Kindle Fire: First impressions from a library perspective

We were lucky enough at work to buy a Kindle Fire for experimentation. It has a mostly decent UI, feels very solidly built, and if you structure your media-consumption habits around Amazon content there’s no better tablet choice for you. But there’s reviews of the Fire all over the web, so I won’t waste time and words by rehashing all that in any more detail. Instead I want to focus on how the Fire’s features can (or can’t) be used in libraries.

  • First and foremost, the Kindle Fire’s PDF reading capabilities are what I’d call bare bones at best. PDFs can be sideloaded via a USB cable like any other Kindle, but the built-in PDF reader doesn’t allow highlighting, notes, or even bookmarks. Previous Kindle models did allow all of those features. Of course you can install and use a better PDF reader app to get around those restrictions, but that’s a clunky solution. As for loading PDFs in the browser from a website, I couldn’t get JSTOR or any EBSCO product to load a PDF article at all. Anybody planning to read journal articles on a Fire will be pretty disappointed.
  • For libraries which have chosen to circulate Kindle hardware, there may be new disappointment with the Fire. I know some libraries use their Amazon/Kindle account to purchase and load ebooks on the device, then remove the account and check the device out to users. This allowed users to read the loaded books, but not to purchase any new titles under the library’s account. Unfortunately the Fire does away with that. When removing an account, all ebooks are deleted without warning.
  • Not only are all Amazon-purchased ebooks removed, but any sideloaded content in the books folder is wiped as well. I find this baffling. I sideloaded my own (legit purchased from another site with no DRM) book via a USB cable. Why does that need to be deleted? Again, there’s no warning that this will happen.
  • After removing an account you can still play locally stored music and access some apps. But which apps still work is wildly inconsistent, and I can’t find any rhyme or reason to it. Some work fine, others demand the original account log back in before proceeding, and a third category just don’t work at all.
  • The Fire is a nice video player, but the limited storage space (6.54gb usable space) means relatively few movies or tv episodes can be stored for offline viewing.
  • If purchasing an app directly on the Fire, you must first link your account to a mobile phone number. Even for ‘buying’ a free app. I can’t think of a reason why this would be necessary other than to gather more personal info. This is also an annoyance, as the library I work at doesn’t have a mobile number to link it to. In addition, purchasing an app on the website from a PC requires no phone number. It’s a weird inconsistency.
  • We don’t have Overdrive books, and neither does my local public library, so I’ve been unable to test loading one of them on the Fire. Can anyone confirm that it works?

It’s possible I’m wrong on some of these points – I only experimented with the Fire for about an hour today. But I think these are a number of issues important to library use of a Kindle Fire. Is there anything I’ve missed?

The case for home-grown, sustainable next generation library services


I was recently honored to be asked to write a technology column for an upcoming special issue of Public Services Quarterly. The issue’s theme is next generation public services, and I went with a title of “The case for home-grown, sustainable next generation library services”. While the column won’t be published until December, I feel it relates to a lot of discussion going on in libraryland right now and wanted to make it available as soon as possible.

The journal is usually limited to subscriber-only access. But the journal’s publisher, Taylor & Francis, allows me to post a preprint version online for free access. ‘Preprint’ means the article as it existed before undergoing peer review. But being essentially an opinion piece, peer review didn’t end up changing much. Only a few cosmetic changes were made, and so the actual content of this version is about 99% identical to what will be published in the December issue.

I’d like to give special thanks to Chris Guder, the journal’s technology column editor. His guidance helped craft this from a very (very) rough first draft into something I’m quite proud of. I think of it as my manifesto.

The links:

It’s a bit lengthy at 4400 words, so I converted the column into a PDF and formats for various ebook readers if you so desire:


Here’s an informal abstract:

I have grave concerns about libraries’ reliance on third party vendors in some areas. We gain the ability to provide new and cutting edge services to our users, but at what cost to sustainability? If a vendor disappears we’re suddenly out the service and the money we paid along the way. And sometimes we place the library in a very dangerous position as a precarious middleman. I talk about mobile services, ebook lending, terms of use issues, and potential new models for next generation public services. We can build services both by libraries and for libraries to provide a sustainable future of services.

Note that I wrote this column before Amazon introduced their Kindle library lending feature through Overdrive, and I’ll probably write a follow-up post about that soon.

Amazon adds Whispersync for personal ebooks

Last Friday I received an email from Amazon with a fairly innocuous subject line: “New Kindle Personal Documents Features”.

I’ll put the full text of the email at the end of this post, because I can’t seem to find it anywhere in Amazon’s online Kindle documentation. Which is weird, because I think the new features have broad implications.

