Turning blogs into apps

There’s been a lot of interesting chatter on the interwebs the past couple of days about a new application for the iPhone that enables you to create an app for your website. Seeing as Ned has already provided an outline of what it does, I won’t writing something detailing the ins and outs.  However, if you are intrigued to know more, Ned summarises it as follows (it is a handy post if you do want to give it a whirl):

The way Bloapp works is that you download the Bloapp app, and then subscribe to blogs within it that have been ‘apped’. (That’s not a real word, I just invented it; I mean registered with bloapp, basically). A bit like the Stitcher radio app works. So, you can download the Bloapp app from iTunes here, and then you can subscribe to this blog either by searching for thewikiman or, more excitingly, scanning this QR code within the app itself! (By the way, if you scan this QR code outside of the app itself, it just takes you to the normal mobile version of this blog).

As someone who plays around with a lot of web tools for Voices for the Library (and someone who is keen to encourage the whole ‘go on, give it a try’ ethos), I always have a bit of interest in the latest developments and try to find ways to use them to the campaign’s advantage, so naturally I was intrigued.

However, whilst I think this is an interesting tool, I’m not sure it really adds anything.  Admittedly, I do use a variety of website type apps on my iPhone (the BBC and Guardian apps to name two) and whilst they are quite good, they are not really satisfactory for seeking out news stories.  The free version of the Guardian app doesn’t allow search which is a real pain in the backside (guess I should upgrade really!) and you can’t even search the BBC app whatsoever (I really don’t like the BBC app, it could be so much better).  And that’s before we get into the whole closed web nature of apps *shiver* (although I guess this issue isn’t really relevant to this particular development to be fair).  Perhaps there is a search functionality on the app so I guess these are kinda moot points.  But, in general, whilst I sometimes use apps as my first point of call, I usually use the browser to poke around (old skool).

That said, I’m not sure of the other advantages.  I’ve bookmarked my blog on  my phone so I can access it quickly and easily.  The mobile version of my blog is also in-keeping with the style of my website so I don’t feel I am missing out on anything there either:

Mobile version of my blog

I can also share blog posts on Twitter/Facebook etc from the site so that’s not really an issue either (but then I think most mobile sites allow that don’t they??).  I know the pointed has been made about the decline in RSS, so I guess this is something where it may have some strengths.  But, well, I am in the unconvinced camp…

This does not mean, however, that I am against libraries making use of apps, quite the opposite (and as I have said before I am all for experimentation – I work on a ‘give it a try if it doesn’t work learn from it’ perspective).  In fact, I am in the process of putting together an event which touches on how apps can be used by libraries (more on that at a later date when things are finalised).  For me, apps should take full advantage of a smartphones capabilities.  As Chad at Hidden Peanuts points out:

Apps only make sense when they provide something above and beyond what a webapp can do. Do you need to use a device’s camera or accelerometer? Do you need offline access? Then an app is your thing. A blog doesn’t benefit from any of those doodads.

That quote is worth including alone for the use of the word ‘doodads’.

I will definitely keep an eye on developments and, should it emerge that there is something I have overlooked or there are some interesting developments, I may well give it a try and Bloapp the Voices website.  Until then, much as it pains me to say it, the jury is out.

Dropbox

Throughout the duration of my course I have found that I have had to use several different computers in different locations to work on assignments.  Sometimes I would use my computers at home, other times when I am at work or, when we go away, using the computer at my in-laws’ place. Usually this has meant remembering to carry a USB stick (or some other portable device) around with me…not an easy task at the best of times…particularly when it means remembering to pack it on holiday with you!  Up until a few months back, my preferred option was to use Google Docs to make my documents accessible from any computer, as well as for handy back-up purposes.  That was until I discovered Dropbox.

Dropbox has a simple, clean web interface......

Much like Google Docs, Dropbox allows you to store documents online, enabling you to access them from any computer with an internet connection.  Once you sign up for an account, you are given 2GB of free space (with an option to upgrade to 100GB for a fee) which can be topped up to a limit of 8GB by sending invitations.

