The past couple of years have seen a surge of interest from publishers and others in delivering research information on mobile devices but challenges remain. Siân Harris reports
Everywhere today people are using mobile devices for things other than traditional phone calls and text messages. ‘I’ve got an app for that’ or ‘I’ll just have a quick look on my phone’ are now parts of everyday conversation.
It’s not surprising that scholarly publishers have followed suit – although the speed of rolling out mobile products has been quite impressive. Two or three years ago mobile information was barely mentioned but now hardly a day goes by without a scholarly publisher, discovery tool or library service announcing a new way to access particular content or services on a smartphone or tablet.
‘From an organisational and strategic point of view, mobile is something that should not be neglected. Our studies say that all platforms, including the catalogue, should be mobile enabled,’ said Ray Colón, director of eProduct management and medical marketing at Springer. ‘It’s just a matter of time before all our sites are mobile and tablet ready.’
But, despite many mobile products now being available, there are still many challenges. For those publishers that have embraced mobile delivery, the discussion seems to have moved from ‘can it be accessed on mobile?’ to ‘what do users want to do with it?’
This is still a question that publishers are wrestling with. Part of the problem, as consultant Mark Ware suggested at the recent ALPSP annual conference, is that users don’t always know what they want to do.
And what they do varies depending on what type of device they have and what type of content it is, noted Clive Parry, global marketing director at SAGE: ‘The way that researchers are accessing material and the format in which they wish to access it is very much dependent on the type of reading that they wish to do. Users don’t tend to use their mobile devices for "deep reading" – except when they are using iPads and tablets. The best mobile-site features are therefore those that users keep up-to-date: for example with journals’ Tables of Content.’
He went on to say that SAGE’s research has shown that the primary use case for mobile activity on the company’s platforms is ‘search-locate-share-save’.
‘People want to look up information and keep up to date,’ he said, although he added that as more and more people browse the web from mobile devices and as devices evolve, the use cases are likely to change.
Catering for the wide range of devices available is another challenge facing publishers and other content providers. ‘Devices have different formats and bandwidth,’ commented Ken Benvenuto, CEO of Infotrieve, which provides a wealth of content from different publishers and information sources. ‘From day one we built our mobile-optimised site to be accessed on any device that will run a browser. We fully synchronise all workspaces for all devices when users sign on,’ he continued.
Some of the issues with using content on mobile devices relate to what can be stored on the device, an issue that dedicated e-book readers have also been tackling. The battery lives of smartphones and tablets are considerably shortened when these devices are permanently connected to a cellular network with location-based services turned on. In addition, there are still many places where a network connection is not available.
Benvenuto of Infotrieve observed that one of the important aspects of his company’s mobile offering is that, subject to licence conditions, there is the option to download content onto mobile devices. ‘You have to allow people to work in a way they want to work,’ he explained.
Apps versus browsers
Downloading content and software also forms part of the apps versus mobile website debate. Most publishers who have embraced mobile seem to have opted for a mixed approach, moving towards making all their products mobile optimised but then releasing apps for specific products and tasks.
‘It depends on users’ needs. Some sites are better for mobile websites and some for apps,’ noted Patricia Cleary, global eProduct development manager at Springer. She gave the example of SpringerProtocols, which the company took a mobile-optimised website approach for, based on research with users. ‘SpringerProtocols is geared towards users in a wet lab environment. Sometimes they may not want or be allowed to bring in their personal devices but there will be other computing devices there. A mobile-optimised site could be accessed from any device with a browser,’ she explained. The potential benefits of apps don’t really apply to this product, she added, joking that ‘[The content of] SpringerProtocols doesn’t really lend itself to browsing in a grocery queue.’
In contrast, another product, SpringerImages, was developed as an iPhone app. ‘The nature of the site didn’t lend it to HTML5 implementation. The app was easier and better for users.’ It’s currently only available on iOS platforms (the operating systems for the iPhone and iPad) – a strategic decision as roughly 70 per cent of Springer’s mobile traffic comes from these devices – but Cleary noted the possibility for a similar Android app.
The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) faced a similar choice with some of its products, as Will Russell, manager of innovation and technical development at the society publisher explained in a session at the ALPSP conference. RSC launched a mobile-optimised website for its ChemSpider tool in 2010 but has now launched a ChemSpider mobile app.
