Changing Nature of Physical Spaces

Each Saturday I meet my friend and colleague, Scott McDonald, at a local coffee shop for an hour or so to discuss some emerging research topics we’re working towards. Each week we are amazed at the number of people in Saint’s sitting on their laptops working — most of them are doing browser based work like google docs, Facebook, and the like. It is rare that I see anyone not using the browser as the primary mode of work. That is a big change from even a year or so ago.

The same can typically be observed if you walk onto our campus and into the student union building. You see table after table of students on laptops, living in their browsers — Facebook, gmail, and ANGEL seem to be what I see. Rarely do I observe work happening in “real” applications. I am guessing that will only get more common as the Blogs at PSU gain wider adoption for writing and students begin to weave google docs into their daily workflow.

PSU HUB, Photo by Allan Gyorke

PSU HUB, Photo by Allan Gyorke

I am observing a radically changing dynamic on campus that will force us to rethink much of what we offer to students. I’m glad to see my colleague, Allan Gyorke, is leading a team looking at the design of informal learning spaces because we need to really make some changes to keep up with the new reality of mobile computing. I don’t have numbers from this year right in front of me, but I am betting computer ownership among our students is close to 100% and I am betting laptop ownership is around 80% or higher. The old argument/claim that they don’t bring them to campus is holding less water for me … just as an incidental observation, there are more laptop users all over the place than I’ve ever seen.

As I was doing some reading this morning I came across an announcement that the University of Virginia is phasing out its public computing labs. Talk about a radical move! They will repurpose several of the lab spaces to support the need for collaborative work, but the idea that the stand by public computer lab is being phased out is stunning. In the linked announcement they share some remarkable usage statistics that I am fairly sure we could gather quite easily as well … from the piece,

Lab software usage statistics from 2008 reveal that out of a total of 651,900 hours spent using software in the public computing labs, 95% of the time (over 619,500 hours), students were running commodity or free programs such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, Adobe Acrobat Reader, or Microsoft Office. All of these software programs come pre-loaded on student laptops or are available at low or no cost to UVa students. In contrast, just 5% of the time spent running software in public labs was devoted to specialized packages such as MatLab, Eclipse, Mathcad, or SPSS.

The browser is winning. The idea that all students need access to specialized, high-end software like Adobe Photoshop, MatLab, CAD, and other packages is slipping as the ability to do more advanced things in the browser expands. As more of what we do moves to the cloud, the more we’ll have to rethink services. Add to it the extreme economic pressure many institutions are facing and you have a recipe for a changing physical computing landscape. I’d be really interested to know what you are seeing on and around your campuses … are students bringing laptops to campus and do you believe they live in the browser? What should we be doing to address it?

My Must Haves

Since my last post focused on the potential rise of light weight portable computing systems — Netbooks, iPhone, and cloud services — I thought I’d try to follow it up with a list of my must have tools that have enabled me to live more that way. This is just a simple list from my point of view and I doubt it is the same as what somebody else might find necessary to do their jobs. I’d love to hear from you what you think are the next generation of tools that someone living on a light weight portable device might require.

With all of this it is important to note that I also have two other machines I use regularly. I have an iMac on my desk at home connected to a series of hard drives that store pictures, documents, media, and most of my important stuff. It gets backed up a handful of times a day with a combination of TimeMachine and Apple Backup … I even move a hard drive off site for pictures every so often. At work I have a machine on my desk that I use while there … the only real reason I use it is because it is connected to a 30″ display that lets me get so much more done in short bursts. I don’t think I could do without that as my MacBook Air will not drive the display or I would give up that machine altogether.

My job has transitioned mostly into the world of administrative tasks — lots of meetings, budgets, proposals, notes, and the like. I no longer spend much time writing any sort of code, editing large images, or editing audio and video. I’m not saying I don’t do those things from time to time, but my daily grind is built around the production and consumption of information in a mobile environment … I read a lot, I write a lot, and I spend all sorts of time fighting with my calendar. So with that, here are my new top five “must haves” for living in the new mobile computing Universe (ignoring email and calendar software completely):