To sum up, Amazon now applies their ‘whispersync’ functionality to personal documents. What does that mean in detail? Well there’s two necessary bits of background here.

1. Amazon has always allowed users to email their personal documents to their Kindle, that’s nothing new. A personal document might be a Word document, ebook file in a variety of formats, raw text, a pdf, or just about anything.

2. Whispersync is Amazon’s name for the feature that syncs your reading across devices. Leave off on a Kindle, open the Kindle app on your phone, and you can pick up reading where you left off. Highlights and notes taken in the book get moved between devices as well. It’s a powerful feature that I’ve used often to read a few pages while waiting in a long line somewhere.

By combining these features, Amazon is extending their cloud-based prowess to house users’ ebook libraries. I have a large quantity of ebooks that I’ve downloaded from non-Amazon sources. Project Gutenberg, Fictionwise, and freebies from authors are three sources that come to mind. I can now add them all to my cloud-based Kindle library, which I find pretty exciting.

Via Whispersync Amazon will now back up the books for me on their servers, and also sync any notes or highlights across reading platforms (or will soon anyway, it doesn’t work quite yet on Kindle apps). Each user has 5gb of space for their personal ebook library, which is enough storage for a library of staggering size.

There’s privacy implications to Amazon storing your personal documents, but the feature can be disabled.

Amazon is declaring that they don’t care where your ebook comes from, they just want you to read it on their platform (as long as it doesn’t have DRM mucking things up anyway). I’m not sure what their motivation is to open the doors like that, but as a consumer I’m not going to complain.

As a bonus, if libraries can get DRM-free ebooks from our vendors then those copies will suddenly be very useful on Kindles.

Continue reading

Xoom vs. iPad

Xoom vs iPad by Sir.Christopher Of Baltimore, on Flickr

I’m a regular (some might say obsessive) iPad user, but recently had the opportunity to use a Xoom Android tablet for a few days. The experience made me think a lot about what’s necessary for me in a tablet, and I’ve been mentally evaluating how each option measures up. It’s impossible to review tech like this in a vacuum, and I always find it most useful to look at competition side by side. I’ve broken it down into a list of the things I most need a tablet to do – here’s how each option measures up:

First, productivity-related tasks:

Instapaper has become the centerpiece of almost all my professional reading.
-iPad: Instapaper has an official app, which is one of the best-produced apps I’ve seen anywhere.
-Xoom: There’s still no truly great Instapaper Android app, either for phone or tablet. Instant Fetch is functional, but can’t compare to the iPad app.
Victor: iPad

Google Reader is the source for much of what I read in Instapaper, and helps me filter down an incredible array of sources.
-iPad: Reeder, like the Instapaper app, has a beautiful UI that’s a joy to use. It fully integrates with Google Reader.
-Xoom: While nothing’s quite as fun to use as Reeder, Feedly functions well and does the job.
Victor: tie

-iPad: The mail app gets the job done, but in a clunky fashion. I’m continually annoyed that I can have either a delete or archive button, but not both.
-Xoom: The Gmail app is everything I could want it to be. It beats Apple hands down.
Victor: Xoom

SimpleNote is the repository for all my text notes – work, trip planning, random thoughts, meeting notes, drafting blog posts etc.
-iPad: Once again there’s a beautiful official SimpleNote app.
-Xoom: Andronoter, while unofficial, is just as good.
Victor: tie

Dropbox is amazing. Enough said.
-Here the iPad and Xoom are fundamentally equal – both have great official Dropbox apps.
Victor: tie

Then there’s of course the slightly… less productive side of tablets. The fun things I need a tablet to do:

-iPad: There’s no contest here, the Apple App Store is chock full of great games.
-Xoom: There’s Angry Birds, which is admittedly at the top of my list. But other than that Android has a long way to go catching up.
Victor: iPad

I use Google Maps all the time, on both tablets and phones. I don’t know how I’d navigate or plan trips without it.
-iPad: The Google Maps app is embarassingly out of date. It hasn’t substantially changed since the original iPhone launched in 2007. The ipad-optimized webapp is actually a far superior experience with all the nice features Google has added in the last 4 years.
-Xoom: As expected, Google has packed Android full of amazing Google product apps. Their tablet-optimized Android map app is a shining example of what the platform can be.
Victor: Xoom

