The Wireless Future of Library Computing: Implications of Docomo Cell Phones

Karl Bridges has written this Column on The Wireless Future of Library Computing.

We are at the beginning of a major shift in the library
computing paradigm. In the past we have witnessed the
movement from paper-based systems to mainframe
computing. This was followed by the movement to personal
computing based on ever more sophisticated and powerful
personal computers. In the past several years we have
begun to see the development of the use of portable
laptop computing – first through the use of hard wired
ports and, more recently, the use of wireless

Karl Bridges has written this Column on The Wireless Future of Library Computing.

We are at the beginning of a major shift in the library
computing paradigm. In the past we have witnessed the
movement from paper-based systems to mainframe
computing. This was followed by the movement to personal
computing based on ever more sophisticated and powerful
personal computers. In the past several years we have
begun to see the development of the use of portable
laptop computing – first through the use of hard wired
ports and, more recently, the use of wireless
The question then becomes whether the laptop becomes the final destination on this technological road. The answer it seems is no. Libraries, while recognizing the growth of laptop usage and responding to it, have neglected the importance of development of an even more significant tool: the cellular phone. There are a variety of reasons for these attitudes – many of them grounded in a desire to keep the library environment, especially noise levels, at manageable levels. This is a commendable attitude, but, despite the reservations of many librarians, libraries need to adapt to these new technologies. To do otherwise is to risk becoming behind technologically as well as marginalized in terms of the university environment and society as a whole.

In itself the cellular phone is not that important as a device for libraries. The response of many libraries has been to restrict the use of cell phones. However, what is missed in this response is the realization that cell phones – in their next iteration as intelligent devices – represent a coming dominant information paradigm. We have been trying to keep the ringing of the cell phones out of our buildings while not recognizing that the call has been for us.

The evolution of the primitive handheld computer

Handheld computers began as relatively simply devices – with limited memory they could serve as little more than basic storage devices of addresses or other simple textual information. With the development of more powerful devices – such as the Handspring and the Palm – these devices approximated the performance of early computers – with the same limitations of size and speed. In the last two years, however, the handheld computer market has become more mature with a wide range of devices including those supported by Microsoft and running a limited version of the Windows operating system. The devices are much more powerful and, with the recent decision by Palm to replace its Dragonball processor one based on ARM it appears that that Palm is positioned well to be competitive on the hardware front.

Palm and Handspring have much more software available, and they\’re much cheaper than Pocket PC\’s. They can use a trimmed down version of Microsoft Word and other Microsoft Office products as well as include the capability for listening to MP3 music files and even watching limited video. Pocket PC\’s also use mostly color monitors, which increases readability. However, product offerings from Palm and Handspring have caught up with and surpassed in many cases the performance of the PocketPC.

A recent interview on with Michael Mace. Vice-President of Product Planning, gives a good overview of where the handheld computers markets are
going in general

When choosing a handheld, three factors matter most , and each one requires some tradeoffs. The shorthand phrase I use is:

\”simple, wearable, and connected.\”

By Simple I mean that a handheld computer be totally intuitive, so dead simple that you can get to your information, or enter new information, with essentially zero wait time or fumbling. We may never reach this level, but it\’s the goal, and it\’s a much more exacting requirement than ease of use on a PC (I know, I used to work in that world.) By Wearable I mean that the handheld computers has to be lightweight and have long battery life — preferably weeks rather than days. Miss either target, and people just won\’t carry it around all the time the way they should with a handheld computer. You end up with something that is used like a tiny notebook computer instead. The Palm V was the first handheld computer to thoroughly hit that target. Connected means getting to your info anytime and anywhere you want it, which is why wireless access
is so important. You can add lots of other features to a handheld computer, of course, but we\’ve found out over the years that you dare not violate simplicity or wearability in the process. If you do, the sales fall off a cliff. Witness the Newton.

Information Fragmentation

The reality of the modern library is one of fragmentation of information. Users are interested in research that often involves the collection and organization of various selected factoids of information. In addition, library use also involves the use of various pieces of fragmented temporary information used during the information search. One
prime example being the call number of a book. A personal intelligent device, such as combination cellular phone and handheld computer with wireless capability connected to the online catalog, is perfect for collecting, organizing, and storing these ephemeral
information bits.

