Making the Right Choices - FOSS Handheld App or Web-based App?

Wireless Generation announced today (03/05/2009) that their new handheld of choice--although they would continue to support the Palm and encourage purchasing of the Palm from two resellers--for their products would include the Nokia N810.

Should this vendor continue pushing a handheld device or switch to web-based version of its assessments, which can in turn be used on existing computers, netbooks, iPod Touch, and other devices?

Read this follow-up update on this issue (Update - 03/11/2009) that includes the full press release and some feedback from Wireless Generation.

Some key points from their announcement:
  1. mCLASS®:TPRI®, mCLASS®:Tejas LEE® and mCLASS®:CIRCLE software will be available on new handhelds, such as the Linux-based Nokia N810 Internet Tablet, running on the Maemo platform. Linux-based devices such as the N810 offer mCLASS users the advantages characteristic of open-source technology, including the rapid development and release of updates, improvements, and additions to the software.
  2. The following formative assessment solutions will be available on the N810 for fall 2009: mCLASS®:Reading 3D™, mCLASS®:DIBELS®, mCLASS®:IDEL™, mCLASS®:Math
  3. The following formative assessment solutions will be available on the N810 or similar devices running on the Maemo platform for fall 2010: mCLASS®:TPRI®, mCLASS®:Tejas LEE®, mCLASS®:CIRCLE™, mCLASS®:RTI.
  4. The mCLASS software will also continue to operate on existing Palm handheld devices. Wireless Generation has ensured there will be no compatibility issues with using multiple devices within a school or across a district.
    Source: Announcement sent to Districts on 03/05/2009
Not knowing anything about the open source software based operating system Nokia N810, I set out to read a few reviews (all positive) and those are linked below:

Some pictures of the device, along with a video afterwards:

Nokia N810 Internet Tablet photo gallery
(Click each thumbnail for a larger view) - Source: Linux Device Review

Video Source:

Another item to keep in mind is, How long before Nokia switches to netbooks itself? Consider this report sharing that Nokia is investigating moving to netbooks:
The world's top mobile phone maker Nokia is eyeing entering the laptop business, its Chief Executive Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo said in an interview to Finnish national broadcaster YLE on Wednesday...We don't have to look even for five years from now to see that what we know as a mobile phone and what we know as a PC are in many ways converging," Kallasvuo said.
Could we eventually see the abandonment of the handheld in lieu of the netbook?

NOKIA N810 vs iPod Touch
One other device that districts consider as a valid alternative to the Palm is the iPod Touch. For fun, I sought out a comparison between the iPod Touch and the Nokia N810. In reviewing this chart, I got the clear impression that the Nokia N810 "blew the iPod Touch out of the water!" To be honest, it made me question why anyone would go with the iPod Touch over the Nokia N810!!

Here is one comparison chart that I found at Digital Rover's web site:

iPod TouchNokia N810
Screen Size3.5″4.13″
Screen Resolution480×320800×480
Operating SystemMobile OS XLinux
Processor Speed400 MHz ARM400 MHz ARM
RAM128 MB128 MB
Multimedia FormatsAAC, MP3, H.2643GP, AVI, WMV, MP4, H263, H.264, MPEG-1, MPEG-4, RV (RealVideo)
MP3, WMA, AAC, AMR, AWB, M4A, MP2, RA (RealAudio), WAV
ConnectivityWi-FiWi-Fi, Bluetooth
StorageInternal - 8/16GB2 GB Internal, expandable using mini SD upto 8GB
Flash SupportNoAdobe Flash 9 - desktop version
BrowserSafariFirefox based
VoIP supportNoSkype/Gizmo
Input InterfaceVirtual QWERTYVirtual QWERTY/Slideout QWERTY
Third party softwareNoYes
FM RadioNoYes
Content AggregatorNoRSS
Integrated speakersNoYes
Integrated camera for video callNoVGA webcam
Instant MessagingNoYes
Java SupportNoYes

Am I the only one that sees the N810 as clearly superior to the iPod Touch? Or is there a usability issue I'm missing, not having handled the N810 personally?