I don’t listen to music on tablets a lot, but it’s still nice to have the option:
-iPad: There’s iTunes, which I honestly haven’t used for purchasing music in years. The default music player works, but I find some of the UI elements confusing. And since I almost never sync the iPad with my computer, it’s a pain to put music on it. I can also use the Rdio app, but it’s designed for the iPhone and doesn’t look great here.
-Xoom: Between Google Music, Amazon’s Cloudplayer, the Rdio app and more I have almost too many good options to pick from. All without being tied to iTunes or my computer.
Victor: Xoom

I watch movies a bit more than I listen to music on tablets. But here it’s almost no contest:
-iPad: Besides the iTunes store’s movies, a number of the blu-rays I own came with ipad-compatible copies of the movies that are easy to load. Netflix and Hulu work very well too.
-Xoom: Google just launched Android movie rentals, and I admittedly haven’t tried them yet. But I’ll guess it works fine. The Xoom doesn’t have Netflix or Hulu, and I haven’t managed to quite figure out what video formats it can and can’t play yet. It’s confusing to say the least.
Victor: iPad

The Overall UI plays a role too. It’s one thing to have all these apps, but what about using the OS that ties it all together?
-iPad: iOS just plain works. It gets me from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss but with pretty transitions.
-Xoom: The Android Honeycomb UI, while highly customizable, isn’t quite as polished. I like the ability to put widgets on my homescreen a lot, and the notification system is very well executed, but otherwise it’s not quite there yet. Where iOS gets out of the way and lets me work (or play), Android Honeycomb takes a bit too much active thinking to use.
Victor: iPad

Totaling it up:
The iPad wins out in 4 categories
The Xoom wins out in 3 categories
Another 3 categories were ties

For such a new product, I was impressed to see how well the Xoom holds up. Give the Android app ecosystem another year to evolve and I think a lot of the iPad’s wins will shift into ties. There might be actual competition for tablet marketshare! I can’t wait.

Geotagging my photos for greater datanerdery

When I do my year in photos project (every odd year since 2005) my worst librarian tendencies surface and I get somewhat obsessive about organizing them and making sure all the metadata is just so.

This year I’ve got a new wrinkle in that mix: geotagging. GPS data can be embedded in a photo, enabling all kinds of cool mapping stuff. Mostly I just like looking at where I’ve been this year in Picasa:

When I take the daily photo on my phone, all’s well with the geotags. The phone uses it’s GPS function and embeds the coordinates in the photo. But my phone’s camera isn’t amazing, and I try to use my Canon camera instead when possible. The Canon has no embedded GPS, so has no way to know where each shot is taken. Sure, I could manually place them on a map in Picasa or Flickr, but that’s tedious and inexact and requires a more detail-oriented memory than I usually possess.

I could also upgrade to a new point & shoot camera with GPS built in, but I’m not willing to face that expense right now. I wanted something that would tie my phone’s GPS into the camera. I didn’t expect to find much, but somewhat surprisingly there’s actually multiple options to do this:

First I found the aptly named Geotag Photos software. There’s two pieces: a phone app (for both Android and iPhone) and a desktop application. Turn on the phone app while you’re out taking pictures. It logs your position at regular (configurable) intervals. When you’re back at your computer, the desktop application compares photos’ timestamps with the gps log from the app. When there’s a reasonable match, it adds the tag to your photo. In my experience this works very well, but requires that I remember to turn the app on and get it logging before I snap a shot. That’s not a big deal for a day of frequent shooting, but for spur of the moment stuff it becomes an issue. I should note that the mobile app can be significant battery hog too.

Second is LatiPics. I’m a little astonished that Latipics has such anemic coverage on the web, because it’s pretty amazing. Latipics removes the separate mobile app from the equation, using only a desktop app. Instead, it pulls locations from your Google Latitude history. I already have Latitude turned on and logging, so it requires no extra effort on my part. Otherwise, the desktop application works a lot like Geotag Photos – it compares photo timestamps to my Latitude log, and adds geotags to the photos where there’s a match. This is pretty much my ideal solution (see the aforementioned lack of extra effort), but Latitude updates my location at somewhat random intervals and as a result doesn’t always provide a precise location for a photo. And of course, LatiPics requires you have Latitude history logging turned on and use a phone that can regularly update the service.

A third option is using an EyeFi SD card. I haven’t tried this personally, but don’t think it would suit my needs. EyeFi geotagging relies on examining your proximity to wifi access points, and so is less precise than a real GPS unit. And if you’re not in range of any wifi networks, it can’t do any tagging at all.

