What could be a more perfect recipe for learning opportunities than the introduction of each new increasingly sophisticated mobile device and the growing numbers of smart phone users worldwide? E-learning developers are clearly eager to apply their ideas and skills in the mobile kitchen and cook up some new mobile innovations.

Mobile learning will be increasingly rich, pervasive, and personal, finding its way into nearly every facet of life—any time, any place, anybody, loaded with place-based GPS data and user tags, a new facet of reality augmenting our understanding of our lives and our world.

But will mobile learning be fundamentally truly participatory or actually proprietary? Will it be extensible and interoperable, where third-party development extends participation, innovation, and openness; or will it be device dependent, closed systems controlled by proprietary gatekeepers, where “participation” occurs only by the terms set by the device vendors?

This essential question, raised by Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard professor and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, in The Future of the Internet, can and should be asked regarding the future of mobile devices.

Zittrain describes the historical progression of computing and network systems—an arc from a proprietary model to a generative or participatory model and back toward a proprietary model.

Zittrain starts his story in 1890, when the U.S. government commissioned Herman Hollerith to tally the U.S. Census using a punch card system he had devised. Hollerith’s machine business was a precursor to IBM and a proprietary or vendor-centric generation of computing machines.

The key features of a vendor or proprietary system is that the manufacturer determines the specific purpose for its use and designs it so that the user can accomplish that specific use relatively easily and not much more. If the user needs additional functions, they must rely on the vendor to provide upgrades or new equipment, in addition to maintenance. The vendor essentially locks in future business for itself.

In many cases, the vendor system works well—a coffee maker does its job, and a typewriter does its. If such a machine breaks, consumers accept that they may need to replace a part from the manufacturer or purchase a new one. The use is discrete enough that being beholden to a vendor does not impact the rest of one’s life (personal) or operations (business).

Zittrain then describes a new generative or participatory movement with the rise of personal computers in the 1980s and culminating with the height of the Internet and World Wide Web. The key feature of participatory systems is that the manufacturer doesn’t determine what you will use it for—they leave it up to the user to either develop their own applications or install a variety of applications developed by a spectrum of third-party vendors. The code is open to being altered; anyone can join and use the networks; people can communicate between different types of machines and service providers.

The benefits of participatory systems are clear—they encourage innovation and entrepreneurship while supporting the broadest number of users.

Open, participatory systems, however, are not always ideal and sometimes not feasible, as Zittrain admits. These systems are vulnerable to security issues, and because people are allowed to tinker, they cannot be relied upon to operate 100% as expected all of the time.

In other words, generative, participatory systems allow the world of users to create marvelous, unexpected new applications, but if what you really want is to be assured that your coffee will brew as desired every day, you may be better off with a proprietary machine from a specific vendor.

So, what do we want from our mobile devices? What is more important—that they operate consistently for specific purposes, or that we are allowed opportunities for participation and unexpected innovation?

If the decision is left to the mobile device manufacturers and service providers, they will choose the proprietary path to the future as that is likely in their best interest. But that may leave mobile learning in the less-than-ideal position of being tethered to the constraints, formats, and fates of the vendors.

To consider the impact—imagine if Amazon or Apple or any other company had the power to set requirements for and approve or remove all your current e-learning materials on the Internet, and to take a percentage of the profit for the pieces of your business they did approve?

Who’s going to call the shots and make the demands in mobile learning’s future? Are you concerned or complacent? Too excited by all the great potential of these devices to see where the road could lead? What other options do we have?

While it was enlightening to see Steve Jobs demonstrate what the iPad can do, I found it more interesting to see what the iPad cannot do. Tablet-like in size only, the iPad’s conformity to the iPhone OS, features and ergonomics suggest that we’re seeing Apple promote a renewed focus on empowering crowdsourced content creation over significant platform enhancements—perhaps in a way we have not seen before.

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When looking at the evolution of smart phones over the last year, it’s fair to say that mobile content characteristics are progressively less defined by bandwidth and endpoint constraints and more influenced by app developer community innovation, user need, timeliness, and cost. Dev Patnaik at BusinessWeek recently discussed product innovation in this light and the relation to mobile content and e-reader growth is telling.

In this environment of greatly improved platform and decentralized content development, the $500+ iPad brings renewed attention to the e-book phenomenon and adds some serious sizzle to mobile video viewing and Web surfing. However, whatever benefits it might bring to the table, my gut tells me its raison raison d’être is to strengthen Apple’s content delivery position around their iTunes content delivery model. In an insightful post about how the iPad is shifting power to the publisher, the Scholarly Kitchen blog suggests Apple’s main revenue is tied to device sales; however, my own view is that Apple’s iTunes revenue stream is more raging river than trickling tributary. Case in point: Apple has been generating iTunes profit upwards of several hundred million dollars for some time now; all the while selling many of their devices at a price just marginally above the cost of production.

