Category Archives: Technology

Library Technology: Problems, Futures, and Directions

This is a keynote that I delivered at the MOBIUS Consortium conference in Columbia, Missouri on June 2, 2015. I talk about why library technology is terrible, why technology is a unique thing, the speed of change, what technological futures are near, and the broad strokes of how I think libraries need to respond in order to suck less at tech. It’s a fun time for everyone.

There’s one little technical glitch in the middle where Keynote decided to crash, but otherwise I’m pleased with the way this came together.

Just a few hours after I gave my presentation, in which I talk about the rise of voice interfaces to machine learning algorithms that act as personal assistants (a la Siri, Cortana and others), SoundHound drops this bombshell of a demo on the web:

That is ridiculous stuff, right there. But at least it shows I’m not wrong to be paying attention.

Apple Watch Sport Band Flip Trick

So here’s a tiny hack for the Apple Watch that I found really useful. In all of the promo shots, Apple shows the Sport Band attached to the Watch with the Pin side at the top of the Watch, and the holed-side attached at the bottom.

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I was having a terrible time actually putting the Watch on, because one-handed, I found that holding the Pin down and trying to pull the strap upwards to it was very awkward.

The solution? Flip the bands.

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The band halves are completely reversible, and having the Pin on the lower part means that I can hold it in place with my thumb and pull the other band down towards it. Much easier for me, and you can’t tell at all once the Watch is on your wrist.

If you’ve got a Sport Band on your Apple Watch, give it a try and see if you think it’s easier.

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10 Days with the Apple Watch

I was one of the lucky few that received their Apple Watch order on April 24th, the day the  Watch was released to the public. Here’s the story of my first 10 days to try to give you some idea about the technology (and aesthetics) behind the newest Apple product.

Order

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First up, what I ordered. My order was time stamped at 12:02am Pacific Time on April 10, the day that the Watch went on sale to the public, so I literally ordered mine within the first 120 seconds of availability. From the time the Watch was announced, I had been coveting the Stainless Steel with Milanese loop band. It was, to my eye, a wonderful throwback mid-century modern look that I love. When it came time to order, I decided that since it’s likely I’m wearing this thing every single day for the next 2+ years, I should just get the one I really liked rather than “settling” for the less expensive Sport version in aluminum.

That decision-making process illustrates one of the huge differences in this particular product. Every other Apple product that I’ve purchased (and I’ve purchased plenty at this point, a decade plus into my obsession with the company and its products) was purchased on the strength of the abilities of the technology. Apple isn’t a stranger to using design as a differentiator among their products…the classic iMac is the textbook example of style selling a technology. But over the last few years they have primarily used their design sense and engineering skills to differentiate themselves from other manufacturers, and not within a line of their own products.

The stainless steel Apple Watch functions literally identically to the less expensive aluminum Apple Watch Sport (and, of course, also identically to the much, much more expensive Apple Watch Edition). So the fact that they convinced me to pay for a purely aesthetic choice shows just how different this particular market is from Apple’s normal business. But they did convince me, and thus at just after midnight on April 10th, I placed my order.

Arrival

IMG_8569On April 24th, my Watch arrived. The package that was delivered was surprisingly heavy, almost shockingly so, and that is entirely due to the incredible packaging for the Watch. It is not hyperbole to say that I believe that Apple spent more time in R&D on the box for the Watch than some companies do on devices themselves. The retail box is a heavy, thick white plastic that feels as if it could be used for home construction…it’s that solid. On the inside the Watch was cradled in suede covered custom cutouts, isolated in the middle of a box that was at least 3 times larger than it needed to be purely to protect the device inside. Again, this is Apple’s aesthetics impinging upon a technology experience. “This is not a gadget”, is what this packages says “this is a piece of jewelry.”

My first impressions are of the Watch as Object: This is a gorgeous piece of design. Some have criticized the look of the Watch for its rounded rectangleness, or for being “bulbous.” I will say that on my wrist it is a great size, not heavy at all, and feels entirely like an analog watch would feel. Slimmer and lighter even than some men’s watches, which are enormous at times. I think it’s beautiful work, and shows Apple’s unparalleled heights of manufacturing. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that no other company on the planet could make something this nice at this scale.