With web browser based applications--consider Eduphoria's PDAS, AustinSky, all running browser-based apps--it's obvious that the Nokia N810 would do the job for those.

The Nokia N810 looks like a solid replacement for the Palm. Built-on open source operating system, can "run" GoogleDocs (it lacks a built-in word processor apparently, calendar, personal information mgmt tools), MS Exchange support, slightly imperfect Flash 9 support, MP3/MP4 support, customizable by those who are in the know, a device that can easily design for, the N810 looks like a wonderful idea.

In this previous blog entry, I asked a simple question:
What would happen if the Palms used for Wireless Generation based assessments could no longer be purchased or replaced?
I asked this question because several other Texas (and Kentucky) districts were asking the same thing. Now, I have to ask from their perspective, Did Wireless Generation make the right choice as to hardware platform to launch their product, especially when it runs open source software?

To their credit, Wireless Generation has made a bold move:
  • They've seized on the excitement of mobile computing devices running GNU/Linux
  • They have a great device--according to the reviews I've read--that rivals the iPod Touch
Yet potentially, they may have also geared up for the wrong device. From the perspective of school districts, I see these potential roadblocks to adoption for Wireless Generation:
  • No web version of assessments: With the prevalence of netbooks--including a new one from a major PC maker with a 10-inch screen that will work for online testing--why isn't there a web version of Wireless Generation product line? It could just as easily work via the Web, like so many other apps.
  • New handheld device to purchase and introduce into District: If your district has been using Palms, it will either have to buy Palms from resellers--essentially, buying obsolete technology at new or slightly discounted prices--or switch to a new, completely unsupported device (how many districts support open source on their desktops, laptops, much less handheld devices?) that has not been tested in your network environment. Also, already under-staffed and overloaded HelpDesk and technicians will have to be trained to support a new technology (N810) that is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from what may be in their district.
  • The Nokia N810 cannot be managed using SMS/Active Directory, and this will present a problem for Wireless Generation, just as the Dell Mini encountered similar problems...a technology that can't be managed, well, that just won't fly in some school districts, especially when you consider how Internet and "Web 2.0" friendly the N810 is.
  • Vendor determines what technology districts use, not the District. In tough economic times, consolidating software/web-based services into key apps that work on what you have--rather than what the vendor prefers--makes a lot of sense. You save money that way. Is the right approach for any vendor to say to cash-strapped schools, "If you want to use our stuff, you have to run it on THIS piece of equipment"?
  • New administrative procedures will have to be crafted or, at least, fine-tuned. This isn't a new expectation for mobile device admin procedure, but it IS another variation on the same song. Will Districts be willing to add yet another handheld device to the list of supported items?
  • How confidential student data is transferred from the device to the vendor's servers. This is probably a no-brainer, something most vendors have worked out already. With the old Palms, sync stations had to be setup. How it will happen on the Nokia N810 is, so far, a mystery until more information becomes available.
Wes Fryer at ISTE Connect writes the following:
Purchasing netbooks for all our teachers as well as providing sustained professional development to support the effective uses of those netbooks for personal as well as student learning with new stimulus package funds would be a step in the right direction for US leaders seeking to move our nation forward constructively into the 21st century.
Source: Wes Fryer at ISTE Connects Blog
In chatting with various districts, one of the key complaints I heard about handheld devices like the Palm was this: "It's one more thing to keep track of, one more device teachers can lose, and you have to worry about the sync stations. And, you can't do the gradebook on it or anything else!" The same complaint could be made of the Nokia N810, even though the N810 is light-years ahead of the Palm.

People simply want less devices to juggle, and more mileage out of the devices they have

Compared to a netbook solution at the same price point, though, school district tech leaders could definitely be asking, "Why spend precious funding on a handheld device for one vendor's assessments when I can get a netbook running Windows 7 that I can manage and teachers can do so much more with?"

Only time will tell whether districts want to invest in netbooks at $300-$400 price point or go with a smaller mobile device. The excitement I sense in state listservs in Texas is that the netbook is desirable technology, not just for students, but also, teachers. One to one computing is finally in reach, and like a cattle herd after a long drive sniffing out the water, a stampede may be about to occur!