All this to say that there is some reason to be cautious about aligning oneself too exclusively with iTunes or any other proprietary content repository where gatekeeping is controlled offsite.

Here at Oregon State University, as we’ve contemplated porting our text- and image-based publications into an e-book format, the complicating factors have not generally revolved around issues of user preference or medium maturity (we know our users would enjoy more video- and image-based content and that the majority of our users have adequate bandwidth and hardware), but rather gatekeeping and format. The former speaks to the fact that like many content distributors, we need to ensure we have ample control over posting, maintaining and disseminating content from our repository; the latter refers to the challenge we have in approximating the robust feature set found in the PDF format. We’re exciting with some of the emerging technologies that might allow us to address both of these obstacles in the months to come.

Based on the iPad’s content delivery model, it is clear that Apple and other mobile device manufacturers are seeking to expand their role as content gatekeepers. Consequently, it is more important than ever to understand how a company like Apple prioritizes, monetizes, and categorizes content types and what this tells us about whether or not the role of the gatekeepers will be to secure the kingdom or assess excessive tariffs to participate in it. One of the more interesting windows into Apple’s recent iPad activity comes from Flurry, a mobile device analytics company. In late January, they posted the following on their blog:

“Using Flurry Analytics, the company identified approximately 50 devices that match the characteristics of Apple’s rumored tablet device. Because Flurry could reliably “place” these devices geographically on Apple’s Cupertino campus, we have a fair level of confidence that we are observing a group of pre-release tablets in testing.

What did their “stealth” analysis uncover?

Essentially, prior to the release of the iPad, Flurry analytics showed that the tablet device would support mainly games, entertainment, news and books, music, and other lifestyle content. Strong on content consumption capability (browsing), short on content creation (computing). I’m also betting that Apple recognized the trend towards cloud based computing and “thin client” functionality implemented via HTML5 and web services and designed the iPad accordingly. See also Horizon’s 2010 report, which points to these trends.  As an e-learning developer, I also see the continued movement towards edutainment as deconstructing and redefining traditional e-learning containers and approaches for both professional workforce development and lifelong and informal learning contexts. Is it a game, an e-learning course, a marketing tool? In many instances, especially when conveyed via phone apps or mobile devices, the content simultaneously matches all three descriptors. Personally, I see this convergence of content form and device function opening up vast new domains of content creation potential; especially since phone apps are more increasingly used as free e-readers or content organizers that allow pushing and pulling of remote content in a pay to play (or read) model (see Amazon’s iPhone Kindle application). Augmented Reality and touch-sensitive science games are two of the best examples of educational game-like format—oftentimes incorporating integrated marketing.

While there are some who feel e-reading on mobile devices is not ready for mass adoption, Kindle’s popularity has laid that discussion to rest. Timothy Egan, a writer for the NY Times blog, iCountry, sees the acceleration of e-book reader adoption as a step towards preserving “book culture” and believes that a key part of ensuring this movement is equitable is to hold the gatekeepers accountable.

In relation to accountability, access becomes paramount—can those who lack financial means still find opportunities to read without having to pay? This is even more important as our traditional print-based gatekeepers such as local bookstores and libraries continue to close their doors or reduce their holdings. A nod to the oft-quoted phrase, “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed” is appropriate as mobile devices will always require significant equipment and subscription costs—not to mention the ancillary costs of content downloads.

As a publically-funded organization whose mission is framed by a directive to seek public good over private gain, gatekeeping is very relevant to our group as it relates to how we monetize our publications and ensure equitable access to content. If we were to push more of our content to the Kindle platform, we would be forced to port our book or article content to HTML, import the content into Amazon’s store and then handle e-commerce using Amazon’s proprietary billing system. We have neither the toolset to efficiently format our longer books into a CSS/HTML format, nor do we have the stomach to fulfill the logistical steps required to run a departmental revenue stream through Amazon. What’s more, this virtual space would only be suitable for publications with ISBN numbers, which represent a fraction of our publications.

iPhone and Android offer interesting opportunities since more and more of our users are using mobile device applications as a means to find information. We are currently working on an app for the iPhone and feel this will provide us with an opportunity to understand how we can best use this format to help promote larger print-based projects and also bring interactivity to those publications that are place-based, procedural and fit the metaphor of a field guide. However, this option requires fluency with object-oriented programming and the iPhone SDK and is the more time intensive option when it comes to development.

In terms of format, we are particularly interested in the possibilities that seem to be emerging with the Epub format. Several different e-book readers and the iPad support the Epub format, which CS4 AdobeInDesign allows as an export type. InDesign allows more out-of-the-box formatting of graphical objects and is part of our group’s existing toolset. Add Adobe Air and CS5’s export to iPhone/iPad and you have some interesting options. What remains to be seen is whether the iPad will allow users to import Epub documents directly into their device from a non-iTunes repository, which would provide a much needed nod to more equitable access.