Use

Beyond the aesthetics, however, there are definitely issues. The primary function of the watch is clearly to tell the time, and Apple provides about 10 different faces to choose from, each with some level of customizability. Through the selection of detail, color, and complications, it’s possible to really focus the main interface of the watch on the information that you want at a glance: the time, your calendar, the date, the weather, and more. I find myself wishing that third-party apps had access to these complication areas, instead of being limited to just Apple’s first-party apps. For instance, a complication from Dark Sky telling me when it was going to start raining would be amazing, and I’m certain that there are lots of other really useful apps for the main face of the Watch. I’m hoping that’s one of the first bits of usability exposed during the next software update.

The other central concepts in using the Watch are Notifications, Glances, and Apps. Notifications are just what they sound like, and display as either a pop-over style update or in a list after pulling down from the top of the initial Watch screen. Aside from telling the time, Notifications have been the most game changing piece of the Watch in my life. It really is the case, as reported by lots of other reviewers, that I am looking at my phone a lot, lot less than I did prior to wearing the Apple Watch. Notifications on my wrist allows me to glance and decide whether any individual thing needs the escalation of “Deal With Now” or if I can just…not. As just one example, I wore the Watch at Computers in Libraries the day after receiving it, and realized after a few meals that I hadn’t taken my phone out of my pocket at all during lunch or dinner. I don’t remember the last time I didn’t take my phone out and put it on the table beside my plate…it’s nearly an automatic gesture from everyone I hang out with. With the Watch, I avoided the psychological habit of needing to be “connected” with the phone. It was shockingly liberating.

Glances are mini-apps, accessible by swiping up from the bottom of the main watch face. They are displayed as a linear row of full-screen windows that are swiped through, left or right, that are single-screen displays of an app’s information. For instance, going back to my favorite weather app, Dark Sky, the “glance” is just the weather in your current location, whereas the full application contains multiple screens of information. Glances can be useful, but since the only way to navigate is literally by paging through them one after the other, if you have more than 5-8 Glances active, finding the one you want becomes an exercise in futility. Luckily you can control which apps allow Glances and which don’t, as well as the order left-to-right of your glances, from the Apple Watch app on your iPhone.

Finally, we have what is the least useful bit of the current incarnation of the Apple Watch…the Apps. This is surprising, given that it was the app store and 3rd party app development that really ignited the iPhone as a mobile platform. However, the current status of Apps on the Watch as second or third class citizens makes them very difficult to use effectively. Currently, third-party apps don’t run on the watch natively, the run on the tethered iPhone and push display items to the watch when called. This means that the process of opening an App on the Watch is roughly: Press the digital crown in once, tap an App icon from the screen, and wait as the Watch tells the app on your iPhone what it wants, the app on the iPhone spins up and calls out for network resources if needed, the network traffic comes back, the iPhone app builds the view for the Watch, and finally the view is sent back to the watch over Bluetooth. This is roughly like sending an email to tell your neighbor to order a pizza, then having it delivered to her house and having her walk it over to you. It does end with you getting pizza, but there’s clearly a better way to accomplish this task.

When you launch a third-party app, pretty much any of them, there’s a 3-10 second delay while it does its little dance from the watch to the phone to the network and back again. This isn’t to say that the apps aren’t usable….many are, and some are very well designed and thought out. A few stand outs are Transit, Dark Sky, Workflow, and Lastpass. But for apps to really be usable, they have to be on-Watch, and not dancing between the two devices. The good news is that Apple has already announced that “this year” there will be an SDK for third-party native Watch apps…the only mystery is whether that will be an announcement at WWDC in June, or are they going to take “this year” literally and push that ability well into the Fall or Winter.

Two other Watch abilities that I haven’t yet mentioned are the Digital Touch haptic communication and Apple Pay. Haptics between Watches include the ability to “tap” someone else on the wrist to get their attention to communicate something, or to send them your heartbeat via the built in heartrate sensor. These are both interesting, and the taptic engine is a marvel of possibility, but until it’s opened up to third parties it strikes me as a parlor trick.

