The iPod Touch and Tipping Points

As an Apple fanboy — man I hate labels (or is that a tag) — I was interested in the release of the new iPods last week. It seems strange to me that the new stuff hasn’t made waves with people like some of the other iPod updates in the past … especially given that at least one of these new devices has stepped into all new territory as it relates to features and usability. Lots of people got jacked up when Apple released the iPhone and were crying that the iPod didn’t do the things the iPhone did — full screen, wifi, touch controls, and more. Well, with the release of the Touch, it is all there. I think it represents a change that in the next 12-24 months will signify a radical change in the whole portable space for teaching and learning.

I was hanging out in my office for the 30 minutes I had there today and one of my students (who happens to work in ETS now) stopped in to tell me he had purchased a new Touch. I asked him if he thought it would be big on campus. He immediately told me that most students wouldn’t get it … I can see that, today. He went on to tell me until it could connect to universal wireless and posses massive storage it wouldn’t be a hot device on campus. I begged to differ — now keep in mind that I value his opinion and I certainly feel like he has the pulse of the student population much more within his reach, but there are some factors at play here that may make this device something to prepare for.


First of all the Touch is expensive, but not all that more than other devices that let you get online to work your FaceBook profile, check your email, respond to questions in ANGEL, browse ESPN, and just about everything else you can do in a browser — did I mention it fits in a pocket? See we know some stuff about our students … they do very specific things with technology. Here is a brief summary of what we know … somewhere around 80% of them own laptops and nearly all of them have wireless access … we also know that under 20% actually carry them to campus and the number one reason they tell us they don’t is because they report they are too big! Sure the VPN on our campus is not yet compatible with the Apple offering of the iPhone, but honestly how long can that last? With the price drop on the iPhone we will see all sorts of new touch sensitive devices show up this year (even before the Holiday season) in the hands of faculty, staff, and students. That in and of itself could provide a tipping point. What will happen over the next 12 months will change the game — the iPod Touch v1 will give way to a faster more powerful V2 device with a lot more storage, better VPN, and more tools than ever to access all the stuff they do. Did I mention that close to 85% of our students are on the FB and that 25% of them spend more than 5 hours a week there? Having access to all that in the palm of their hands will drive change.

We’ve been thinking and looking at the role mobility plays in education for quite some time now … I was the PI on an HP grant several years ago (maybe 5) that asked us to look at this exact topic. The tools were lame then and didn’t allow us to do the things we envisioned — they aren’t now. Couple that with the close to 250 sections of courses with an iTunes U space and it is easy to see that the time is right for a portable access device to an ever-increasing sea of digital academic content. I am going to argue that the iPod Touch will be the first mobile device that will actually make it to classrooms and live with students like only their iPods and cell phones do now … wait a second, they already carry this stuff. Jeez, I wonder how many of them own iPods now? Let’s call it about 50% of the PSU student population (and the number of MP3 ownership is at about 87%) … I wonder if they’ll refresh and buy new ones? I wonder if the new students showing up will come with them (did I mention our freshman own MP3 players at a higher percentage than our seniors)? But they don’t own cell phones do they? Yeah, 93% of them do … again, imagine if the devices they carry let them hit the network to do the things they stop into our labs for. Another little insight — most of them spend less than 10 minutes on our machines … know what they do? Yep check email, update profiles on FB, and check ANGEL. What the hell did Bob Dylan sing?

I wonder if the WIFI enabled iPods will change the way students do stuff? I’ll let someone else answer that. Thoughts?

11 thoughts on “The iPod Touch and Tipping Points

  1. For what it is worth, my two cents (I guess that means it is worth two cents), is you are right. I think the big picture is that we are moving toward a device that is small enough to carry easily and powerful enough to do what we want it to do. I also agree that VPN is a major barrier, because edge is not going to cut it for the FB checkers. I do wonder what the storage capacity has to do with all this. How much is enough if you want to have video and audio content on your portable. I realize that not so long ago 16G seemed like an ocean of data, but video in particular is changing that. I also think that the ability to capture is critical for the all-in-one device, so a camera that does video is going to be important, especially at that price point.

    I honestly am pretty excited about this and think it really does move projects like the College of Education’s ubiquitous computing environment one step further away from a limited one-to-one notebook concept. I gotta have video though.