Geotag Photos and Latipics have different strengths and weaknesses. I find that I use both as a result: Geotag Photos for higher precision when I’ve planned taking pictures well in advance, and Latipics as a slightly less precise ‘better than nothing’ backup plan for spur of the moment opportunities. I should also note that Latipics is free, while Geotag Photos’ mobile app costs about 3 Euros.

(As a perhaps obvious final note: there’s clear privacy issues with sharing geotagged photos online. Mythbuster Adam Savage once accidentally revealed where he lived via a geotagged photo. Just be careful and use common sense.)

Upcoming presentation: Computers in Libraries 2011

I’m very excited to be presenting briefly at Computers in Libraries in DC next week! Come see me at 4:30 on Monday, 3/21. I’m not quite sure where I’ll be, but I’m part of the Cybertour series of quick presentations. Here’s my slides in advance, though they probably make more sense if you hear my talking that goes with them:

Android’s App Inventor: Drag and Drop Programming

It took a while, but Friday afternoon I finally got an invite to use Google’s App Inventor program. What is App Inventor? It’s Google’s attempt to simplify building apps for Android devices. Apps are built using a drag and drop interface, and reflected instantly on a connected Android device.
App Inventor UI screenshot

I was skeptical about the system’s ability to produce apps of any real functionality, but I was happy to be proven mostly wrong. Building a well-structured UI is admittedly almost impossible, with only basic layout and design tools available. But the app inventor does provide easy access to surprisingly complex elements of the Android functionality. The GPS, barcode scanner, camera, speech recognition, and accelerometer are among the tools easily usable via drag and drop. After placing buttons and labels to design the UI, a separate drag and drop interface is used to establish how those elements interact with each other. A series of blocks click into each other, with a bit of typing to provide some details.

Blocks Editor

It’s a nice system, and my skepticism about App Inventor’s potential beyond the toy level was quickly overcome. I ran through the first tutorial app (touch the picture of a cat and it meows! This didn’t help my skepticism…) in a few minutes. Less than an hour later I’d built an app to search the UNC catalog via an ISBN barcode scan. It relies heavily on our existing catalog webapp to do the actual search, but still! I mastered using the barcode scanner for apps in less than an hour. My previous attempt at Android programming (in Java, before App Inventor existed) took me four hours to build an app that simply displays an image. And that simple task drew on every single bit of programming know-how I could dredge up from my undergrad days.

The barrier to entry for using App Inventor is almost absurdly low. My slight background in programming did help, and I would have taken a bit longer if I wasn’t familiar with things like variables and function returns. But the point of App Inventor is that I wasn’t required to know those things in advance. I could have picked it up in a little extra time. This kind of setup seems perfect for intro-level computer science courses, teaching basic programming concepts while retaining the satisfaction of seeing a fully functional app at the end. Google definitely realizes this and is targeting educators as potential users.

App Inventor is clearly still a beta product, with some notable limitations. Apps built in App Inventor can’t be distributed in the Android Market. The install files need to be manually distributed to phones. There’s also no resulting Java source code to tweak for more advanced purposes. And disappointingly, using APIs beyond a prescribed few (Twitter, Amazon, etc) involves more complicated Python coding. There’s also some strange odds and ends, like not being able to change the app’s icon.

I’m not under any illusions that App Inventor apps will someday replace Java-coded apps. But it got me excited about programming in a way I haven’t been in years. That’s gotta count for something.

If you’d like to try the barcode scanner app I built and see what App Inventor is capable of, here’s the installable apk file:

My favorite Android apps

I’ve had my Motorola Droid long enough now to feel like I’ve always owned one. Those dark pre-smartphone days of last October seem hazy as they retreat into the past. I listed my favorite Android apps in my early days of ownership, but that list has changed a bit over time. And while I have a lot of apps installed, not all of them get used every day. Here’s the dozen or so android apps I currently use most often:

Setting Profiles
This is magic. Based on criteria like my location, presence of a wifi access point or time of day, Setting Profiles changes settings on my phone. For example: When my phone sees the wifi signal at work it turns the ringer off automatically. When I plug it into the car dock Bluetooth turns on. It’s a bit complicated to set up, but works perfectly. $3.95

Tracks my exercise via GPS. I use it to chart my times when I ride my bike home from work. I even used it to track a bike tour we took in Paris, and had a great time examining the route on a map afterward. Google’s My Tracks app performs a similar function, but focuses on just collecting raw data. CardioTrainer is tweaked specifically toward fitness tasks and provides some low-level analysis. Free.

