Tablets, tablets, tablets. The future of computing! Revolutionizing education! Making the world safe for democracy! Two of those are true and one probably not, but it's undeniable that tablets are fundamentally remaking the computing landscape. Libraries, of course, have taken notice.
Tablets have a lot going for them: They're small, lightweight, portable, reasonably rugged, flexible, pretty affordable, and highly configurable. From lending programs to guerilla assessment and many things in between, libraries are experimenting with interesting programs and services to leverage this exploding technology. In this column, I offer an incomplete, but hopefully inspiring, laundry list of uses for tablets in libraries. These aren't pie-in-the-sky uses either. These are real--they're either doable or have already been done somewhere.
While tablet mania is a new phenomenon, tablets themselves are not. Apple released a nascent tablet, the Newton, in the 1980s, and Microsoft had a tablet on the market in 1999. Early efforts, however, were hampered by bulky, heavy hardware; short battery life; and lack of applications that took advantage of the alternative methods of input, such as touch. These were ahead of their time, or ahead of the innovations that would enable Apple, in 2010, to release a lightweight, responsive, long-running tablet by the name of iPad. Perhaps you've heard of it?
THE TABLET MARKET
The current market for tablets breaks down like this: iPad and everything else. So far, most attempts to create a credible alternative to it, with perhaps the exception of the Kindle Fire from Amazon, have failed. This could change. Microsoft is coming to market with a tablet called Surface that, based on initial reports, seems to be shaping up as the strongest contender yet in the battle to capture mind and market share from the iPad. The Nexus 7, an Android tablet from Google, is also attracting a lot of attention.
Despite Surface and Nexus, for now, it's an iPad world. Whether or not that's a good thing is a different argument for a different day (or column). Therefore, I've avoided the often dutifully included chart comparing various tablets based on price, size, operating system, and the like. Be warned: Unless otherwise noted, when I talk tablet, I'm talking iPad.
Libraries have not been shy about experimenting with tablets for both staff and end users. Many are lending tablets to users in the same way they loan laptops. There are some other, dare I say more interesting and innovative, ways libraries are using tablets that I want to highlight. Six ways, to be precise.
Before diving in, a word about e-readers and ebooks. I'm generally not covering them here. Though e-readers are sometimes lumped into discussions of mobile and tablet, they're very separate beasts, in my opinion. Everything I'll be highlighting, with the exception of lending programs (which could equally apply to tablets and e-readers), are tablet-specific products and services.
First, the low-hanging fruit. Many libraries have, or are in the process of implementing, programs to loan tablets to users. By all accounts, these are wildly successful and popular. Many closely follow the models that have been in place for some time for laptop-lending programs. To facilitate this type of program, Apple has an enterprise-friendly tool, called Apple Configurator, that enables mass configuration and deployment of iPads that's a good fit for a library lending program (http://images.apple.com/ipad/business/ docs/iOS_Apple_Configurator_Mar12.pdf).
Note that an iPad-lending program needn't even be mediated. A product called MediaSurfer (www.getmediasurfer .com) resembles an iPad vending machine that will dispense an iPad for use with the swipe of a library card. If you can buy an iPad from a Best Buy kiosk, why not borrow one from a library kiosk?