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Magazines > ONLINE > January/February 2011
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Online Magazine

Vol. 35 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2011

Phone Home
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

Have you ever read the instructions that came with your mobile phone? You’ll find everything you need to know—except how to use your phone as, well, a phone. Taking pictures and videos, texting, sending email, accessing the internet, tweeting, blogging, reading maps and documents, playing games, listening to music, watching videos, researching, and keeping track of what’s on your calendar—that’s apparently what you need to know to operate your mobile phone.

Talking on it? That’s not high on the list of applications.

Look around you. People use mobile phones for all manner of things never mentioned in the instruction manual. It can substitute for a flashlight, a watch, and an alarm clock. Use it to check in via foursquare or Gowalla. Other undocumented uses include getting airline boarding passes and checking prices at retail stores. The latter was particularly evident in December as holiday shoppers compared prices via their phones. Library-related applications include finding books in local libraries and searching online databases.

How close is the word “phone” to oblivion? Those who hedge their bets and use the terminology “mobile device” are probably closer to the mark. What about the act of phoning? Advised by her mother to phone the airline about a possible flight delay, a friend of mine, who is in her late 20s, responded with, “Who phones an airline?”—the web is a faster and more accurate source of flight information—and she can use the browser on her mobile device.

The miniaturization of information delivery to a mobile device’s screen poses particular challenges to developers. Paradoxically, the other trend in hardware is toward larger and/or multiple screens at the desktop. Optimizing research databases for both small and large screens requires resources that libraries don’t always possess. In his Control-Shift column, Jeff Wisniewski gives several examples of library mobile websites and how they have successfully integrated user needs into the design.

As the online world moves to multiple uses for traditional information sources, data repurposing on new platforms, and expectations of ubiquity when researching, mobile devices shine as preferred information delivery mechanisms. I think this will intensify in the next few years. Mobile, even today, doesn’t include just phones. As Jamal Cromity points out in his article, “Tablet Computers: Enterprise Solutions for Information Professionals,” the slightly larger tablet computer screens encourage adoption of gliding and scrolling. This suggests that search will become more tactile with less keyboarding required.

Should information professionals worry about mobile devices? I should think not. Information professionals excel at adopting and adapting to new technologies to advance knowledge and share knowledge. Like the airlines and retails stores, we in the library and information spheres will invent new mobile applications to advance the abilities of students and faculty members to research their academic papers, of scholars to find relevant scientific and technical data, and of businesspeople to access data and facts to bolster the decision-making process. It’s not a total eclipse of the phone; it’s solar bursts across the information sky. Oh, and if you want to use your phone to (gasp) talk to someone, that’s still an OK app.

Marydee Ojala is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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