Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Future of Mobile Computing > Stranger Than We Know

Let Jason Griffey take you on a guided tour into the future of mobile computing, where access is ubiquitous and librarians ply their trade in the information cloud

By Jason Griffey -- netConnect, 10/15/2008

Arthur C. Clarke once famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic. The technology that is now a routine part of our lives would have been nearly unfathomable just a decade ago. Moore's Law has ensured that the two-ton mainframe computer that once took up an entire room and nearly a city block's worth of cooling now comfortably fits in your hand and weighs only ounces. It is difficult to put the truly amazing nature of this shrinkage into perspective, but consider this: you have in your mobile phone more computing power than existed on the entire planet just 60 years ago.

These new devices are changing the way we interact with information. Their capabilities are even changing how we conceive of information and information exchange, adding significant facets such as location and social awareness to our information objects. [snip]

The Vanishing Cost of Ubiquity
Several forces are combining to make mobile phones the most attractive method of accessing information across the globe. In countries with a well-developed information infrastructure, mobile phones are embedded in most people's lives. Reuters estimates that by the end of 2007, 3.3 billion people had some form of mobile phone, and in some countries the penetration rate actually exceeds the number of people. [snip]


We're now living in a world where we have nearly omnipresent devices, most of which have the capability of being connected to a central network (the Internet), and the majority of which have very advanced positioning and media-creation capabilities. What can they do?

A Place for Context
There are several high-end phones these days, but the current media darling is clearly the Apple iPhone 3G. Running Apple's OS X operating system, the iPhone 3G combines a huge, brilliant display with a multitude of connectivity options (Edge cellular data, 3G cellular data, or traditional 802.11 Wi-Fi) as well as GPS, a camera, and the power of Apple's iTunes Store for the distribution of applications that run on the phone and extend its abilities. Taken together, these apps are a clearinghouse of clever ideas that combine the technology of the phone with the real world to provide a window onto where we may be heading. [snip]

This type of location-based information is part of the next step in information use. Imagine geocoding reminders in this way, so that your device could inform you the next time you were within a mile of the grocery store that you needed to get detergent.[snip] When information is given context (in library parlance, metadata), the information becomes more useful. When you can easily structure your information and make it scriptable and logical, responding to if-then conditionals, your information begins to work for you.

Getting Local—And Personal
Other examples of truly amazing mobile technology are just being created. My favorite current model is the Enkin project (, a combination of graphic manipulation and geolocation that adds metadata to the real world. Imagine standing in downtown New York, wondering which buildings you are looking at across the street; you pull up your phone and aim the camera in that direction.

The camera captures a few photos and sends them to a database of geotagged images that compares yours against the broader set until it hits a match. The phone then overlays the image on your screen with information about the live scene in front of you, telling you the name of the building and when it was built. [snip]

Examples like these exist, even if only in beta. What can we expect to see from mobile devices in the next three, five, or ten years?


Within five years, we will see the blossoming of the 700Mhz spectrum, a newly licensed communications frequency band for wireless devices. The existing infrastructure in the United States is hampered by legacy support and historical structures, but the new data infrastructure should take advantage of all of the developments of information and communication science over the last 20 years, without the need to build in backward compatibility.


In addition, there will be a multiplicity of services geared toward these mobile devices. Within ten years, music and video will be delivered as subscriptions, where a flat fee gets you streaming access to the entirety of the celestial jukebox and any and all video available, both TV and film. These devices will also have a new hybrid OLED/E-ink screen that displays text for ebooks in a resolution that makes it as comfortable to read as a physical book, with a multitude of titles available for rental or purchase instantaneously through an on-screen library.


The Cloud Librarians
So how do librarians interact with this level of mobile, always on, information space? The most important thing we can do is to ensure that when the technology matures, we are ready to deliver content to it. Our role as information portals will not decline—it will simply shift focus from books on shelves and computers on desks to on-time mobile delivery of both holdings and services. Reference will be communitywide and no longer limited to either location (reference desk) or to service (IM, email, etc).

It will be person to person in real time. Libraries' role as localized community archives will shift away from protecting physical items and toward being stewards of the digital data tied to those items in the coming information cloud, ensuring that our collections are connected to the services in the online world that provide the most value for our users.

Our collections will be more and more digitized and available, with copyright holders allowing localized sharing founded on location-based authentication. If you are X miles away from a given library, you should be able to browse its collections from your mobile, potentially checking out a piece of information that the library has in its archives and holding onto it, moving on to another localized collection as you walk around a city.

This new world will be a radical shift for libraries. Library buildings won't go away; we will still have a lot of materials that are worth caring for. Buildings will move more fully into their current dual nature, that of warehouse and gathering place, while our services and our content will live in the cloud, away from any physical place. The idea that one must go to a physical place in order to get services will slowly erode. The information that we seek to share and the services that we seek to provide will have to be fluid enough to be available in many forms.

Embrace The Revolution
How do we prepare for this new mobile world? The three most important things libraries can do to prepare for the mobile shift of the next ten years:

Realize that the move to digital text and delivery isn't going to go away. Embrace it. Be ready to digitize your unique collections, and ensure that they are available by every method and mode you can find.

Hire librarians who are fluent in social networking, train those who aren't, and provide funding for continuing travel and education. The language of the new web is related to the upcoming mobile revolution in significant ways.

Be willing to decouple your procedures from your infrastructure, and don't let the latter drive the former. Be willing to use the tools your patrons use, and don't expect them to use the tools you want them to use.

The mobile technology revolution will change more than just our habits and the way we interact with information. It will change us at a deeper level and allow for interactions undreamed of in our current situation. [snip]

This level of communication was literally impossible just 25 years ago, and the next ten will make the previous 25 look like slow motion. We will move through a world of information, generating and consuming it with our every movement and action.

Libraries must be poised to dip into this river of data and add their own information into the flow. This may happen invisibly, so that the patron may not even be aware of it. Librarians will have to add value to the everyday experiences of the student, the researcher, and the community member. The services attached to these new mobile devices are going to be the driving organizational and entertainment force for the next generation. If libraries can't find a way to navigate these information rapids, we may find ourselves overturned.

Author Information

Jason Griffey (, Head of Library Information Technology, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, blogs on technology and library issues at Pattern Recognition ( You can also follow him on Twitter ( and Flickr (, where he mostly posts pictures of his new daughter, Eliza



See Also

The Future of Mobile / Jason Griffey, University of Tennessee - Chattanooga
A continuation of the article that appeared in NetConnect this past year, "Stranger Than We Know".

The workshop will expand on the ideas from the article, including how service models in libraries change with ubiquitous computing, and how content delivery becomes much, much different. Registrants will look at specific tools that are currently available that model the direction that mobile is moving.


LITA Mational Forum 2009 > Open & Mobile

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