This post first appeared in slightly altered form at www.pypl.org.
This week let's talk about the humble app, that newest, potentially most overwhelming of computer thingamajig. My apologies to anyone who now has that Pharrell Williams song stuck in their heads! What is an app, exactly? Well, it’s short for “application”—as in “computer application.” That just means it’s a computer program, like Microsoft Word. The trendy, shortened version has come to apply mainly to programs you use on your mobile devices—phones, tablets, brain chip, etc. (Just kidding about that last one. Or am I?) Apps tend to be small in computer-space and extremely focused in use—they have very particular applications, you might even say. (See what I did there?)
I recently attended a great webinar hosted by Nicole Hennig, a real expert in this emerging area of study, called “Apps for Librarians: Digital Literacy with Mobile Apps,” that described a lot of what she calls “core apps” and the ways librarians can use them to enhance services to their patrons. She’s really knowledgeable and clear, and while I had long intended to discuss apps in this space, her presentation inspired me to organize it slightly differently. I was going to just jump into some reviews of apps and why you should use them, but Ms. Hennig’s method of categorizing apps into four major types struck me as a better means of approaching this whole, vast topic. So, how does she split up the world of apps? She talks about apps for consuming, for curating, for creation and for collaboration.
Consuming apps are pretty straightforward. They know that there is stuff out there to be read, watched, heard, and so on, and give you ways to do so. They tend to gather that kind of material up and present it to you in easy-to-digest formats. E-reading apps like the Kindle app would fall under this category, as would ‘magazine’ and ‘feed’ types like Feedly and Flipboard.
Apps for curation start to give the user a little more power. In these apps, the content is still out there waiting to be consumed, but they allow you to collect, organize, and present it in your own way. This can include big names like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, though there are a lot more out there. You can also curate your own content with apps like Buffer, which allow you to schedule your social media posts throughout the day. (Because you wouldn’t want your kids and grandkids to go a half an hour without an update from you, right?)
Creation apps—this is where things start to get really interesting. These guys know that the Force is in you, Luke. Whatever you want to create—prose, poetry, drawings, photography, even music and 3D models—there’s an app for that. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a maestro or a rookie, because there are creative apps for every skill level. Heck, some of the apps used by digital virtuosos are equally accessible to novices. Some big names here are Adobe Ideas, Diptic, and the very cool music-making app, Thumb Jam.
Finally, we have collaboration apps, which bring it all together. Whatever you may do on your own in the other three categories, there’s most likely an app that allows you to do it in a group. Often they’re the very same apps. (You’ll find that there’s a lot of overlap between these categories.) Scribble on whiteboards with SyncSpace, share files with Dropbox, and play a game of multidimensional tag over Skype. (No, I’m not sure exactly how that would work, but it would be fun to figure out. Laser pointers?)
Ms. Hennig covered a lot of other interesting elements of the app revolution, but the other important one for all of you out there is the concept of content ecosystems—in other words, the idea that the things you create on apps can be synced up across all your devices, allowing you to travel freely between your phone, tablet, and computer(s) without losing anything.
It’s also worth mentioning that apps have incredibly positive implications for accessibility—a lot of them have features built-in to assist people in using them, and there are many that are designed precisely to help people better navigate the world. There are apps that identify currency for the blind and that help disabled teens learn. That sounds like a revolution worth supporting, right?
So that’s that for our first foray into the realm of apps. Check back in the future when I dig into some specific reviews and recommendations. Thanks again to Nicole Hennig for her awesome presentation (you can check out more about her here). There's a lot more to explore in our appy little realm!