FEATURE

Research in an 'app'

With new scholarly information products for smartphones being announced almost daily, Sian Harris looks at why this delivery approach is becoming so popular with information providers and users

Just a decade ago mobile phones were very different from what many of us know today. They had small, monochrome screens and limited processing power, which was mainly devoted to managing the radio chip. They were almost always used for voice calls, although simple text messaging was starting to become popular, and low network speeds meant that any information exchange was very basic and slow.

Today, phone users are accustomed to larger, full-colour screens with good resolution and polyphonic sound. The latest smartphones come with a whole host of exciting features and if users want any other applications they can simply download them using their high-speed network connections.

With so much available it is no surprise that people are turning to their phones to do more of the tasks they previously did on their desktops or laptops. ‘Over the past year there has been a dramatic shift from mobile being a secondary device to a primary one for information,’ observed Mike Teets, VP of innovation at OCLC.

Technology-savvy researchers and students are no exception and many research resources are now being tailored to smartphones. One of the biggest drivers in this area seems to be the launch of the iPhone. ‘The iPhone really changed the dynamic and meant that all sorts of content providers’ stuff could be accessed. At that stage offering a mobile version was almost a courtesy,’ commented Alan Dyck, product manager of WebPAC/AirPAC at Innovative Interfaces. ‘Users are going to find the content anyway from their mobile devices but don’t want to hit a lot of walls.’

‘We are already seeing many smartphone users coming to our site from USA, Europe, Australia and Brazil and some of these are from iPads. This is still just one or two per cent of our traffic though,’ said Louise Tutton, COO of the scholarly division of Publishing Technology. ‘I’ll be comparing this with the traffic to our mobile platform when it launches in the next few months.’

First products

When OECD released its OECD Factbook App last August this organisation saw this as an experiment with the market. ‘We were testing whether the iTunes App Store was a discovery platform for these type of apps,’ explained Toby Green, head of publishing. The experiment has proved successful. ‘We’ve had around 70k downloads to date through the iPhone app and the number of downloads per month is higher than when we started, which suggests that new users are finding it,’ said Green. ‘The iTunes App Store is so easy to use. We do have a version of the Factbook for the Blackberry too but nobody ever uses it; they can’t find it.’

The BMJ Group launched its first iPhone app in January, a product called Differential Diagnosis (DDX), which was a slice of its existing Best Practice tool tailored to mobile devices. Users can download the app for a one-off payment. ‘Our strategy was to learn different revenue models and how content is used and we’ve been delighted with the success,’ said Simon Haggis, digital marketing manager of the BMJ Group. The group plans to launch a suite of new products over the coming months.

OCLC took a slightly different approach in its app strategy. In addition to its own mobile developments, it works with shopping apps such as RedLaser to integrate the WorldCat library catalogue. The idea is that users would be searching for places to buy books, for example, and the app would also reveal if those books are in their library. ‘We get many thousands of new users per month through this approach. They didn’t start out looking for library services but arrived there,’ explained Mike Teets.

SirsiDynix’s iPhone app also aims to help draw people to libraries. The app is available to users of libraries that have signed up to the service – around 300 libraries so far. ‘When you download the app you search for your library from a map of the world. Libraries can then associate the search policies etc that go with their library,’ explained Jared Oates, director of product strategy for SirsiDynix.

More than one device

Thanks to its rapid growth in popularity and its rich culture of apps, most companies in the research publishing sector seem to have opted for the iPhone as the first device to be served with their mobile information products. But the iPhone is not the only smartphone on the market. What’s more, it is based on a proprietary system so the apps written for the iPhone will not work on other mobile devices.

In addition, some people noted challenges in finding the relevant apps in the iTunes App Store. ‘The users are primarily early adopters,’ observed Mike Teets of OCLC. ‘It requires a high-end device and apps to be downloaded. It’s also still a bit clumsy. Users must understand it and tolerate the clumsiness.’

SirsiDynix’s iPhone app helps users find resources in their library

For these reasons some information providers are also working on mobile versions of their websites. Innovative Interfaces has taken this approach. ‘We’ve chosen to keep a very open software solution so users don’t download an app,’ said Alan Dyck, of the company. The latest smartphone version of the company’s AirPAC tool for mobile phones is available as a one-off software purchase for libraries, and over 250 libraries have signed up to the latest version so far.

