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.
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
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.
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.
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
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!