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Old Wednesday, February 13, 2008
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Post Mobile Computer Devices In Libraries


Handheld, laptop, and tablet mobile computer devices are now in the hands of nearly one billion people worldwide, a number almost as great as the number of desktop computers. IBM predicts that by 2003 only 20 percent of the new computers it will deploy for use by its employees will be desktop computers; 80 percent will be mobile computer devices. A number of Fortune 500s are issuing high-end PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) and small personal PCs to field sales and service personnel so that they can have the benefits of word processing and Internet access using a device weighing two to 3.5 pounds. Several major universities are encouraging their faculty members to use laptops, rather than desktops. In Japan, personal PCs--which are only now reaching the U.S. market--are outselling both laptops and desktops. The proliferation of mobile computer devices, and the number of places where they can be used, will increase the number of public library patrons who enter library facilities carrying a
mobile computing device.

The Mobile Computer Technologies

While PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) have been the most popular type of mobile computer device, they have primarily been used for keeping track of schedules, maintaining directories of names and addresses, and accessing e-mail. Only recently have processor speeds and memories increased to the point where it is practical to download, store, and manipulate information from a patron access catalog or a Web site. Given their relatively low cost, typically less than $1,000, librarians can expect that an increasing number of powerful PDAs will be brought into their libraries. Rather than using a desktop or plugging into a jack, there will be a demand for access to a wireless LAN.

PDAs will not be the only mobile computer devices to be brought into libraries in increasing numbers. Many college students have since the late 1990s been required by their institutions to purchase laptops, but most users of public libraries have avoided the relatively expensive devices. As laptops become more robust, lighter, and less expensive, they will also be seen more and more in public libraries. Among the recent introductions are laptops with 1.2 GB processors and up to 1.0 GB of RAM from Compaq, Dell, and Gateway. The flat panel screens offer a resolution of 1600 x 1200. They have FireWire connectivity and two USB ports each. There is little that these laptops can't do, yet it weighs in at less than eight pounds and costs less than $2,000 each.

Personal PCs
Personal PCs--a strange name considering that APC@ stands for personal computer--are beginning to reach the U.S. market. They are handheld, but are much more powerful than PDAs, typically at least a 733 MHz processor and 256 Kbps of RAM. A nine-inch screen offers a resolution of 1280 x 600. Despite their power, they weight approximately two pounds and cost less than $1,900 each.

Tablet Computers
Tablet computers may also become a factor, especially because Microsoft is pushing the technology. Tablets offer half the processor speed and memory of a laptop, but the resolution is comparable and the weight is less than half that of a laptop. Most support not only a wireless pen, but also voice recognition. Their main drawbacks are the lack of a keyboard for rapid data entry and the price, which goes as high as $3,000.

Wireless Technology
All of the foregoing devices can be manufactured with an "embedded" wireless networking chip, either 802.11 WiFi or Bluetooth; however, only 11 percent of the devices produced in the first half of 2002 had such a chip. It is estimated that only three percent of devices without an embedded chip have an "attached" chip, one installed after the initial manufacture of the device. The large majority of devices will, therefore, have to have networking chips installed before they can take advantage of a library's wireless network. Recent estimates place the number of locations at which the users of mobile computer devices are able to access a wireless LAN at more than 10,000, including coffee shops, hotels, airports, college campuses, and public libraries-the last still fewer than one hundred.

Related Technologies
Two other mobile technologies which incorporate a computer are e-Book readers and MP3 players. They are more limited in the applications they support; therefore, they may be displaced by multi-function mobile computer technologies.

E-Book Readers
Specialized e-Book readers have been more popular than mobile computer devices for reading e-Books because they have featured larger screens, better resolution, and more suitable software. At less than $200 each, they have also been attractively priced, however, recently introduced models are priced at $300 to $700. Their main drawbacks are that they cannot be used for other applications and the e-Book content is encrypted to the device. The dramatic improvements in PDAs, laptops, and personal PCs, should make them more suitable for the reading of e-Books. A majority of publishers prefer to use PDF to control the way the e-text looks, but the screens of mobile computer devices have not been able to accommodate PDF until very recently. A free downloadable Adobe Acrobat e-Book reader now makes it possible to download e-Books to all except older PDAs.

MP3 Players
While MP3 is known to most people as a technology for playing music, it can also be used to listen to digital audio books. The players are priced at less than $150. A number of digital audio books can be stored on one player. Unlike tapes and CDs, they are rarely damaged because the players have no moving parts. Digital audio books are also easier to store and retrieve than CDs, audiotapes, and audiocassettes. It is possible to access MP3 tracks haphazardly on a player, just like an audio CD, but without the CDs tendency to skip and jump. There is considerable speculation that PDAs will displace MP3 players because few people want to carry around more than one mobile device. Even if they lose popularity with consumers, they may remain attractive to libraries that prefer a dedicated device to a multi-purpose one when making a device that can play digital audio books available to a patron.

The Applications
Increasingly, mobile computer devices offer the same range of capabilities as desktop PCs: database access, including, Web browsing; word processing, email; spreadsheets; etc. The reasons why a library patron might choose to use his/her mobile computer rather than a desktop supplied by the library are:
No need to wait for a library desktop device to become available
Familiarity with the personally owned device
Ability to access information from anywhere in the library, including the stacks
Ability to download information and incorporate it into existing files
Speed and ease of taking the information away from the library.

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