  2. I figured this might make for an interesting blog post topic. I did some thinking later in the day and came up with a few more thoughts. First, I strongly feel that the student population is fascinated with the iPhone (which by the way hit the one million mark in sales today, probably yesterday by the time I finish my post). Whenever I see one of the “privileged” iPhone owners on campus I take a quick look around to see who else is checking out the fancy piece of technological bliss. Allow me to state that if you want to get attention in University Park carry an iPhone with you and use the Multi-Touch interface in a large crowd. I have seen students stop dead in their tracks just to watch one of these users go by while surfing on AT&T’s EDGE (plus) network. Second, a big lift to the iPod Touch is the fact that it is not tied to a Phone Contract. This is a huge bump to Cole’s argument because it allows a new degree of user freedom that we have not experienced with the iPhone. If Apple can sell one million iPhones in 74 days while convincing users to also work with AT&T, how quickly could the Touch move on the market? Thirdly, I can attest to how few students actually bring their laptops to campus. Out of the 25 credits worth of classes that I took in Spring 2007, the largest proportion of laptop usage that I saw in a classroom was 4 out of 75 students. The other classes would have one or two people using a laptop (both of these statistics include myself).
    Now for my feelings on the matter. When I proudly tell my friends that I dropped $422.93 on the new iPod Touch I am often asked “What is the Capacity on that thing again?” to which I reply “Well it is 16 gigs, but that is NAND Flash memory, not a hard disk drive like the iPod Classic or your older (non nano) iPods”. This is where I get the all too familiar blank stare accompanied by “Why didn’t you just get the bigger one…”. Students do not understand the differences between NAND and HDD. I believe that the chief concern of your average iPod carrying student is “Can I fit my entire music collection in my pocket?” I do acknowledge that my argument is easily contested by the large amount of iPod Shuffles and Nanos that one can see around campus, but I feel that if the average student is going to spend 400+ dollars on an MP3/Video player they will expect to be able to carry their entire iTunes library with them. Size is the selling point here. That being said if Apple can roll out say, a 32 gig Touch in a year (matching the 5.5G 30 gig Video iPod) then I believe you have a device that will fly off the shelves and into a student’s hand.
    I am looking forward to the day when I don’t have to fire up my Macbook to do basic tasks like eLion, CMS, and nittany lions football blogging while on the go. To be able to reach in my pocket and tap safari will be fantastic.
    The real question lies with the students. Why don’t we ask them how they feel about using a portable device like an iPod Touch to get online on campus. Let’s ask them how they feel about the capacity differences, and if they intend to purchase it or a device like it in the future. If 85% of our student body is on Facebook couldn’t we try to reach out with a Facebook Poll? I did a little research and it costs $26 to create one of these (however, price goes up to over $250 after going further into the process). I also tried searching for a Facebook Group (iPhone related) to reach out to but the Search Feature for Groups is currently down.

    Hope that this topic gets plenty of discussion!


  3. Output on these devices is improving, but input sucks. Students using FB want to interact, and these devices are a barrier to two-way interaction. Until someone comes up with way to reduce that barrier, I don’t see students using these as educational enhancement devices.

  4. From what I’ve been reading, it seems like there’s been a concious choice on Apple’s part to position the iTouch as an iPod, not a PDA which I think hinders its potential. Certain functionaily has been removed (such as the ability to add calendar events directly from the device) to align it more with the iPod family. I also noticed that one of my favorite Apple apps, Stickies, is on the iPhone but not the Touch. I’m not sure what Steve was thinking on this one… he could’ve left that functionality in and REALLY gotten my attention, but at this point it’s more of a glorified iPod with less storage than I’d like. I’m not sure students will see much value in it, either. They tend to be more practical buyers than us older folks and in spite of the wifi I think most will see it as too much money for too little storage. Pretty, yes. Practical, no.

  5. I have a Cingular/AT&T 8525 and am a heavy data user. Edge is fine for checking Facebook (FB, yes?), reading RSS feeds, checking mail, reading course material in ANGEL, etc. Speed is totally acceptable, which is a good thing considering that not only is there no 3G service anywhere near State College, but there is no Edge service in a significant portion of it as well. You’d be surpised how often I see the G rather than E on my phone. I’ve never seen the 3G icon.

    For me, the killer feature missing from the iPhone is cut and paste.

    The iPod Touch appears to be positioned to encourage people to buy an iPhone. I see no other real excuse for the removal of some apps and crippling of others.