The AirPAC product started in 2002 during an early wave of interest in mobile. Then the information was in basic WAP or HTML formats. ‘We had to go for the lowest common denominator so it was very basic information and as small, short and colourless as possible,’ explained Dyck. ‘Three or four years ago we did work to develop a more modern browser but people weren’t ready then.’

Parallel approaches

IOP Publishing has taken parallel approaches to its mobile content, releasing both an iPhone app and a mobile version of its IOPscience journal platform. With the app, IOPscience express, users can see the latest 25 articles across all titles owned by IOP Publishing, or within a particular title, to keep up with the latest developments. They can also filter these results by subject area, see the abstracts and have the option to download PDFs to their iPhone, according to Susan Curtis, who has been product manager of IOPscience.

In contrast, the mobile website version, IOPscience mobile, is more geared towards browsing and full-text searching, with streaming text. The mobile version also works on a range of mobile devices. However, IOP Publishing does not anticipate that this will replace the iPhone app. ‘I think the iPhone application will continue to have a life of its own because it is optimised for the device,’ said Curtis.

There are challenges with developing mobile information platforms just as there are with iPhone apps. According to IOP’s Susan Curtis, many of these come down to usability and making sure things work well on different types of device.

‘The variety of smartphones makes it challenging,’ agreed Alan Dyck of Innovative Interfaces. ‘Just ensuring that the same mobile version of our site displayed well on both the iPhone and the Blackberry was very difficult. After this, it was easier on the other smartphones like the Palm Pre and Android as they have more of a sense of standards.’

Working together

All these challenges are new for traditional publishers, library management system vendors and secondary information providers and require new expertise, either in house or from a third party.

Although its mobile website was developed in house, IOP Publishing chose to work with a local specialist smartphone app developer, Mubaloo, in the UK, for its iPhone app. ‘It makes sense to use an external contractor with expertise in this area,’ commented Susan Curtis. ‘The biggest challenge was getting the external contractor to understand our content but they were very good. All we really had to do was change some of the fields for our RSS feeds (the app is based on RSS feeds) and make sure that the links to the PDFs worked properly.’ Similarly, OCLC worked with a US mobile technology developer called Boopsie and OECD used AAP of Paris.

Developing in-house expertise involves more work at the start but does have some advantages. ‘We started from scratch,’ said Jared Oates of SirsiDynix. ‘We had a set of developers who were interested in this project so they learnt the Objective-C programming language and studied the market and the apps available. We now have a base of experience.’ He believes that this will help with future developments for other devices. ‘Android’s languages are more familiar, for example, Java,’ he said.

Mike Teets, OCLC

‘We wanted more control over the app we built,’ agreed Dan Pollock, associate director of nature.com at Nature Publishing Group (NPG), which launched an iPhone app for Nature earlier this year as a three-month free trial. ‘This meant getting specific software development expertise in house but the labour pool is growing in this area.’

Whichever way companies choose to develop their mobile offerings there is still work required of the company. Firstly, there is the challenge of ensuring the data can be used on mobile devices. ‘The content needs to be in a malleable digital format like XML,’ said Pollock.

Then there is the challenge of prioritising what information is available on a smartphone. They have much smaller screens than desktops so offering the same information in the same web design is not a good user experience.

Users of NPG’s app can search PubMed as well as recent nature.com content and Pollock anticipates that it could be used to offer more interactive features such as manipulating molecules, especially on slightly larger devices such as the new iPad. The use of apps also enables articles to be bookmarked and read offline.

There is mixed opinion about the formats of information on smartphones. ‘Some people like PDFs as they are easy to expand and move around but others have said that they prefer scrolling through free running text,’ said Susan Curtis of IOP Publishing. One of the advantages of PDFs in sectors such as IOP Publishing’s is the ability to show maths equations. This proved a major challenge when implementing streaming text for IOPscience mobile.

Mobile platforms are also changing the way that searching is carried out. ‘The idea of doing searches on mobile devices doesn’t work,’ argued Mike Teets of OCLC. ‘People want things in context and are more likely to browse. In the wired world, five clicks to get to the information might be OK – but not on wireless.’ He believes that the RSS feed model, where users are presented with information, is a good one for mobile devices. ‘Service providers have to be more aware of ease of use.’

