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What to Look for in '04

The most striking thing about the current trends in technology, as this issue will catalog in detail, is that the ‘next big thing’ d'esn’t leap from the pages, at least not as a product. That’s not to say that there aren’t some really cool developments in technology gadgets, some of which might well enhance teaching and learning. But the biggest trend isn’t in gadget-land. It’s in the thinking behind software and hardware development that the developers are adopting. So let’s look at some of this year’s trends that may help you anticipate what’s coming in the next year.

Moore’s Law continues its relentless course. In the fall of 2003, with the introduction of the Apple G5 desktop, advances the stakes once again in comparisons of raw performance. Virginia Tech took delivery of the first 1,100 of these high-performance machines and for a fifth of what it would otherwise have cost—linked them together into a multi-terraflop supercomputer. Benchmarks have yet to be published, but expectations predict it will jump into the ranks of one of the top five among supercomputing machines worldwide.

The power trend is complimented by the weight and size, namely lighter and smaller. However, we’re rapidly reaching the point where you need to look carefully at the design and features, not just the specifications, to make an intelligent buying decision. What once were trade-offs for sub-notebook convenience is no longer as obvious. Sub three-pound notebooks are full featured (or nearly so) and becoming common from mainstream vendors like Toshiba, Dell, and Gateway, just to name a few.

Floppy Disks

Of course, the one trade-off is saying good-bye to the floppy disk drive. For my money, that couldn’t come soon enough anyway. Why do you need it? USB key drives, compact flash cards that slip into PCMCIA card frames, MMC, and Memory Sticks have long surpassed the capacity of the aging floppy disk. They’re becoming the solid state storage coin of the realm. I haven’t been to a conference in the past year where it wasn’t possible to slip my presentation or give notes and reports to others by copying them onto my keychain USB drive and popping it into the destination machine. Capacities of a gigabyte are common, with the pricing sweet spot in the 256MB to 512MB range.

It’s finally coming of age. Look for small inkjet printers with Bluetooth support to ease wireless printing from laptops with this added default feature. The driving force behind this short-range communications technology is, ironically, the cell phone and Personal Digital Assistant. Increasingly, cell phones are becoming an alternate pathway to the Internet, with the connection made between the phone and computer via Bluetooth. Similarly, synching PDAs with the computer is becoming wireless. Docking stands may well become relics of a tethered past, quaint reminders of when we had to actually physically connect devices to communicate with them.

Tablet PCs
These devices are evolving, providing better performance and marginally better screen resolution with each successive generation. They are finding niches where the pen interface adds value. But they have not exploded into the marketplace as the vendors had hoped.

There’s good reason for that. While there may be a generation effect retarding their spread, the fact is the current computer generation has grown up learning to type, facile with the limitations of that interface. Handwriting recognition is improving, but typing is simply faster. While there is a learning curve for keyboard comfort, the penmanship of the average student isn’t something handwriting recognition will likely conquer anytime soon, intelligent agents or not. The pen interface shines where expression isn’t romance language dependent. Hence, the slate tablet is likely to remain a niche tool, with the clamshell keyboard and tablet design continuing for some time to come. Think carefully about the places you think you might find a keyboard useful—carrying around the extra weight and additional piece to have it at the ready.

Personal Digital Assistants are adding thumb keyboards, communication capabilities, and device integration (through support of various card form factors and small but very readable screens). Their usefulness is limited less by their CPUs than the curse of portability at all costs. Their ecological niche in the digital landscape has always been the pocket. As personal information managers, they’ve exploited that niche well. Forays into other habitats, hybridizing with phones, sprouting camera appendages, and music players has added genetic diversity to the species, though whether these will lead to longer term hybrid vigor beyond their initial novelty remains to be seen.

In the K-12 space, PDAs have carved out a niche as a cost effective productivity tool. Folding keyboards, Pocket Office, and data collection sensors that make the little workhorse a versatile addition to any science lab. PDAs are the little computers that could. What’s next? If you aren’t pushing for interface connectors like USB ports, and full external XGA video support for these devices, you need to raise your voice. Imagine unfolding your pocket keyboard, plugging your PDA into a full size flat panel monitor or video projector and firing up your browser to go to work. That may not be possible from among the selection in this year’s buyer’s guide, but it isn’t far off if the market wants it. And remember, you are the market.

Display Devices
Projectors are getting smaller (isn’t everything?) and brighter. Monitors with those throwbacks to the dawn of television, the CRT (cathode ray tube) are history. Don’t buy them, even if you find them. They are hard on the eyes, less energy efficient, and don’t hold a candle to the sexy sleek thin flat panel displays that are supplanting them from the display device ecosystem. Apple has already dropped them from their future plans. Everyone else will soon. Don’t be seduced by close out CRT monitor prices. They are the Jurassic gasps of a passing era.

Flat panel computer monitors are getting bigger! Finally, an exception to the rule! They are challenging projectors for those seminar rooms where you need a shared display space but the noise of the projector fan and securing it to the ceiling or rear wall starts to cost more than the device itself. Resolution of 1024 x 768 makes the display actually readable. There continues to be issues with larger plasma displays for use as computer monitors. Still images left to burn into their displays present big liabilities. But LED displays and LCD displays are getting better, bigger, and cheaper. That’s a good combination.

Capture, Display,
and White Boards

Combination devices are worth a second look such as: white board/display/touch screen from SmartBoard, PolyVision, and 3M. Now that they’re adding IP addressability, a partial step toward the connection conundrum has been made. Let’s decompose that statement, as I heard the rushing sound of “what?” escaping from your virtual lips.

Consider what we might call the Laptop Switch Dance—the bane of trying to switch between shared display devices, connecting them to the single device that needs to use them. Unless you’ve got a fixed podium computer in the classroom, how many of you have struggled through the projector-laptop switch dance? You know the one. Your students have projects to present to the class that they’ve dutifully labored over for the past three weeks.

You’ve got an hour to get through four presentation teams showing their work. The first team came early to connect and try things out. The others did, too. But you can only leave one connected at time (let’s assume you don’t have a multi-port video routing switch for the moment—that’s only a partial solution to this scenario, anyway). The first team finishes up brilliantly on time at 12 after the hour. Team Two, waiting in the wings, jumps up and now the laptop-switch dance begins in earnest.

Unscrew the video port bolts, tightened down by an eager Team One helper until they nearly require the jaws of life to separate them. Attach laptop two... tension rises as the students search for the proper two-finger salute to redirect the video from the screen out to the projector. Was it <9>? <7>? ? Finally, after an eternity (about a second and a half on average, if you know the magic sequence) the screen flickers to an image that is…unreadable!

Why can’t you just drag your presentation file onto the icon of the display device and see it ‘appear’ in living color on the screen? Remember this digression started with decomposing the IP addressability and connection conundrum. I’m still there. The newest crop of display device/white board/capture tools has added a Web server in the board. Yup, the white board now has an IP address because it has a PC with a Web server (along with needing power and data connections to work). What d'es that mean? You can convert your presentation to an HTML file set, for example by using FTP, wirelessly to the white board display. Voila!

I’m out of space, though I wanted to comment on batteries, software, and changing landscape of how educational tools are designed and built. We’ll continue this in the next issue of Syllabus—in January 2004!

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