Some interesting articles about mobile technology caught my eye last week as I was finishing up the leftover turkey. Apple has come under fire for the reported inability of Siri, the voice recognition application on the new iPhone 4S, to find abortion clinics. As reported by CNN, quoting the American Civil Liberties Union:
“Although it isn’t clear that Apple is intentionally trying to promote an anti-choice agenda, it is distressing that Siri can point you to Viagra, but not the Pill, or help you find an escort, but not an abortion clinic,” the group wrote in a blog post Wednesday.
A spokesperson for Apple responded quickly:
“These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone. It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better and we will in the coming weeks.”
This is but one example of problematic access and information issues with our mobile devices, a topic that was explored in more detail last week by Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain in MIT’s Technology Review in his provocatively-titled article The Personal Computer is Dead. Zittrain begins by asserting that:
Rising numbers of mobile, lightweight, cloud-centric devices don’t merely represent a change in form factor. Rather, we’re seeing an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers on the one hand, to operating system vendors on the other—and even those who keep their PCs are being swept along. This is a little for the better, and much for the worse.
Zittrain continues with an analysis of the state of mobile software development for Apple and Android devices, and the restrictions this development operates within. In Apple’s case users are limited to the software available in the company’s commercial space: the App Store (unless the device is jailbroken). Android apps are potentially available outside of the Android Marketplace, though I wonder whether many users go to the extra effort to locate and download those apps. In both cases developers are tied to the operating system of the device which dictates the parameters of the software. Perhaps most distressingly, there are hints that a similar environment for software development may soon be prevalent even on the PC: Apple has already introduced its App Store for Mac.
How does this aspect of mobile computing affect us as academic librarians? While we still have a sizable number of students without smartphones on our campuses on average,* there’s no question that smartphone and tablet usage is on the rise overall. What challenges will we face that accompany the increasing reliance on mobile devices? Certainly library database vendors are rushing to develop apps for these devices — how will we promote these apps to our users and integrate their use with the library website and other existing services? And while many libraries are also developing apps, that strategy may not be feasible for smaller libraries that already feel stretched by the efforts to provide digital library services.
Access to information — an aspect of information literacy — may also be affected by these restrictions around mobile devices. We’ve already read about the possibility of a filter bubble that impacts Google search results. With the increasing move to an app-driven environment, could an internet search provider’s app restrict or shape search results even further?
What should academic libraries be considering as we adapt to an information landscape that’s increasingly mediated by mobile technologies? How can we help our students, faculty, and other library patrons with their information needs while ensuring that they’re aware of the strengths and limitations that these technologies have to offer?
* The latest survey results from the Pew Internet Project show that the vast majority of undergrads have a cellphone (between 94-96%), and about 44% of 18-24 year olds own smartphones.