Northwestern unveils new iPhone apps

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    Screenshots by Sisi Wei / North by Northwestern. Production by Sisi Wei / North by Northwestern.

    This month, Apple celebrated over 115,000 applications developed for the iPhone. Today, Northwestern announced that they have contributed 8 more.

    The Northwestern University apps, free on iTunes, include a GPS-supported campus map, a comprehensive campus directory and a revamped library search tool.

    They were developed specifically for the iPhone, so other smartphone users will find their functions less convenient. The BlackBerry interface, for example, appears as a text-only version, and only six of the eight apps are available — images and video are missing.

    Blackboard Mobile, a subsidiary of Blackboard, worked with the university to create the apps. The company, developed by an undergraduate at Stanford, has historically worked with iPhone apps, but Northwestern stipulated that the mobile suite also be available to the BlackBerry and other brands of smartphones.

    With the release of these new apps, Northwestern joins Stanford, Duke, the University of Washington, and UC San Diego in developing mobile technology for their students.

    Bob Taylor, director of Academic Technologies and a key developer in the project, spoke to the importance of utilizing new mobile technology within the university. “I know from the surveys that we’ve been doing, every year a larger and larger percentage of our students are using smartphones.” Just last year, a university survey indicated that about 60% of students were using smartphones.

    As to its potential popularity among faculty, Taylor said, “I haven’t come across a department that hasn’t been positive about [it], and that’s unusual.”

    One of its most useful functions is to provide much of the library’s digitized collection and its search engines in a mobile format. Stu Baker, one of the apps’ collaborators and Head of Library Management Systems said, “The university spends millions of dollars every year to provide access to resources. We just see this as a natural extension of what we do. The library is not just about the physical building, there’s kind of the virtual reference to that.”

    The application was accepted by Apple late last month, and, though unannounced, has been available for a few weeks. Alex Novello, a Freshman in the Bienan School of Music accidentally stumbled upon the app before its official release.

    “I wasn’t all that impressed at first. But after a closer look, it’s kind of all the little things you go to do on NU link, it’s an easy way to get to everything without going to your laptop. There are cute images of Northwestern. Then there’s some really great functional stuff, too. There are some great maps on there. Also, I just got in touch with the pianist I have to work with, and I just looked him up on the map. Pretty sweet.”

    The university is hoping to improve upon the original apps in the coming months. “There’s a whole range of upcoming services that are much more sophisticated than the current suite of apps,” said Harlan Wallach, ­­­­­­­­­director of the Advanced Media Production Studio at Northwestern. There are plans for a function that would track the frostbite express in real time; and another that would include trails and walking paths on the campus map.

    At Stanford, the most popular app has included the ability to add and drop classes. That’s under consideration at Northwestern, too, and is projected to be available within a year.

    In many ways, the University’s shift to mobile technology can be compared to the shift made to wireless hotspots. Said Wallach, “We really need to take everything we’ve done for the laptop and recraft it for the handheld device, because that’s the new standard that we use.“

    “We sometimes encounter these little moments of the ‘golden age of technology.’ At this point, we really are living through it. People are able to make [their mobile device] exactly what they want it to be, and that’s really rare in technology,” Wallach said.


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