  • Evernote has become one of my most valued tools. I haven’t ponied up for a paid account, so I am using it for free … I’m not sure I will pay, but the new features of the premiere account have my wondering. I love that I can take, find, and share notes from any platform in an application that is client based but syncs beautifully via the web. The image search is amazing and I just bought a new iPhone case from Griffin with a macro lens adaptor so I can take pictures of business cards and store them there as well. Having things where I need them — no matter what machine/device I am on is critical. I couldn’t imagine going back to a world where I don’t have Evernote.
  • My blog is still a very important part of how I keep things together. I’m not talking about the WordPress platform at all … as a matter of fact I use my WordPress blog for personal reasons, while my PSU blog is powered by MovableType. Both serve similar functions, but I have worked out (in my mind at least) a rationale for when I use what. Without the blog space, things get crazy fast. I need a place to write and reflect … it is just part of how I work through things.
  • At work I use a couple of wiki services to keep lots of information up to date. At ETS we have a MediaWiki installation in place for project updates and content creation. At PSU we have a pilot implementation of Confluence that is becoming the defacto place for our larger organizational work. I don’t think I’d be able to really function without some sort of wiki service. Just too critical to easily create and share content in an environment like that.
  • This may seem like a cop-out, but I am going to lump five online services into one must have … Flickr, YouTube, La La, Facebook, and BaseCamp are all part of my day to day workflow in huge ways. My Flickr Pro account is a critical piece to my online archiving approach … I use Aperture at home and tag my favorite pictures with five stars on import. Usually a couple times a month I move those pictures, at full resolution, to Flickr for a social off-site back up solution. I’ve been using YouTube as a backend storage location for all my video (I no longer keep it on my laptop after import/editing) … I love that people are there and that I can generate online conversations without any real overhead. La La is a killer online tool that has allowed me to stop carting around gigs of music on multiple computers. They have a nifty uploader that searches your music library and unlocks those songs for online listening. FaceBook has completely replaced email with distant friends. I now keep in contact with a specific network of folks via the FB platform … I can chat, share pictures, links, updates, and all sorts of stuff without opening any other apps or services. I can see how down the line I could move more of my life to FB. BaseCamp has become the go to place for project management tasks at ETS and I love that I can get to it anytime anyplace. I could never go back to MS Project … even without the gantt charts, BC rules for me.
  • Clearly I still need to edit and create documents, so I do use the Google Doc tools to do word processing, spreadsheet work, and more and more, presentations. I do have iWork on my machine and I do my high end finishing work there, but on a day to day basis I spend most of my office-like productivity time in Google Docs. I do use the collaborative features, but I mainly use it to open and create new Word-compatible documents.

I am guessing there are other tools I use, but this list pretty much sums up what works for me. One that I am still working with and am starting to really like is Dropbox. It creates a local, synchornized folder on each of your machines that lets you move files back and forth. I also have a Mobile Me account that should do the same, but I find the iDisk piece of that to be really too slow. Before I’d pay for Dropbox, I’ll give Mobile Me another shot. At any rate, that is my list … I am curious what tools people find are must haves for managing a mobile existence. Any thoughts?

Pandora Radio

I know I am late to the Pandora party, but now that I am a full out lover of the wonderful (lack of) randomness that it offers me I am hooked. I’ve used it on my computer while traveling before, but since the introduction of the application for the iPhone and iPod Touch my use of it has soared. I have a handful of artist “radio stations” set up and typically just mash them all together to get an amazing mix of the stuff I know I like and the stuff Pandora thinks I like. Crazy thing is that Pandora has been right nearly all the time — we’re talking about batting close to 1000 here.

I installed it on my iPod Touch and just leave it connected to the stereo so we can listen to the mix throughout the house and in the backyard. Last night, while sitting on the patio, I asked my wife why in the World would anyone need to steal music when you can simply tune in for free? She responded with, “why would anyone need to buy any music?” What do musicians and the RIAA think about it?

Both of us were just marveling in the simple pleasure of the most intelligent radio station we’d ever listened to. Got me thinking that as we continue to do our part to help inform students to the ills of illegal file sharing and stealing music this could be part of the solution. We are getting set to release our Copyright Perspectives campaign in the coming week and I have to wonder if promoting Pandora is appropriate … I figured better ask the Internets!

I wonder how increased Pandora use would impact bandwidth — both personal quotas in the dorms and as a whole across the University. I’d like to hear from some of the more technically savvy folks out there — is this a good thing to promote across our campus as an alternative to illegal file sharing? I ask because I have no idea. We’ve had to impose bandwidth restrictions in the residence halls to help curb the constant use that file sharing causes, but what happens when more and more of the legal alternatives are all network services? I am thinking about the students who buy the online viewing package for College Football, the kids who buy all their movies and TV shows from iTunes, upload tons of RAW photos to Flickr, or tune exclusively into Pandora … what should we be thinking about?