I was asked last week why it is that I am fixated on the iPod Touch and its use as an educatonal tool. Once I had answered this adequately it was pointed out to me that I have not explained the point well enough on this blog. So here it is…
iPod Touch as a mobile computing platform
The introduction of the second version of the iPod Touch OS brought with it the ability to run third party applications. The opening of the OS in this way meant that the iPod had graduated from being a media player into a mobile computer platform.
The route that the iPod has taken to become a mobile computer platform is as important as the technology that has been used. The brand of Apple was not well known outside of computer users 10 years ago - but with the the iPod it is now a household name. That the iPod is now well known is great - that it dominates the MP3 player market with 75% market share is part and parcel of this. To become a mobile computing platform with this heritage and the buzz of the Apple marketing machine means that the iPod Touch is a much more acceptable and ‘cool’ device for learning than a Windows based PDA.
The ‘cool’ competition
There are other brands that can also move into this space with more teenage credibility than Microsoft - Sony with it’s playstation brand and Nintendo with the DS. It seems that the heritage of both these companies as gaming companies does not allow them to open up their platforms to a plethora of 3rd party developers as Apple has done with the iPod Touch and Microsoft to a much greater extent with Windows Mobile. The gaming device companies have had a business model for years that involves selling devices at a loss and then making money back with licensing fees from the developers. Apple has always made a profit on every device it sells and therefore opening their platform provides an opportunity for extra income and does not risk existing income.
Sony and Nintendo have also created very targeted gaming devices with inputs and controls that are only found on gaming devices. Nintendo embraced touch and audio input prior to Apple - but the touch area is quite small. The issues for Sony and Nintendo to overcome with the physical aspects of their devices can be resolved in future models and they both still offer the best competition to Apple in terms of ‘cool’ devices.
A final characteristic of both gaming devices is that they rely on physical media to primarily distribute content. This again reflects the heritage of selling games via retail channels. Apple has been extremely lucky with the dominance of the iPod because this has also allowed Apple to become one of the largest digital content retailers with the iTunes Store.
So the iPod Touch is cool and as a mobile computing platform and it faces little ‘cool’ competition as such. Apple is getting aggressive and has inspirations for the iPod Touch to move into gaming and compete with the gaming devices rather than waiting for them to move into the mobile computing market.
The death of the PDA
There are two other types of devices that can be used for mobile computing in education - Windows based PDA devices and smartphones. The PDAs have a long heritage in mobile computing and provide a very open platform with digital delivery (however lacking a single easy retail channel to compete with the iTunes Store). The problem for PDA devices is that their market is shrinking thanks to competition from smartphones and gaming devices. For business and personal use a PDA makes little sense when a user can get a smartphone that can provide them with the same functionality and the functions of a phone.
This shrinking market means that one of the markets where non-phone devices make sense is when schools or other education institutions sponsor the use of a particular device. Non-phone devices are preferable in schools because they create no problems related to the payment of phone bills and connectivity can be more easily controlled through school WiFi connections. It is not clear if this market is big enough for it to be viable for device manufacturers to continue creating PDA devices.
The device already in the pocket
The final type of devices that offer competition to the iPod Touch as a mobile computing platform for education are the smartphones. Statistics only show the smartphone market to be increasing every year and this had led to a very competitive marketplace that is driving down costs. Smartphones are very fragmented though with many different platforms: *Windows Mobile *Blackberry *Symbian (Nokia, SonyEricsson and Motorola) *Linux *Android (from Google autumn 2008)
All of these platforms are open (more open than the iPod Touch) and on many of the platforms are Java compatible. However there are lots of different screen sizes and input mechanisms that vary across the devices. The variations in device specifications mean that there are phones for every type of user but make it much harder to write software and some phones are just not powerful or large enough for educational content to work.
Phones are ‘cool’ & desirable and already in the pockets of students - but the lack of standard configurations means that there is very little software for these devices. The lack of an ‘education standard’ makes it hard for consumers to choose devices, schools to put their weight behind particular configurations and developers to focus their support.
I am writing this article on a plane with my Nokia N810 so I feel I should also quickly mention the ‘Internet Tablet’ devices. These devices are the successors to the PDAs and are very powerful - with great off-line capabilities, a keyboard and great application distribution features. They lack however any media player credibility (they do it - but not as effortlessly as an iPod). The power & flexibility of these devices is also a flaw when compared with the simplicity & usability of the iPod for “non-geek” users.
Other ‘netbook’ computers like the Asus EEE are not pocket devices and not up for consideration.
Conclusions:The iPod Touch has the least flaws and the most advantages at the moment
The iPod Touch & iPhone platform is a single configuration of screen size and input mechanism which helps in the creation of content. The brand is also well known and understood by consumers as desirable and ‘cool’. It is easier for school to encourage the use of iPods with students and parents.
The heritage of the iPod as a media player provides compelling reasons for students to use one with or without educational content. The addition of gaming to the iPod Touch only makes the devices more compelling to students.
The iPhone is a great device for consumers who want the functionality of a smartphone but can run all the same software as an iPod Touch. The iPod Touch is great for schools who do not want to be involved in billing issues. (The media player market is more secure than that for PDA devices and a better investment for schools.)
The digital delivery platform greatly reduces the barriers for developers of niche software (such as education) to compete globally and find viable markets. This distribution method also means that operating system upgrades are applied more easily and more widely than any other mobile platform.
The iPod platform has flaws: *Lack of keyboard input *little competition to drive down price *no compatibility with existing software *A psuedo-open platform that is tightly controlled by Apple
In my opinion at the moment the advantages mean these flaws are acceptable and in some ways these flaws are a consequence of the advantages.
It has become clear to me in writing this article that to seriously compete with the iPod Touch platform would take a combination of something like Nokia, Nintendo and Amazon.
I hope this has laid out in a bit more detail why I see the iPod Touch and iPhone as being highly important as a mobile platform for education. I welcome comments and opinion to help sharpen my understanding and thoughts on the issues facing students, educators and parents in choosing and using mobile devices in education.