles, zooming, etc. Access to the e-paper files is on a subscription basis.
“Het Parool” on the other hand offers a free app to be downloaded from the Android Market that serves as a front end to all recent articles available from their news server on the web. There is no need for a daily download of a file in a specific format that has to be supported by the physical platform of your choice. There is also an iPhone app. The app and access to the news articles are free of charge.
Besides the difference in access (free vs paid), the most important contrast between these two mobile newspapers is the form in which the printed news is transformed to the digital and mobile environment. “NRC Handelsblad” takes the physical form the newspaper has had since it’s origin in the 17the century, dictated by physical, logistical and economical conditions, and transforms this 1 to 1 to the digital world: the e-paper still is one big monolithic bundle of articles that can’t be retrieved individually, completely ignoring the fact that the centuries old limitations don’t apply anymore. It is basically exactly the same as most manifestations of e-books.
“Het Parool” does completely the opposite. It treats individual news articles as units of content in their own right, “stories” as I call them in my post “Is an e-book a book?“. And this is how it should be in the digital mobile world. This is similar to the way that e-journals offer direct access to individual articles already.
Readers should be able to apply their own selection of “stories” to read in a specific, virtual, on the fly bundle, using the front end of their choice.
However, the “Parool” app functions as a predefined filter: it presents the reader with the most recent (24 hour max) articles from it’s own source of news. Of course this is fine as long as the readers choose to use the “Parool” app, but they may also choose to read news stories from different sources. This could be achieved with a different mobile, PC or web application that gathers content from a variety of sources.
Another drawback of the ‘Parool” implementation is that it does not offer a “save” option. There is no way to read old articles, other than to go to the official newspaper website, either through mobile browsing or by using a PC web browser. The “NRC Handelsblad” implementation on the other hand does offer this option, because it is based on a download model to begin with.
This brings me to the matter of mobile web browsing. Reading and navigating a web page designed for the PC screen on a mobile device is annoying at least, not to mention the time it takes to load complete web pages into the mobile browser. Common practice is to create a simplified version of full fledged web pages for mobile use only. Of course this means doubling the website maintenance effort.
An alternative could be the adoption of HTML 5 and CSS 3, as was stated at a Top Tech Trends Panel session at ALA Midwinter 2010, where a university library official said: “2010 is the year that the app dies“, because “developers can leverage a single well-designed service to serve both browser-based and mobile users“. But this view completely misses the point: “Apps are not about technology, they are about a business model” as Owen Stephens pointed out. This business model implies the separation of content and presentation in a much broader sense then that of database back end – website front end only. This was an innovative concept until a couple of years ago.
As I briefly described above, we need units of content being accessible by all kinds of platforms and applications through universal APIs. This model not only applies to reading texts, but also to finding these texts. Especially libraries should be aware of that.
Although the ALA Top Trends Panel stated that libraries’ focus should be on content rather than hardware, they did not touch upon the changing concept of what books are in the e-book era, as again Owen Stephens pointed out. New models and formats will have all kinds of consequences for the way we handle information. For instance: pages. A PDF file, which is a 1 to 1 translation of the print unit to a digital unit, as I explained, still has fixed pages and page numbers. An ePub file however has a flexible format that allows “pages” to be automatically adapted to the size of the device’s screen (thanks to @rsnijders and @Wowter for discussing this). There are no fixed pages or page numbers anymore. HTML pages containing full articles don’t have page numbers either, by the way. This will change the way we refer to texts online, without page numbers, which is one of the subject of the Telstar project, again with Owen Stephens involved (watch that guy).
The flexible page is another reason to have a critical look at MARC. There is no use anymore for tags like 300,a “Extent (Number of physical pages, etc.)”, 773,g (“Vol. 2, no. 2 (Feb. 1976), p. 195-230“).
The inevitable conclusion of all this is that all innovative developments on the end user interface presentation front end need to be supported by corresponding developments on the content back end, and vice versa.