The real bonus with Dropbox, however, is that you can add a folder to your main computer’s hard drive and then just simply ‘drop’ files into it.  Once ‘dropped’ into the folder, it is then synced with both to the web and to any other PC on which you have installed Dropbox….pretty neat eh?  Of course, you can still access your documents via the web interface, but the ability to just access them via a folder on your hard drive is quite a handy little bonus.

...and it installs a folder onto your computer

Once your documents are uploaded and stored on Dropbox‘s servers, you can manipulate them in a variety of ways.  You can rename them, sort them into a variety of folders or share whole folders with other Dropbox users.  The last feature is particularly useful if you are into collaborative working – making it easy to work on a shared document without having to email around vast files.

There is, of course, an iPhone app for Dropbox too which enables you to access your documents, photos etc on the move.   Whilst it is not possible to edit text on the iPhone app, I find it useful for reading documents I’ve saved on the servers.  Other than simply accessing your files, the app also allows you to mark favourites and upload photos from your iPhone into your Dropbox.  Again, not the most complex of tools, but it does pretty much what I would want from a mobile device (I’m really not that bothered about being able to edit my assignment on my phone).

Overall, I think Dropbox is an excellent alternative file storage option, particularly as a student who cannot always work from his own computer and doesn’t want to carry a storage device around all the time.  Like all the best web tools, it is hassle free and simple to use, with a clean web interface.   Will it kill off the USB stick?  Probably not, but you do have to ask yourself, why bother buying one when this is a  far better option?  Especially if, like me, you tend to lose USB sticks like socks (especially those teeny tiny ones).  Of course there are issues around storing data on somebody else’s servers (and I don’t want to underplay that issue, it is a major concern with any cloud computing application), but as long as you are happy with that I would definitely recommend giving Dropbox a whirl.

There’s a list of Dropbox‘s features on their website….and if you want to sign up, drop me an email (my Yahoo! ID is in my sidebar) and I’ll send an invite whilst increasing my own storage capacity!

CardStar – Embrace or Fear?

There was a lot of chatter on Twitter last week with the discovery that an application for the iPhone is offering a new way for borrowers to use their local library serviceCardStar offers users a way of carrying all their barcoded loyalty and reward cards with them without having a pocket full of plastic.  By inputting the barcode details, the application generates the appropriate barcode which can then be scanned in store……straight off your iPhone.  However, it is not only store cards that are catered for by this service, it is also possible to input a library card number and then, theoretically, present your iPhone at the library desk to take out books.

The application already lists Surrey libraries as one of the ‘merchants’, apparently in reaction to a borrower request.  Interestingly, Surrey libraries were unaware that they are listed on the application, this is because CardStar does not inform the relevant organisation that a request has been made.  This is not particularly helpful as library authorities could be listed without their consent or knowledge.  Furthermore, according to the blogger who kickstarted the flurry of Tweets, not many other libraries are aware of the service.  Of course, this presents its own problems for libraries unaware that users have requested that their library card be included on the application.  Should someone visit their local library and present their iPhone to a member of staff who is unaware of the application, there is likely to be an uncomfortable confrontation regarding the validity of the barcode.  In fact, it would appear that there have been some problems already.

@aarontay at Musings about Librarianship has already tracked down a couple of embarrasing incidents involving the application in some libraries in the US:

“Look you, next time you want to take out books bring in the actual card.  I don’t know if this is a real card.  Do you understand me?  I want the card, not the barcode.  Jesus.  begin muttering under breath and shaking head [then back to] I don’t know if this is a real card.”

and…

Do you have your library card?

Oh, yea. Sure. Here it is.

She looked at my outstretched hand with the iPod Touch and appeared unsure of what to do with the scanner in her hand. Taking a deep breath and saying a small prayer, I casually took the scanner from her hand and revealed my agenda to her.

See? I just place this scanner above the barcode displayed on the screen and….

Ummmm you can’t do that here…

No, it works! Trust me! I got it. Let me try one more time….