Apple Pay, on the other hand, is a revelation. With Apple Pay active on the Watch, you can double-press the side button and pay for something faster than you could even pull your iPhone from your pocket, and in the best sort of Apple way, it Just Works. It’s so easy and useful that I can see preferentially choosing to go to one store over another based on the fact that their payment system is compatible…it’s that good.

There are dozens of other services that the Apple Watch throws at you: activity measurement, maps, Siri on your wrist, taking a phone call from your wrist, music controls, remotes for your music or Keynote presentation. All of these are well done, and fine reasons to use the Watch. But if I have to boil my use case down using just the first 10 days, notifications, apple pay, and the fact that it is…well….a really nice watch are the things that keep me using it. It’s clearly going to be an ongoing platform for Apple, and they have a very, very good track record for incremental improvement of experience. I’m very bullish on the Watch overall, even if my recommendation for most people right now is to wait for version 2 or 3.

Libraries

Apple Watch So what’s the library play for Apple Watch? Given the existing capabilities, I would say that using some of the older, proven tech in Apple’s stack gets much better with the Watch. Passbook for your patron’s library card is a no brainer, and a fantastic use, and Apple Pay for fines/fees is going to be interesting as adoption of that service continues to grow. Also, Apple Pay is among the most secure and private mechanisms available for the use of a debit/credit card, which I think is a huge patron privacy benefit.

If your library already supports an iOS app, adding Watch functionality now is probably not really worth it. At the very least, waiting until WWDC in June and seeing what they announce (or don’t) for the next version of WatchKit is warranted. It’s interesting to consider what a library Watch app might do…it isn’t possible to do text entry other than via Siri and voice transcription, so actually searching a catalog in the traditional manner isn’t really going to work. On the other hand, a Watch app that displayed a patron’s “cart” of interested books with the call numbers would be really handy while browsing in the stacks.

Conclusion

I said aboveapple watch closeup that I am recommending that the average technology consumer wait on the Apple Watch until v2 or v3. This will give Apple time to work out the issues with some of the biggest hardware flaws (no on-board GPS, and like all Apple devices it will get thinner and lighter). It will also give the ecosystem time to evolve, 3rd party apps to run natively on the Watch, and for the price to drop a small amount. By version 3 the low end of the line will be under $300, the design will be slightly improved, and there will be more and better app experiences that enrich the experience of wearing the Watch. Until then, I’m going to keep mine, because even with its flaws it’s an absolutely incredible piece of tech engineering that has already shown that it can improve my relationship with my information ecosystem. And I think it will get better and better at doing just that, allowing me to deal with the information flows in my life. That, turns out, might just be worth the cost of the Apple Watch.

Apple Watch

Apple Watch Predictions

Tomorrow is March 9th, and that means that we will get the formal Apple announcement of the Apple Watch. As always, I’ll be live tweeting the announcement, but I wanted to make a couple of predictions here about pricing, mostly because I think they are going to surprise everyone.

All that Apple has said thus far about pricing is the quote from the initial announcement of the product that “Apple Watch will start at $350”. There are three tiers of the watch, each made of different materials: Apple Watch Sport, which is aluminum and glass; Apple Watch, which is stainless steel and sapphire; and Apple Watch Edition, which is 18K Gold and sapphire. The assumption from pretty much everyone is that the Sport edition is the entry level, due to the less expensive material construction.

And I think that’s probably right, that the Sport will be the lowest priced model. But I don’t think that the lowest price will be $350.

My guess, which I admit is a huge stretch and will probably end with me making a massive retraction after the announcement, is that the Apple Watch, the stainless construction one, will start at $350, because that’s exactly what Tim Cook said. They don’t accidentally say things at Apple. I’m guessing that the stainless version will start at $350, with upsell on the various types of bands. I’m betting that the Milanese loop will be an extra $100, and the metal clasp band will be at least $150.