At TCEA 2009, one PC maker hinted at a $300 netbook with a 10-inch screen (necessary for TestNAV for online TAKS testing) that would fit the business/education market...imagine an education-focused version of the Dell Mini, featuring better management via SMS/Active Directory. Whether this was just a PC netbook maker's dream machine or a real product, we'll see soon.

While Wireless Generation has certainly made a bold move in going with the highly-rated Nokia N810--a move that should be rewarded since it builds on an open source operating system--they may have missed the boat in not creating a web-based version of their popular assessment tools. These web-based assessment tools would run on inexpensive netbooks which are flooding the education market, and not require districts to ask, "How many of these handheld devices (e.g. Palm, iPod Touch, iPhone, Blackberry, Nokia N810) will we have to manage, support, and deploy?"

When you consider what the "killer apps" are for most teachers--electronic gradebook, accessing student resources online, managing Web 2.0 apps (like Moodle, blogs, wikis), attendance tracking, GoogleDocs, VoiceThread, digital stories--handhelds lack the firepower. A netbook solution does, however, especially one priced at a similar price point as the iPod Touch, Nokia N810 or a $299 Palm handheld.

If this were a choice between the iPod Touch and the Nokia N810, I'd go with the latter. But because of pricing, the choice is now between a netbook running an OS of choice (Windows 7 for school districts, or Mac OS X for the courageous and/or UbuntuLinux for others) and a handheld.

Possible choices for school districts include the following (what am I missing?):
  1. Drop Wireless Generation, switch to another provider of assessments that uses web-based assessments (e.g. Tango Software - or Imagination Station -
  2. Encourage Wireless Generation to implement a web-based interface so that any device that can access the Web (e.g. existing computers, laptops, netbooks) can be used by 2009-2010 school year
  3. Stay with Wireless Generation and purchase the Nokia N810 which will replace the Palms. This will have technical support ramifications.
What would a cost analysis comparing these options look like?

What do you think? What are your predictions about the viability of this decision by Wireless Generation to put all its eggs into the Nokia N810 basket?

Read this follow-up update on this issue (Update - 03/11/2009).

In the interests of full disclosure, I gain nothing financial from sharing this opinion with you. I am not compensated by any vendors mentioned or alluded to in this blog entry. In the past, I have advocated the use of Palm handhelds and participated in presentations and press releases featuring the Wireless Generation product, and have written and published articles about TPRI Implementation in Texas schools.

Subscribe to Around the

Be sure to visit the ShareMore! Wiki.

Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure


Anonymous said…
Wow...thanks for all of that info. We had heard a couple of weeks ago about wireless gen going with the Nokia and are trying to secure a few to try out in our district. I had the same questions that you did, though, about web based apps as opposed to what wireless gen currently has. It's too bad that they haven't gone the web route. It seems that they would have so many more opportunities to sell their product if it were web based because districts wouldn't be tied to a specific technology.

On another note:
it will either have to buy Palms from resellers--essentially, buying obsolete technology at new or slightly discounted prices because the Tungsten E2 has become so scarce, the price has actually gone UP. The prices we're seeing now are some $30 higher than what we were purchasing them for at the beginning of the year. And of course, school districts are willing to pay the hiked price for obsolete technology because it's what they're already invested in. What a scam.
You have done an excellent job of describing all aspects of this issue. Thanks for your in-depth research. I'm looking forward to more comments from others on this subject and then using all this information to help us make some good decisions about learning solutions for our students.
Daniel Rezac said…
The same could be said about the Promethean Activotes. Why should they keep trying to push the Activotes, when they have a web-based voting system that is much, much cheaper. Of course, as someone who is always looking out for the little guy, I'm interested in technology that includes and can be accessible to everyone. A laptop is an all in one machine that can do the same work as many of these handheld devices.

Popular posts from this blog

COVID-19 Droplet Spread and #FREE Tests

Trying a New Pup Out #SPCA #Dog

AudibleNotes: Culturally Responsive Teaching for Multilingual Learners