Excuse me, young man. People are waiting in line.

That’s not the kind of customer service that will win awards, that’s for certain.

The problem is, you can kinda understand the reactions of the staff members in these libraries.  After all, if you were presented with some new tech like this that you were previously unaware of, you would quite possibly refuse to even entertain the idea that these are valid library cards.  Besides, even if you were aware of the tech, there would still be reservations regarding security.  How can anyone know if the barcode number presented before them is genuinely the card number for the customer they are serving?  After all, it is just a case of jotting a card number down on the iPhone.  It’s no more valid than scrawling a barcode on a piece of paper and handing it over to a member of staff.  Clearly there are security concerns that have to be resolved and policies to be developed in relation to this application.  That’s not to say it is a thing that libraries (or frontline library staff) should fear.  Anything that makes the customer’s experience easier should be considered an advantage to the service.

Having said that, there is no guarantee that the application will work in all libraries anyway.  Judging by the tweets flying around on Friday last week, it was a bit hit and miss with some scanners.  It certainly seemed that those who tested the application on old scanners had more luck than those with new ones.  I tried to find out the reason for this from CardStar on Twitter, but it was more complicated than a 140 character tweet (obviously, should have worked that out myself!).  I have consequently emailed their support desk to ask for further info, so should find out why this is the case in due course¹.

Personally, I think @aarontay is spot-on with his conclusion.  It is important for libraries to be prepared for the use of this technology as any iPhone owner could stroll in with their iPhone and expect to take out their books using the CardStar application.  The most important thing is to ensure that the examples above are not repeated – that would be a disaster.

Update

1. I received a reply from CardStar explaining the situation with the hit and miss nature of scanning the iPhone.  They said:

The first thing to note is that handheld scanners (where you can direct the laser towards the phone) tend to work much better.  Because a lot of the laser light is lost when scanning from an LCD screen, the best laser scanners are the more high-powered ones (which typically correlate with “more expensive”).  We have found the most success with handheld scanners from Symbol.

They also requested that I send them the make and model of any scanners that are incompatible so they can test them in their lab.  Finally, they added:

We are actively trying to improve scanning rates in CardStar, and as we make advancements we will push them into newer versions of the software.

Looks like CardStar are aiming to be around for a while and to develop their product. Could be interesting times ahead.

The Kodak Zi8

The Kodak Zi8 HD Pocket Video Camera

As some of you may be aware, we bought ourselves a Kodak Zi8 pocket camcorder for Christmas.  We decided that we really ought to have a cheap and cheerful camcorder so that we can document our daughter’s development and send videos of her back to Spain for my in-laws to see.  After reading a whole host of reviews of both the Flip range and the latest Kodak, we decided to plump for the Kodak.  It seemed to tick all the boxes.  Compact, reasonably priced and easy to use.   So far, we have not been disappointed.

The Kodak Zi8 is a neat little package.  The USB connection is in-built so you don’t have to add yet another cable to the growing collection (I’m amazed I manage to keep track of all my cables!).  Also, there is no CD-ROM packaged with the camera. The editing software is built into the camera and downloads to your PC when you first connect it via USB.  Although basic, the software does enable video to be condensed to make it easier to send via email, as well as having a quick upload feature for Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo.

Video can be stored on the internal memory, but there is not much space at all.  An SDHD card is therefore pretty much an essential purchase once you have the camera.  It’s best to buy a card with a high-capacity (the Zi8 can take a card of up to 32GB).  It also recommended to go for at least a class 6 card, although we have gone for a 16GB class 4.

The camera also shoots in full HD and has an HDMI connection to connect with a HD television.  It also has an image stabilisation function (EIS) which helps to eradicate camera shake (although not entirely, for best results you really need to hold the camera with both hands).  I found when shooting video one-handed (which seems the most natural way to use it) there was still some noticeable ‘shakiness’.

A nice touch is an additional macro/landscape mode.  A flick of the switch on the top of the camera enables you to shoot up close and still keep the image in focus.  My only criticism of this is that the switch on the top of the camera can be a little stiff at first, leading to the camera shaking around all over the place whilst you try to switch between modes.  That said, once you get used to flicking between the two modes it isn’t too much of a problem.