The reason, Russell explained, was the mobility of scientists. ‘Whether in a lab or at a seminar, you can put content in their hands,’ he said, adding that people have been speaking very positively about ChemSpider because of the app.
Russell’s advice is for publishers to make their approach to apps part of their digital strategy, rather than separate, and think about what apps offer over a mobile website. He also advised releasing an app on one platform first and letting customer information help prioritise what is being asked for and what works.
Parry of SAGE echoed some of this advice: ‘There is a risk of committing significant resources to app development without sufficient understanding of their value to the user: our approach [at SAGE] is to understand the changing use case for mobile users and to provide effective solutions for their research and education needs,’ he said.
‘The biggest challenge in this space remains the lack of a standard format for app development. Whilst with mobile sites, the content is device agnostic, for each type of device a different app needs to be developed. With the growth in tablet usage, publishers are already facing the challenge of needing a further range of apps aimed at these users,’ he continued.
The type of apps that tend to be most successful, according to the presentation of Rob Virkar-Yates, strategy director of Semantico, at the ALPSP conference, deliver ‘micro-experiences that do not overwhelm or perplex your customer and are relevant, small and beautifully formed’.
In choosing how to make content available via apps, he recommended that publishers ‘do one thing really well’ and resist the urge to add more; ‘content should be "glanceable",’ he said. In addition, there is the possibility with mobile to deliver content that is location-specific.
He also noted that the arrival of the iPad brought the idea of the macro-experience, which adds significant value and richness and experiences that go beyond the text.
There are strengths and weaknesses of both app and mobile-website approaches, according to Cleary of Springer. ‘With websites you don’t have to pay Apple or Google but you do have to host it yourself, as well as build trust and promote it.’ Availability in an app store can aid discoverability.
Apps can be seen as walled gardens, tied to a device’s functionality. However, native apps can also use more of that device functionality in the product than could be used with a browser-based version, allowing users to have more personal experiences of the content. In addition, access via an older browser could limit experience of a website.
‘There may always be the need for mobile apps,’ she said, although developments in formats could change this.
A year ago the Frankfurt Book Fair saw the launch of the EPUB3 standard, accompanied by predictions of how it would provide a standard way to present content on mobile devices. That hasn’t happened yet. In fact, several products have been launched since then that do not fully comply with EPUB3. However, there is still plenty of optimism about its potential.
‘I think that EPUB3 is exciting. It has a lot of possibilities,’ said Cleary. ‘I can definitely see some convergence. This depends on the development of HTML5, which has big support in the community. EPUB3 has HTML5 in it and as HTML5 gets better then hopefully EPUB3 will also adopt these changes.’
There’s another challenge that industry consensus might help with too: the issue of authentication of users.
‘There are some authentication challenges at the moment. The current approach is to use HTTP Refer. With this, users can only download full text if they are subscribed and using their institution’s wireless LAN,’ said Cleary, who noted that Springer is working on ways to improve this.
Infotrieve’s Benvenuto agreed about this challenge: ‘Often a journal licenses access only from a set of IP addresses behind a corporate firewall. We had to do a fair amount of work to enable that securely.’
More research and discussion
So what will the next few years look like for mobile access to content? It seems that more evolution is likely, as well as further insight into what researchers want.
‘In our recent white paper "Improving the Discoverability of Scholarly Content in the Twenty-First Century" one of the key takeaways was the need for more robust discussion and collaboration between publishers, librarians and their vendor partners to increase the discoverability and usage of scholarly communication,’ said Parry of SAGE. ‘Such conversations have to consider: discovery tools, web discovery services, publishing tutorial services and library research/research pages as well as the increasing presence of social media and trend of "googling" everything. This applies to mobile as much as general web discovery.’
And it is important to consider mobile in conjunction with general web use. After all, mobile traffic is still only a small part of total traffic – for example, only around 3 per cent of all Springer’s traffic comes from mobile devices, according to Ray Colón of Springer.
Nonetheless Colón is optimistic about its potential. ‘I think mobile is the future and I think it’s going to be the main platform at least in the developed world, as well as addressing some technology issues in some other parts of the world. I believe that the tablet will improve to have more desktop functionality.’
His colleague Cleary agreed: ‘Perhaps five years from now you will be able to take your cellphone or tablet and take your entire computer with you. This will be great for researchers – it will give them much more freedom to collaborate.’
Siân Harris thanks Suzanne Kavanagh of ALPSP for sharing some of her notes from the ALPSP conference