  6. I would say that not preparing for these devices b/c we find fault with them may be short sighted. Keep in mind it took Apple 2 years to sell a million iPods … A million iPhones sold in one quarter. I think we’ll need to be prepared sooner rather than later … BTW, I made this comment from an iPhone.

  7. I too went out an bought the Touch as soon as it came out as it represented exactly what I wanted: an iPhone without the phone (and the monthly payment for the phone contract). That said, I want to be able to use it as an iPod and PDA at once. I hope the calendar functionality is decent, but even if not, I will use it with Google calendar through Safari. Which brings me to my main concern: VPN. I am going to be pissed off if there is no solution to this issue SOON. I spend a lot of time on-campus and will be frustrated if I can’t access Google calendar through the device. Am I going to have to go down to Irvings or Panera just to add something to my calendar? (I might be forced to use paper God forbid.) I know it is not possible to access the PSU wireless network yet with these devices, but to whom do we need to talk to get that done? I understand that there are security issues, but it is ridiculous in this day and age that such a device would not work on the PSU campus right out of the box.

  8. Chris, I’m glad you’ve got an iTouch coming. I too am interested in the iTouch, and spent an hour mopping up drool following their introduction. So keep us posted relative to its use on campus.
    I live in a wifi-enabled world at home and work, and am puzzled by everyones concern for lack of space (sure I’d take more if it were offered). At this point I’m not too concerned with the storage size. I find myself storing far fewer files these days. More and more of my digital life ends up hosted elsewhere–in Google, Zoho or some other web20 app. I’ve stopped hoarding podcasts, they’re expendable and never get listened to more than once. If I want it again, I download again.
    On most of my older portable devices, I’ve found that once the novelty wore off of having everything I could possibly download on my device (and showing people that I carried it all on my hip), I’ve settled into a simpler lifestyle.
    If you’ve ever listened to Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” views on email (, his ideas seem to spread over into my RSS life as well.
    With limited attention resources I increasingly filter better, consume more, save only the VERY best, delete the rest, and move on.
    Anyway, because of my evolving connected and digital lifestyle, I do not seem too concerned about not having a 120 GB portable device.
    Oh great Haves, keep us Have-nots posted.
    -Joel Galbraith

  9. Joel:

    I agree about the space issue with the new Touch. I even went for the 8 GB thinking that I would use various smart playlists (some inspired by Merlin Mann) to manage what goes onto the device. But, as you mention, much depends on connectivity. I look forward to listening to podcasts and NPR news feeds on my device through my mobile Netvibes page, but again, this will require a connection via WiFi. If I am on campus, this will not work. So, I return to my main point: someone needs to get Apple to support PSU’s VPN structure, or PSU needs to figure out how to allow members of its community to get onto the network securely with these devices. Until then, neither the Touch nor any other Apple WiFi device will ever be big on campus and we will lose out on the educational opportunities these devices afford us.

  10. Am I missing something here?

    I “Pre-Ordered” my iPod Touch because Steve Jobs said that it would be available at the end of September. Strangely, I got a nice little email around midnight saying that the iPod Touch was in stores today the 13th. Now I understand that Apple Stores get the first shipments of new products, but there is usually a 2-3 day gap between when the product hits the store and when it gets mailed to those who order via the apple store. I am going to be a little angry if I have to wait until October the 4th to get my Touch while they will have been floating for 20 or so days on the Market.

    To make matters worse, it seems like other 16 gig Touch buyers are getting their order updated to “Prepared for Shipping” while mine sits at “Not Yet Shipped”. Furthermore, the PSU Computer store is listing the iPod Touch for $384 on their website bringing the unit to a $407 grand total with state tax (I am paying 422.93 with my “Free Shipping”). They however claim that they will not have the Touches in until the 28th.

    I called Apple today and asked if they could manually look at my order status to see if a change had been made. When I asked the rep why other people were ahead of me despite the fact that I placed my order before them, he gave me a very convoluted answer stating “Well you can take it for how it looks, or you can cancel your order and pick it up in stores today.”. Gee thanks Josh the Apple Sales Rep, how about a little less mystery in your marketing next time? Would it hurt Apple to be able to release a product the day they debut it? If the keynote had happened the 12th or 13th (when the Touch was really released) it might have made things a little easier.

  11. Pingback: BuzzLion for the week of September 9 at Education Technology Services

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