So what about the video itself.  Well, although I said earlier I wasn’t disappointed with the Zi8, I was a little disappointed with the quality when I started recording some video of our daughter on Christmas morning.  However, I later discovered that the poor quality was due to the fact that there had been several software updates since that camera was packaged.  Once updating to the latest software there was a noticeable difference in picture quality.

It’s all very well telling you that the quality is quite good, it means nothing unless you can see it for yourself!  I shot this first video using HD mode on a bright, sunny day in Seville:

As you can see, even with the EIS function, there is still a bit of camera shake.  Also, whilst the picture quality is good, it is not quite as clear as you would expect from an HD recording.  Having said that, it would perhaps be unreasonable to expect top quality HD in a pocket camcorder that costs the fraction of a top quality camcorder.

So that’s how it performs in bright conditions, what about in low light conditions?  I shot the following video at night using the 720p mode….

Whilst not perfect, it’s not too bad.  You can still make out some of the details on the various floats and even when zooming in, the quality is still reasonable.

Overall, I am more than happy with the quality of the video from the Zi8.  Considering the size of the device (about the size of a BlackBerry) and its relatively low-cost (£114.99 on Amazon at the moment), I have been really quite impressed.  It will certainly enable us to record some decent quality video of our daughter as she grows up and, to be honest, we can’t ask for more than that.

Waterstones Release Ebook Sales Figures

Just noticed this on The Guardian website:

Four months after Waterstone’s entered the digital era, putting the Sony Reader on the shelves, the first set of sales figures for the electronic book show a market which is finally on the move.

The chain has sold almost 30,000 of the £224 readers since the launch in September, and has seen downloads of electronic books from the Waterstone’s site pass the 75,000 mark.

Waterstones also reports that there was a sevenfold increase in the sale of ebooks on Christmas Day, suggesting many were bought as Christmas presents (like mine!!).  Of course these figures are helped by the fact that the Kindle is still not available in the UK.  One wonders what impact that will have when released over here.  The article also notes that Canongate are planning to digitise their entire catalogue.  Surely won’t be long before all major publishers do the same.

With sales figures such as this, maybe 2009 will be the year of the ebook after all.

Airplanes and Ebooks

Well there I was, sitting on a flight to Seville when I thought “Hey, let’s dig out that Sony Reader and get people interested” (not showing off – I was categorically not showing off!).  So I get it out and have a read, all is well.  Notice a few funny looks, maybe someone might be encouraged to buy on.  Well, if they were they weren’t convinced for long….

After having a little read I thought I’d have a look at some photos I had uploaded on there.  I hadn’t had a proper chance to have a look when I first uploaded them, so I thought I would have a look now.  Big mistake.  I selected a photo and waited for the pixelisation to clear.  And waited.  And waited.  Before the screen went blank and wouldn’t come back on again.  Very odd, especially as the battery was 3/4 full when I put the picture on and the battery should last for around five reads of War and Peace .  This certainly wasn’t going to convince anyone and I could feel the smug eyes burning in the back of my head (well, to the side really, behind me was the rear of my seat).  I frantically played with the on switch.  Then I left it. Then I switched it on again.  Nothing.  Zip.  Nada.  Zilcho.  Resigned to returning my beloved gizmo and getting a replacement/refund, I plunged it in my bag and hoped that maybe if I plugged it in to the computer at my in-laws’ house, it might just work again.

Luckily, having plugged it in, it worked fine (huge relief).  Must have been a little gremlin in the works.  Hopefully it won’t return soon, otherwise even I might question the value of e-books (yes, even I).  And to all those who saw me on the flight to Seville from Gatwick this morning – it works fine and don’t let my Reader’s little hissy fit put you off.  Unless it happens repeatedly.  That may be a different story.

