Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Chromebooks and Libraries

I've been evaluating the new $249 Chromebook from Google and Samsung.  This is Google's latest attempt to bring a web-centric model of computing device to the masses.  The device is small (with an 11 1/2 inch screen) and lightweight (about 2 1/2 pounds), and the Linux-based Chrome operating system boots quickly and cleanly.  Applications are web-based, and can be loaded from Google's Chrome Web Store.  The criticism is that many apps are little more than glorified bookmarks for the Chrome browser, but it all works well enough. 

Unlike previous generations (which used laptop-like Intel Atom or Celeron CPUs), this Chromebook uses a mobile phone-class Exynos processor.  It's easy to load too many tabs and apps at first, but the system quickly slows down to remind you that this is a simple device, intended to be used simply. The payoff for this processor is improved battery life-- I have been getting more than 7 hours per charge.  

With it's limits in mind, the device works well for browsing the web, writing emails, and using web apps.  Patrons can sign on to the devices  with their Google accounts (bringing up their Gmail, and Google apps, docs, and calendars), or can "browse as guests" anonymously. 

The chicklet-type keys have good play and are easy to type with.  Keys for controlling screen brightness and speaker volume are placed similarly with the same keys on the OLPC XO!  They even use similar symbols.  In fact, you might place the XO and the Chromebook on the same evolutionary line of Linux laptops, all using lightweight power saving hardware and simplified user experiences and designed for specific users (students, web surfers).  The touchpad works without any drama, and the camera is good enough for video chats.  The Chromebook looks inexpensive, but not cheap.  It does not seem to be as durable as the rugged little XO, which was designed to be dropped by little hands, but everything worked out of the box and nothing has broken so far, although I'm not planning any drop tests!   

The device works well as an ebook reader for purchased (or free) ebooks (using web-based apps like Google Play, Nook for Web and Kindle Cloud).  Ironically, the most closed-in system for checking out ebooks from libraries is the one that works best with the Chromebook:  Kindle ebooks checked out from libraries through Overdrive are readable with Kindle Cloud Reader since all the DRM is handled through Amazon. There is no Overdrive Media Console for Chrome.  I plan on further testing of other systems for a later post
For years I've hoped that thin client technology would improve to the point where libraries could swap out our usual array of MS Windows-based PCs for something far cheaper to buy and maintain.  The "Personal Computer" was always way too personalizable for efficient use in libraries.  Tremendous, and tremendously expensive effort has gone into locking down these things for use by library patrons.  

Thin clients, which pull user profiles and programs from servers, have always made more sense to me for patron use. But the user experience has always been lacking, and patrons were too wedded to Microsoft Office for it to be feasible.  This newest Chromebook, however, could meet the needs of a lot of patrons for a simple web device, and online apps are a lot more acceptable.  The price is right, and I know many libraries are evaluating Chromebooks.  With luck, we may be moving into the "post public PC" era in libraries.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Califa to Add Smashwords Content

California library cooperative Califa Group has announced a deal to add 10,000 self-published ebooks from Smashwords to the ebook collection they are creating for member libraries. This follows an earlier announcement that additional funding has been secured to continue their yet-unnamed ebook collection project, which is based on Douglas County's model of library-control of ebook content and DRM management (as opposed to passively accepting what Overdrive or 3M will do for us).

Smashwords is allowing authors to set individual pricing for library sales, leaving open the possibility that our prices will be lower (perhaps free). Perhaps independent authors will be more open to our case that libraries are a discovery platform rather than a threat (which seems to be a common view with some of the big publishers).

Interestingly, the deal also includes creating a self-publishing program to allow patrons to publish their own works on Smashwords. Moving libraries to the forefront in content-creation opens many new options for libraries.


Friday, June 22, 2012

HP Launches New Web Kiosk

Hewlett-Packard is now selling the Passport 1912nm, an all-in-one kiosk-style device for web browsing that they call an "Internet Monitor".

Running a locked-down version of Linux, the Passport offers web-browsing (through an old version of Firefox) plus the ability to view photos or listen to music loaded via the unit's USB ports.  Office-type tasks could be done through web-based applications such as Google Docs.   The Passport is available today and lists for $259. 

Following the launch of the Google/Samsung Chromebox last month (which lists for $329 and requires a monitor), the Passport shows there is life in the thin client space after all, and provides another compelling alternative to libraries tiring of providing Internet access to patrons using costly personal computers running Windows, then having staff lock them down to handle the hand-to-hand combat of public computing.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Encyclopedia Britannica to Exit the Print World

According to the New York Times, Encyclopedia Britannica is joining many other landmark reference publications by abandoning print and going online-only.

The Britannica corporate blog describes continuous updates for the web-based product as a big reason for the change, but really, few people go to print sources for this type of information anymore. As the Times notes, online sources have almost wiped out the print reference business. My last reference weeding project weeded or moved to the circulating collection about 85 percent of a traditional public library reference collection.

The Britannica web site includes a large ad for their new app.