As a result, I think that the Sport will be cheaper, maybe in the $250 range. Cheaper materials, rubber (excuse me, elastopolymer) bands, and I think they could get away with a $200-250 price and still be making their legendary profits.

I’m probably wrong. They are probably going to have the stainless versions starting at $499. But they’ve done this sort of thing before. With the launch of the iPad, there were rumors of a $1000 price point, and then they announced a starting price of $499 at launch. But if Cook stands on the stage tomorrow and says “You know, I told you that the Apple Watch started at $349, and it does, but the Sport is going to be only $249” I will not be surprised in the least.

On the other hand, the Apple Watch Edition, with it’s 18K solid gold (even if Apple did find a way to make gold with less gold), is gonna be thousands. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if it was $10K.

So am I gonna buy one? I’m probably 75% in the “yes” column, but a lot hinges on the pricing. If I do, I don’t want the Sport edition, I definitely want the stainless…I mean, it’s gorgeous. I am sort of in love with the stainless with Milanese loop.
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But I also can’t really see paying the prices that some bloggers have guessed for that combination. I suppose we will find out tomorrow.

CES 2015 – Best & Worst

Here’s my last video from CES2015, a wrap-up that’s full of the best and worst of the technology that I saw. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed my coverage, and I’ll get a chance to head back next year for another run at the largest technology show in the world.

If you want to catch up on all of my coverage, you can see everything I posted via this link.  And if you have any questions about technology and libraries, want to pick my brain about anything that I saw, or want to ask me about specific technology recommendations for your library, feel free to drop me a line.

CES 2015 coverage sponsored by Springshare. If your library needs a solution for desk scheduling, research guides, or room booking, check out their LibApp platform

Just a quick note that I am producing a CES 2015 wrap up video that has a variety of things that I haven’t talked about or linked to yet, including some of my favorite overall pieces of tech that I had a chance to see and play with at the show. However, going through ALL of the video I took is taking me some time (at a quick glance, I took something like 3 gigabytes of video while I was in Las Vegas). Which means editing it together isn’t a quick affair.

It will be out this week. But later this week. Keep watching this space.

CES 2015 – 3D printers

I spent the first day of the exhibit hall opening working to see all the 3D printers that I could, and that turned out to be basically an all-day affair. This year CES isolated all of the 3D printers together at the Sands convention center, which turned out to be great…they were all together, and it was easy to compare sizes and capabilities. Check the video for some visuals and commentary on the ones that I paid the most attention to, but here’s the basic rundown for libraries.

There is yet another questionable audio portion in this video where my evil microphone comes back into play. Please forgive me, and know that I will be burning said microphone on the alter of better audio quality as soon as I am able. 

My number one choice for libraries that are looking at buying a 3D printer is the Lulzbot Mini from Aleph Objects. Released officially here at CES2015, the Mini will be shipping this month for $1350, and comes preassembled and can be ready to print just minutes after taking it out of the box.

I have been continually impressed with the quality of work that Lulzbot is doing, and I personally have one of their larger Taz printers (the Taz 2) that I have been running for over a year now with almost zero problems. But most importantly for libraries, Lulzbot is a dedicated Open Hardware company, which means that you will never be locked into proprietary parts or software to run your printer. If you need to repair a part, everything is documented and can be sourced from non-Lulzbot sources if needed.

Perhaps obviously I am biased towards open hardware, but I think that it is keeping with the spirit of the Library to support open information in all its forms. My older recommendations for printers included Makerbot…until they started locking down their devices to the point where now they are having serious issues with their newest printers, and customers have no recourse.

I have two other recommendations for libraries that are looking at buying a 3D printer in the next year. The first I mentioned briefly on one of my earlier reports, Ultimaker and their new range of small, medium, and large printers. Also a champion of Open Hardware design, Ultimaker provides all of the files and schematics for their printers online for free. I don’t think any library would go wrong choosing one of these printers for their Maker Space.

Finally, the third in my recommendations for libraries looking for something more interesting, even at the entry level, for 3D printing is any of the products from SeeMeCNC and their line of Delta printers. A departure from the cartesian printers that nearly everyone else makes, Delta-style printers are really eye catching and would be a great addition to a library Maker Space. And with their newest mini-delta, the Eris, SeeMeCNC has hit a very attractive price point for libraries, only $599.

