Issue: June 2009
Three exciting projects at Case Western Reserve University show the promise of new technology.
As you're taking a Saturday morning stroll for a cup of coffee, your cell phone buzzes with a text message: "Stop at the Java Hut and use promo code, DAN, for a free muffin."
My first thought:Mmmm, muffin. But then I wondered just who is tracking my every move and knows where I am.
How much privacy are you willing to give up for convenience? Would you enable GPS tracking on your mobile device if it sent coupons as you neared establishments? With traffic cameras and express toll lanes, we may not have a choice, but at least for now, we can control our personal technology.
Technology is all about trade-offs. Privacy versus security is just one example.
Take the old rule in purchasing a laptop as another. Laptops have three desirable characteristics: robust computing power, light weight and low cost. You can have any two of them, but not all three. So you could opt for a light, powerful machine, but it would cost you. Likewise, a less expensive speed demon would be heavier than most, and a light, cheap laptop wouldn't be the most powerful.
These days, there's a lot of interest in the netbook, which is smaller than a laptop, weighs less than 3 pounds and uses a wireless connection to access the Web. The price is lower than a standard laptop, too. (The Asus Eee PC is listed on Amazon for $275, for example.)
But trade-offs still exist: You won't see DVD or CD players on these devices, and storage is a fraction of the 1.5TB drives we see on desktop computers. Plus, while netbooks are great for travel and accessing the Web, they have smaller keyboards and displays (10 inches or less).
Those trade-offs may work for you, but my paws prevent me from using some of these tiny keyboards. I'd rather lug around a heavier laptop and be able to press the j key without also hitting g, h and k.
Just as netbooks are getting smaller, other devices are growing.
Take the Amazon Kindle, a device for downloading and reading books and other documents. It's about a third of an inch thick, close toInside Business width and lighter than a typical paperback at about 10 ounces.
You purchase books using Amazon's free 3G network – you don't need a PC or Wi-Fi connection. You can buy best-sellers for $9.99, and there are about 285,000 books, magazines and newspapers available. Even with its small footprint, the Kindle lets you store more than 1,500 books.
The trade-off? At $359, it's not inexpensive. The biggest consideration may be the 6-inch diagonal display. Is that enough to do heavy-duty reading? (Associate editor Andy Netzel, who owns one, says yes, and he once gave up all technology not in common use before 1980.)
In May, Case Western Reserve University president Barbara Snyder and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced a partnership in which CWRU and five other schools will use the new larger-screened Kindle DX reader for its textbooks and then work collaboratively to answer the question, "What difference will the Kindle DX make to student learning?"
"We're taking the research part of the way students learn very seriously," says Wendy Shapiro, CWRU senior academic technology officer.
For example, freshmen are not always organized. (Ah, the memories.) Kindle DX lets them have everything in one location and gives professors the ability to send articles directly to the students. "Will that help the students with organization, efficiency, study skills?" Shapiro asks. "And if so, how?"
The university will evaluate the ways students are reading, their study habits, how they interact with their professors and even their writing (yes, you can do that now, too), says Shapiro.
And CWRU will be examining the trade-offs for students and faculty alike.
If you think that this doesn't apply to your business, think again. With Amazon's stated goal of "every book ever printed in any language, all available in 60 seconds," how we read and store information will evolve. Imagine your wall of law books, product manuals or all of your company's documents stored on this portable device. How would that change things?
Businesspeople often think of university life as a different world. And it is. But often, the innovations devised and tested in those sandboxes become part of our everyday lives down the road.
Consider two other CWRU announcements made around the same time.
Linden Labs, creators of the video-game-esque virtual world Second Life, selected CWRU to be the beta site of a secure Second Life for education. CWRU has used Second Life for years and runs five islands for educational and community purposes. For example, a Hispanic club will soon work with Cleveland Public School kids by mentoring them in Second Life.
Though you lose some of the real-world experience in Second Life, students can virtually tour a dangerous factory, interact safely with medical patients or practice their language skills with native speakers – all from the convenience of their PCs.
The other news came from John Wheeler, CWRU head of administration, who announced a pilot program with Cisco Systems to monitor three campus buildings. Today, building controls don't talk to each other. The Cisco program will integrate data streams from the buildings and track how the buildings are used.
They will incorporate their findings into campus green initiatives. And as Cisco's Dave Clute says, "It's good to be green but better to be smart."
Now that's a trade-off we can all live with.
Entreprenerd Dan Hanson wishes he was a college kid today. If you see a geeky yet buff avatar on Second Life wearing a GreatLakesGeek T-shirt, say hello. It may be him.Case Western Reserve will test the Kindle DX reader next year with its students.courtesy of amazon.com inc.
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