Obviously one could collect that same information on a laptop computer. And, to be sure, there will be people who will do this. However, for most purposes, the laptop
computer is overkill. If one considers the lifestyle and sociology of the typical modern university student one will quickly see that they don\’t make a clear distinction between their social and student lives – instead they combine them – going to class, socializing,
studying. And, to some extent, their use of technology reflects this trend.

The Sociology of Computing Use

A library or personal computer/laptop) is often used for more than one purpose. In many
cases the student, while working on a paper or doing research, is also doing e-mail, downloading information – either scholarly e.g. e-journals or recreational e.g.
MP3s. At the same time they also have a cellular phone which is also heavily used for many purposes. If one considers the economics of the situation, given student\’s disposable income, desire for innovation, and love of gadgets, it seems clear that there will be a rapid increase in the number of students using cell phones.

In fact, I would suggest that the primary reason that there has not been a greater development of cell phone usage is the fact that, currently, cell phones in the
United States, have a fairly limited set of functions. When one considers other countries, such as Japan, where additional more advanced services are available one can
see the usage is much higher. In economic terms we could express that the demand for cellular phones (and related devices) has been elastic – they have been seen as
optional. In the future these items will be seen as necessities. The use of technology represents not so much a desire to enhance the educational experience, the
prime rationale often given for investing in these efforts, as a desire to enhance the overall user experience – especially the social experience.

The Trend Towards Convergence

When the cell phone is combined with other functions such as a calculator, a calendar, or an MP3 player it seems clear that use will skyrocket. We are on is the verge of a convergence of presently separate devices such as the cell phone, the HANDHELD COMPUTERS, the pocket calculator, and the portable \”Walkman\” music player. This \”Personal Assistant\” will replace these wide range of devices in a single unit. The reality is that the barriers to increased cell phone usage are not economic, but cultural. People who don\’t have them have chosen not to get them because the phones don\’t have the functionality they need. For convergent devices usage follows function.

The Laptop that Will Not Die

This isn\’t to suggest that personal computers, such as the laptop, will be done away with. For many purposes the laptop will remain important – although it may be reengineered into a more functional and portable tablet design. For high end or extended use as productivity tool the laptop makes perfect sense. However, for a variety of applications the \”Personal Assistant\” will be the device of choice since in many venues, such as social settings, these devices will be more functional and less obtrusive. The technology will
be adopted en masse since, by its very nature, it respects the lifestyle of the users rather then, as the laptop does, attempt to reconfigure that lifestyle. One could picture a vision of there actually being one device in two parts – the tablet with its larger screen,
larger storage devices, peripherals, etc and the handheld computer which is portable and functional as a separate unit. Such an arrangement also solves a longstanding security problem with PCs by allowing users to keep sensitive files and passwords physically with
them and separate from the main unit.

Developing and supporting the use of computers has always been something of a nightmare for college and university administrators. Computing support is one of
the most complex and expensive efforts to be found in the higher education environment. To add and additional computing platform in an already stressed environment
may be seen as a problem. However, there should be a recognition that, in the long run, the use of a handheld computing environment can result in cost savings through
such things as reducing the need for public computers for email access. Through the lower cost of handheld computing devices relative to laptop or desktop computers this can actually be used to push computing further into the academic environment. Not as a
replacement for computers as we currently use them, but as a supplement or stepping stone. In reality, given the costs of higher education, the costs of even a high end handheld computer are not worth mentioning and certainly much less than that of laptops.
We need to recognize that the real need of the university is to keep in contact with their students – not be fixated on a particular modality of delivery. We need to begin to view the computing environment (and indeed the university as a whole) as an information
communication medium – not be fixated on provision or service of hardware.

Understanding the Use of Information

The real issue here is understanding the concept of how people will collect and use information. While it seems clear that there isn\’t one dominant paradigm for this
usage to date has fallen into one of several patterns. One of these dominant patterns is one that might be characterized as \”research, copy, and dump\” They collect
the information by taking notes and then copy that information into the computer for final processing. Another model can be called the \”Online Processing model\” where the information is collected online and then processed. The obvious problem with this model is that students, primarily, tend to rely on the electronic materials to the detriment of the use of valuable printed sources. This \”Online Processing\” model has also
tended to destroy the use of the \”research, copy, and dump\” model since, once again, students prefer to use the electronic resources.

