Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Apples big and small for genealogy -- Part One

Apple Inc. is a topic that draws both praise and criticism. In case you have been on an expedition to somewhere they don't have telephone, TV or Internet service, you may not be aware that Apple has just released a new product called the iPad. Apple now sells six, soon to be seven, major product lines, MacBook laptop computers, Macintosh desktop computers, iPods, iPads, iPhones and iTunes downloads. Just get a little perspective about these machines, by the third quarter of 2008, iPod total global sales had reached over 220,000,000 (a sizable percentage of the entire population of the U.S). The newer iPad reportedly sold over 450,000 units in the first week of sales. By early 2010, customers of the Apple iTunes store had downloaded over 4 billion apps. In the first week, iPad users had downloaded over 3.5 million iPad apps (programs). The seventh new product from Apple is the iBooks store which sold 600,000 books in its first week of operation.

The real question for genealogists is whether or not any of these lovely electronic devices or online services make our lives easier or help with doing real genealogy. As a side note, I do appreciate the insightful comments from Dick Eastman about his experiences with the iPad. He also recently provided a link to a review of the Reunion 9 program from Grant Brunner.

First of all, doing genealogy or family history is not about either hardware or software. Many genealogists get along just fine, thank you, with paper and pens or pencils. But in today's online world, failing to use digitized resources from online sources is like wearing blinders. Even if you do go to a repository in person, you may still have to look up your information on a computer. But any kind computer or other device (iPod, iPad, iPhone, HP Slate) that can access the Internet may provide you with access to digitized sources. Any computer company's products, Apple, Dell, Sony, Hewlett-Packard (HP), IBM or whatever, will connect to the Internet in some fashion. Some devices have inherent limitations, for example, my iPhone will not view some kinds of Internet sites because it lacks Adobe Flash (there is currently a dispute between Apple and Adobe over this and other issues). But you should be able to view most any site on any device. For example, I just did a search of the Ellis Island site on my iPhone.

You don't even need to own a computer, most larger public libraries provide some kind of free computer access to library card holders. There is really no way to estimate Internet usage, but the latest studies seem to indicate that worldwide from 1.4 billion to 1.8 billion people will use the Internet in 2010. In the U.S. alone it is estimated that 223 million people out a total of 380 million will use the Internet in 2010. So, both Apple computers and devices and any other type of device designed to access the Internet, can be used to do online research.

But, there are significant differences in the various devices' abilities to maintain genealogical information locally. Focusing on the Apple products, there are genealogical computer programs for all of the popular Apple devices, laptops, desktops, iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad. As a note, almost all the apps developed for the iPhone also work on the iPad. But do you really want to use a keyboard only about one inch square to enter genealogical information into your program? Obviously, some devices are more suitable than others for serious data entry.

But the real question is whether or not any of these new devices make you life as a genealogist any easier?

As a long time computer user, I can unequivocally say that using a Macintosh computer or any computer, desktop or laptop, magnifies my ability to do basic genealogical research and record keeping. As time goes on, the question of whether to use a computer or not will largely become as antiquated as typewriters. Almost everyone will just assume that you are using a computer to do your genealogy. In fact, if I had to write out blog posts in long hand, I would not be doing this today.

Now, how about using devices such as the iPod Touch/iPhone? The programs on these devices are helpful references. I can carry around my entire genealogy files on my phone, but they are extremely limited in the input capability. Unless you are a record class text user, you probably will find, like I do, that entering any amount of data into an iPhone or iPod Touch is tedious and slow. But they do take pictures and I can use my iPhone in a pinch to take a picture of a document for later use. It has always proved handy to have my files for reference when I run across a relative or find some new information. But I would not use any of the smaller devices to enter any larger amounts of data into my files.

Now along comes the iPad. It takes a little getting used to the iPad's keyboard but it is major improvement over the iPod/iPhone on screen keyboard. In addition, you can run copies of the genealogy apps and synchronize the new data with your desktop computer. In every case, so far, the programs developed for the iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch have been like satellite programs and I have not been willing to use any portion of the programs for actual data entry. The iPad is entirely different, its keyboard is sufficiently large for even my uncoordinated fingers and data entry is not only possible but also likely. You can also use any one of hundreds of kinds of laptops and desktop computers to do the same thing. The main difference is portability. I like working on my laptop, but I do not like to lug it around. Will I lug around a iPad? I would guess not routinely. But it would be really a lot easier to take to a library than my laptop.

But what about the difference between an iPad and a netbook? Netbooks are really small laptops, but they do have keyboards. I would argue that the iPad is more elegant and easier to use, but there is an argument if you can't get used to typing on an iPad. I can use the iPad to load in photos from my camera, but that supposes that I am also carrying around a camera. I guess the summary to this point is that a lot of the new big and little devices out there can be used for genealogy, just like I can use the handle on my screwdriver to pound nails, but there are some physical and software limitations that may make some of these devices less useful than others.

But I must admit, that I am working with my wife's iPad to see if it would work as a substitute for a laptop. The jury is still out on that one.

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