I don’t play nearly as many games on the Droid as I did on my iPod Touch. Why that might be is a topic for another time. But when Drop7, my favorite iPod Touch game, launched an Android version I bought it sight unseen. $2.99

Foursquare & Gowalla
I like Gowalla better than Foursquare, but find myself checking in places with both for different reasons. Gowalla is more fun, but Foursquare has those tantalizing freebie specials. Gowalla’s Android app is also much prettier than the Foursquare counterpart. Free

Google’s excellent podcast client hasn’t changed much lately, but still works very well. Integration with Google Reader is handy. Free

Mototorch LED
This home screen widget turns the phone’s camera flash on for use as a flashlight. Comes in handy more often than you’d expect. Free

Foursquare + twitter + camera = picplz. This app takes a picture, then checks you in at a foursquare venue. I have an archive of pictures associated with the actual places I took them – both in GPS and foursquare venue form. The picture can also be posted to twitter. It’s like twitpic, but with better geodata. Free

PRO Paint Camera
The stock Android 2.1 camera app is awful. Focus and flash options are hidden away and hard to get to. Thankfully there’s Pro Paint Camera with a much better UI. I replaced the stock camera app and never looked back. Free

Quick Settings
Does what it says. Hold down the Droid’s search button and a menu of various options pops up. Volume, brightness, wifi, bluetooth, etc. Quick Settings puts all the toggles in one place. Free

If you’ve ever wanted to play a video file that’s in a format the Droid doesn’t natively support, RockPlayer does the job. Still in Beta, not yet available in the Android Market. Free (beta)

Android 2.1’s built in Exchange support is pretty useless – I couldn’t get it to see any folders other than my Inbox, Sent, and Trash. 3rd party to the rescue! (sensing a theme yet?) Touchdown does a much better job, though at a fairly steep price. The UI could use some work, but functionality is rock solid. Now that we’re an Exchange shop at work this is completely indispensable for me. $30

Twidroyd / Twitter (official)
I go back and forth on which of these two Twitter clients I like better. Twitter’s official client has an amazing UI and integrates twitter messaging into the phone’s contacts list, but Twidroyd has some extra functionality like the LED alert for new replies that I’ve come to rely on. I keep both installed and use whichever matches my needs at the moment. Free

Google Voice
Verizon wants to charge me $3 per month for visual voicemail access. Google Voice gives it to me for free. That’s a no-brainer. I don’t use the SMS or calling features, but might switch to them someday. Free


A couple notes on where I’ll be at ALA 2010 this week:

First, I’m presenting on ALCTS’ Mobile Catalog Interfaces panel:
Saturday 6/26/10 10:30 am-12:00 noon

I’ll be going over our mobile catalog interface, a bit about the design process, pointing out some new features, and hoping for great questions.

Second, I’m co-chair of LITA’s Distance Learning Interest Group. We’re co-sponsoring a program with ACRL’s Distance Learning Section:
Open Access: A Conversation
Saturday, 6/26/10 1:30 to 3:30 pm
Washington Convention Center
Room WCC-144A-C

Third, for the DLIG annual meeting we’re trying something a little different. Instead of having a giant room reserved for a standard roundtable discussion for a block of time, we’ve reserved some space in the Networking Uncommons:
Networking Uncommons space
Sunday, 6/27 9:30-10AM

The Uncommons is a space on level 1, concourse A, near the exhibits. There’s tables, a projector, and plenty of power strips. We have no specific agenda. Just show up, hang out, and mingle! It’ll be morning, so feel free to view it as a warmup for the day – bring coffee and ideas. We have the 9:30-10AM Uncommons slot on Sunday the 27th.

Hope to see you there! If anyone wants to meet up during the conference, the best way to get ahold of me is a message on twitter. I’ll be around from Friday – Sunday, leaving Monday morning and trying not to melt.

Mobile Site Generator Update: v1.1 (RSS feed parsing)

Last night I pushed out the first major update to the Mobile Site Generator. There’s one big new feature: It can now pull in content to a page from an RSS feed! This feature assumes your web server is running php with cURL enabled. If you don’t know whether your server meets these requirements, there’s one easy way to find out: Try it out 🙂

I consider this feature to be pretty experimental, so I’d love any feedback on how well it works and whether I’ve explained what it does well.

Note that this isn’t a feature you have to use. If you want, you can keep using the generator and pretend it doesn’t exist. I also recommend not using it more than once in your generated mobile site – pulling in multiple RSS feeds can slow down the page dramatically. I hope to build in some ways around this problem in the future.

I’ve been thrilled to see the response to the generator! I’m glad that people are finding it useful. If you’ve launched a site and used the generator at some point along the way, please let me know about it. I’d love to build a practical showcase of what this thing can do.