2009 – The Year of the Ebook

Interesting article on Gutenberg.com about ebooks.  Entitled ‘20 Reasons Why 2009 Will Be The Year of the Ebook‘, the article provides convincing reasons for 2009 being the long-awaited breakthrough for ebooks.  Of all the points that Chris Andrews raises, the one I most strongly agree with is Reason No 16:

16. THE IPHONE, NINTENDO DS WILL INSTANTLY EXPOSE AND PROMOTE EBOOKS


There are existing devices that do not have the current digital ink technology, but can instantly offer their customers access to books. Though the readability may be an issue, this still serves a purpose of exposing millions of people to the concept of reading ebooks.

I quite agree.  Whilst the iPhone and the DS aren’t exactly high quality readers, they will provide that vital breakthrough to get people used to the idea of ebooks.  The sales of book software on these machines has already gone through the roof.  It won’t be long before those that become comfortable with the idea start to look around for a dedicated reader.  It could just be that the iPhone and the DS will play a major role in the future of ebooks.  Who would have thought that just six months ago?

Christmas Study and E-Book Readers

Christmas.  A time for worrying about just how you are going to get any assignments done amongst all the revelry (note to self – you’re not so deal with it).  Just the thought of doing the xmas shop, writing out the obligatory cards, wrapping presents, arranging the whole family thing etc etc, brings me out in a cold sweat.  How can I cope with all this and still get any studying done?  I have visions of spending Boxing Day sitting at my desk reading yet another journal article about ‘controlled vocabularies’ and what a depressing vision that is.  But still, ’tis the season to be jolly and all that, so best get festive and get on with it.

Of course, there are the inevitable benefits to the xmas period.  Gifts mainly (yes, I am that shallow).  One of the things that I have been looking at is the new Sony e-book reader (the Sony Reader Digital Book PRS505S).  I have been quite positive about ebooks for sometime now.  Although I am not convinced that they will make the old fashioned paperback obsolete (they won’t), I think they will become a useful alternative.  Certainly the technology seems to be improving all the time and it is a matter of when, not if, they produce a popular piece of kit that will really fly off the shelves (the Amazon Kindle seems to have had that reaction in the US – when is a UK release likely?).

Luckily, I had a chance to have a look at one in my nearest Waterstones (which used to be an Ottakar’s – ah the good old days) and I was quite impressed.   Although there was a bit of a delay between page turns, it was relatively easy to read (it isn’t backlit, the main cause of eye strain when reading from electrical devices) and was simple to navigate.  The biggest drawback?  No wi-fi connection.  Consequently, you need to hook it up to your PC and then transfer the files across.  A bit of a shame in these wi-fi times, but not entirely inconvenient.  However, wi-fi functionality will surely become standard.  The ability to download books direct to your e-reader (as well as the ability to add RSS feeds) would surely make any e-reader a desirable piece of kit.  As the Sony reader does not have this capability, I think it is likely to be obsolete relatively quickly.  This does not mean that it is not worth purchasing.

For me, an e-reader would be a very useful piece of equipment.  I frequently travel (my wife is Spanish) and this creates a number of problems with my studies.  It is simply not practical for me to take my module pack, plus my core texts, plus any useful e-journals I have found, on a plane.  I would barely have enough room for my clothes!  An e-book reader, however, would eliminate that problem.  With the ability to download hundreds of titles onto one machine, I could simply send any e-journals to the reader and take it away with me.  Thus ensuring that, even when I am away on holiday, I can still read those articles that would otherwise be waiting for me on my return (causing me no end of stress by forcing me to confront the amount of study time I have lost).  Whether this is entirely a good thing is, I guess, a bit of a moot point.  After all, shouldn’t I be relaxing on holiday?

I think there is some reluctance in public libraries to take the plunge and make ebooks available to the public (understandable given the fact that it would rely on tax payers money), but I think the time is drawing nearer for e-books to really take-off.  We are edging ever closer to affordable, practical, readable e-book readers and it is essential that public libraries are ready to meet the demand.  Public libraries are already facing challenges in a digital world, the failure to prepare for the inevitable will see their relevance challenged to an ever greater degree.