Linking is still a challenge too. There is not universal availability of mobile versions of website yet or the ability to hand over to a mobile-optimised version rather than a desktop version if one is available. There could also be problems with authentication if users arrive at subscribed-to content via a mobile device.

Access issues

Authentication is a big challenge with these devices. Many institution-based subscriptions appear to have no access restraints to desktop users because they recognise the users’ IP addresses. This is not possible with smartphones and there is a big question about whether the requirement to input a login name and password is too much of a barrier to potential information users.

‘When people are prompted to enter information a significant proportion – sometimes 50 to 75 per cent – just hit the back button,’ said Teets of OCLC. ‘Authentication was put in place when information was scarce but the fundamental premise has changed,’ he continued. OCLC is working on ways to remove authentication barriers using approaches like GPS location and triangulation of mobile signals to find out where users are. Phone numbers could also be used.

For the moment, the approach with many apps is to offer them without authentication barriers but only to provide some of the information and services that is available to subscribers. IOPscience express, for example, is free and does not require any log in. However, it only has the last two years of content, users are limited to 20 downloads per month and they can’t synchronise the PDFs that they access on their iPhone with their PC.

Alan Dyck of Innovative Interfaces is less concerned about authentication challenges. ‘The mobile user is always considered to be outside the library. We handle them in just the same way we do when they are accessing from home rather than on campus and I think patrons are already used to it,’ he said.

The authentication issue is closely related to the issue of business models. As this is still early days in the provision of research resources on mobile devices, many of the tools are still in a trial stage. Some, like the BMJ Group’s Differential Diagnosis, have a one-off payment for individual users to download the app. Other mobile options, especially from library management system vendors, are purchased by libraries for all their patrons.

Publishing Technology, which provides hosting services to many publishers, is also looking at subscription options. ‘Our business model will probably be to provide a low-cost fee for our app and a low-cost monthly subscription to the mobile version,’ predicted Louise Tutton. ‘A user could use the normal website without additional charge but it would not be such a good user experience.’

Dan Pollock, NPG

In the Nature app’s free trial, only the last eight months or so of content are available and users are required to log in or create an account when they download the app. ‘We wanted to tie the mobile access in with people’s online subscriptions. We see it as a way to encourage more individual interaction with users,’ said NPG’s Pollock.

‘We need to decide what exactly is included in personal subscriptions and we want to talk to librarians on the institutional side,’ he continued. The publisher is also experimenting with putting adverts on mobile devices. This is a challenge because the smaller screens require the peripheral web page furniture to be reduced as much as possible. However, Pollock said that there are ways to incorporate this revenue option and that this is something that Apple is also looking at for the iPhone.

One of the interesting aspects of the popularity of mobile apps and mobile versions in this area is the lack of marketing effort. Many companies adopted a low-key approach and have been surprised by the amount of response.

‘We haven’t seen quite the same level of adoption on anything else we’ve released,’ commented Jared Oates of Sirsi Dynix. ‘We’ve done very little to market our app – really just a press release and listserv announcement to users.’

Toby Green of OECD has observed a similar thing: ‘People have been spontaneously tweeting about our app. They are genuinely excited by being able to access this information on handheld devices,’ he said. ‘We didn’t even put it on our website initially. Our app developer AAP just posted the app on its website and an app watcher blogged about it.’

From phone to tablet

The initial forays into the world of mobile devices seem to have gone well for information providers but issues remain and market penetration is still low. What’s more, as Louise Tutton of Publishing Technology pointed out, there are plenty of places in the world without the fastest wireless networks and without smartphones but where researchers are possibly more likely to access information from a mobile device because of a lack of wired infrastructure.

For early adopters there are possibilities on the horizon too. Many people in the industry are excited about the emergence of tablet devices like the iPad. The apps developed for the iPhone work on the iPad but this device has a bigger screen so has potential to do much more. And hardware manufacturers are promising several new tablet devices over the next few months. As information providers begin to offer resources tailored to these devices the vision of mobile access to research resources by scientists in the lab, economists in a meeting or doctors on the ward could really come to fruition.