Lots more type of stereolithographic printers as well…these are the 3D printers that use resin-based printing rather than the typical melted plastic that you find in the printers mentioned above. Take a look at the video for shots of the Form1, the Old World Labs printers, and more.

By far the most interesting new type of printer that I got to see was the Voxel8, a printer that’s designed to print in both plastic and conductive ink simultaneously, enabling the 3D routing of conductive structures and circuitry inside the plastic being printed around it. Watch the video to see more about them.

CES 2015 coverage sponsored by Springshare. If your library needs a solution for desk scheduling, research guides, or room booking, check out their LibApp platform

Knight Foundation News Challenge Semi-Finalist

I found out this morning that my Knight Foundation News Challenge entry (Make the Things that Measure the Future: Libraries & Open Hardware) was chosen as a semi-finalist! Out of 680 initial proposals there are now 41 proposals left in the “Refinement” stage. We have a week to answer a new series of questions, along with responding to any comments or questions that were generated by our initial proposal.

The Knight questions are:

  • Who are the users of your project, and what have you learned from them so far?
  • What are the obstacles to implementing your idea, and how will you address them?
  • How much do you think your project will cost, and what are the major expenses?
  • How will you spread the word about your project?

I have good answers to all of these, I think, and will spend the next week making absolutely sure that the answers are as clear and precise as I can make them. What I don’t have just yet is a lot of comments to respond to from the public. This is where you, Internet people, come in. What feedback do you have about my proposal that needs comment, or questions that need answered? Please comment on the Knight proposal page, and I will take those comments and questions and use them to hopefully move my proposal forward into the next round!

Adobe Digital Editions and infoleaks

Eliminate DRMThe online library world exploded today over the revelation that Adobe Digital Editions, software that is required for many library-focused eBook services, evidently leaks like a sieve when it comes to our user’s information. The TL:DR version of the story is that ADE appears to be sending in plain text to Adobe’s servers information such as: the book you are reading, title, publisher, which pages you have read and which page you are currently on. Much longer discussions about the leak and potential fallout here:

Andromeda and Galen then both went on to touch on some of the core problems with this leak, focusing on the conflict between Adobe’s action and the ethics of librarianship, and the possible role that ALA may have in bridging the gaps in libraries’ knowledge of these actions.

There are a few things I wanted to emphasize about this situation. The first is that several of the reports have noted that earlier versions of Adobe Digital Editions didn’t seem to “spy on its users” in the way that the most recent version (version 4) does, and recommend using earlier versions. The truth of the matter is that of course the earlier versions are spying on users…they just aren’t doing it in as transparent a manner as the current version. We need to decide whether we are angry at Adobe for failing technically (for not encrypting the information or otherwise anonymizing the data) or for failing ethically (for the collection of data about what someone is reading). It’s possible to be angry at both, but here’s a horrible truth: If they had gotten the former right and encrypted the information appropriately, we’d have no idea about the latter at all.

I think that Andromeda has it right, that we need to insist that the providers of our digital information act in a way that upholds the ethical beliefs of our profession. It is possible, technically, to provide these services (digital downloads to multiple devices with reading position syncing) without sacrificing the privacy of the reader. For example (and this is just off the top of my head) you could architect the sync engine to key off of a locally-hashed UserID + BookID that never left the device, and only transmit the hash and the location information in a standardized format. This would give you anonymous page syncing between devices without having to even worry about encryption of the traffic, as long as you used an appropriate hash function. I would prefer this approach, because (as mentioned above), if the entire communications stack is encrypted, it’s a black box for anyone attempting to see inside and verify what the vendor is actually collecting. There are answers to this as well (encryption keys that the vendor never sees at all, for example, and are totally local to the user’s device a la Apple’s latest security enhancements).

There are technical solutions that satisfy our ethical concerns. We need to insist that our vendors care enough about our ethics that the technical answers become a market differentiator. We need to insist that this is important and then we need to make them listen.