These usage patterns have reflected the technological paradigm that has dominated the library community. To some extent the growth of computing has not been accompanied by a corresponding growth in the ability of users to extract information from printed materials for use in an electronic environment. The amount of textual materials online, including both commercially available resources and other converted printed materials,
represents a small fraction of the entire corpus of printed materials. The end result of this situation has been an entire body of literature dealing with the question of whether libraries have a future, is the book dead, etc. Librarians have failed to recognize that the
devices they despise are the source of their salvation.

The use of portable electronic devices, such as handheld computers equipped with pen scanners, would allow a much greater usage of these printed materials by
making it easier for users to convert the materials that they need for their research. In effect, the appropriate use of these portable devices, could be a partial answer
to the question of what value printed collections are in a digital age. In short, we can view handheld computers, in a library context, aside from their usage as portable wireless network nodes, as being primarily valuable as information harvesting devices that would allow users to more effectively collect the diverse kinds of information resources available in the library ; a kind of digital combine – gathering everything in its path
and dumping it into storage for later value added processing.

How Can Libraries Cope

The question then becomes what libraries need to do in
order to more effectively approach this coming trend.

The key to success is planning. Libraries need to recognize the coming convergence and response proactively rather than, as in the present case of cell phones, reactively. The use of handheld computers needs to be recognized and supported as a valid form of computing. Ideally, this recognition would be at the highest possible level of the organization so that standards could be developed. There needs to be an effort to ensure that there are practical supports for handheld computing users comparable to PC users such as software download pages, help pages, etc.

Libraries also need to adopt policies which are handheld computing friendly. Given the coming convergence of the handheld computing and the cellular phone current restrictions on cell phone usage are going to become increasingly an issue. This will require the development of new social norms and more flexibility on the part of librarians. In reality, the people most sensitive to noise in libraries are probably the

Libraries also need to recognize the use of handheld computing devices when doing such things as web page development or purchasing new online catalogs. Many vendors are beginning to support the use of handheld computers, such as wireless beaming of search results from the OPAC to the device, in their products. This issue needs to be raised and followed through from the initial request for proposal to the installation and operation of the product. For those with current OPAC installations its important to be asking the vendor when and if such support for handheld computers will be made available.

The same advice applies for individual database vendors. The support for handheld computers, especially in terms of the ability to download materials, varies widely if it exists at all. Sadly, some major vendors, such as Netlibrary, seem not to be hurrying to provide support for use of these devices. However, there are other places, such as and the
Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia which do provide fairly substantial collections of electronic texts available for download and use on handheld computers such as Palm. In addition, there are various
software packages available which make it possible to view documents in Portable Document Format or Microsoft Word format. In sum, while the current availability of
text materials is limited, it can be expected to grow at a large pace over the next several years.

Handhelds as creators of community

The key to the success of implementation of these devices is to realize that the essential issue in higher education (and libraries) is the provision of a good user experience. We\’re in a economic environment where people can and do receive their educational credentials
from a variety of sources – online classes, traditional college classes, etc. On a traditional 4 year campus what people are coming for is not so much the education as the experience. You don\’t go to Harvard because the teaching is necessarily better – it will probably actually be worse than you would get at a small liberal arts school like Franklin College of Indiana. However, you go to Harvard you go for the experience e.g. having a Kennedy for a roommate. We need to recognize that the role of technology, aside from improving the education, is to improve the connections between people because that\’s what they go to school for.

The value of a handheld computer is not so much in its power as a computer. Although, in many instances as has been discussed above, it seems clear that the handheld
has advantages over the laptop or desktop computer. The handheld, by virtue of its cost, its design, and its flexibility is something of a democratizing element within the university. The laptop, by contrast, although more powerful, can also be seen as being somewhat elitist and also isolating. Handhelds are small. The user doesn\’t have a large laptop screen to hide behind. The handheld experience is also one of interruption – you use it look something up, write something down, etc. It\’s not a socially isolating experience like using a computer for hours and hours. Therefore the handheld complements the social bonding experience rather than replacing it with a \”virtual\” one. The real value is in its ability to improve the quality of the student experience by creating bonds between people. By recognizing the power of the convergence of technologies
e.g. wireless connectivity, computing, and the printed text we can enable our users to have a better user experience.

You can reach Karl at