Back in 2006, a media devices company called Findaway launched its first product, inspired by the growth of the iPod. The Playaway was a little audio player that came pre-loaded with one audiobook -- basically the evolution of a book-on-tape. There was good buzz for it. They landed a deal with Borders and Barnes & Noble to distribute it. It was even featured on "Oprah," thanks to the show's book club.
Yet when the holiday season came, it completely flopped. Then the company started getting calls from an unexpected source: libraries.
Which makes sense, if you think about it. A regular consumer would want customization options and, to be honest, more than one audiobook per device. But libraries were already in the business of passing one thing from person to person.
Findaway has since refocused its efforts on serving schools, military clients and libraries -- all of which have interest in durable, pre-loaded audio players, e-readers and video players that let users try something new and then send it on to the next person. This month, the company is evolving yet again with the introduction a new product, the Playaway Launchpad, for the children's sections of libraries. While other libraries have started tablet-lending programs with iPads and Android tablets, Findaway boasts that this is the first one specifically designed to be lent by a library system.
"This allows every child to have the opportunity to experience a tablet, for free, from local libraries," said Mitch Kroll, the chief executive of Findaway. "We love that and it speaks to our heart."
Libraries, of course, have been evolving too. As more people pick up e-books instead of their paper-and-glue predecessors, libraries are becoming technology education hubs as well. Their traditional mandate of being the stewards of literacy is expanding to include digital literacy as well, said Lee Rainie, executive director of the Pew Center for Internet and American Life. The center has done extensive research into how libraries are changing, and how communities perceive libraries in the modern world.
"What people celebrate about libraries --what they think is important -- is that they are resources that everybody gets access to," he said. "It's not just the well-off or tech-savvy that can tap these pathways of knowledge."
The Baltimore public library system, which has picked up 90 Playaway tablets to split between three branches, also has a 3D printing station and lends video games and Findaway-made video players to its patrons. The question of whether it should take the next step and stock tablets to lend is one that many libraries have struggled with, said Jamie Watson, collection development coordinator for the Baltimore library system.
"As libraries change and consider how to introduce technology, there’s always a struggle," she said. "But we had so much success with products before we are willing to try it again." It helped, for her, that the tablets were pre-loaded with content and locked down from a privacy perspective; a more open tablet might have given her pause.
"It’s a very dedicated purpose and that purpose is literacy," she said.
The tablets come with a set pack of themed science, math and reading apps aimed at different age groups; Findaway worked with Fingerprint, a children's app company, to choose the right apps. Tables come with multiple themes, such as outer space, and a super-easy interface that kids and their parents can easily grasp.
Most apps are constantly getting updates, but these have been designed to last for three to five years, said Nancy MacIntyre, chief executive and founder of Fingerprint. "It's no different than renting or borrowing a video, book or musical CD from the library. This is great content that can stand the test of time."
The tablets themselves are also built to last, with tough plastic cases and a rubber bumper. A review unit provided by Findaway to the Washington Post withstood several vigorous bounces and swan dives to the floor that would have given any other tablet-owner a heart attack. Durability is key, as a key criticism of introducing tablets into schools is that they must be updated so often.
"Once you buy these things, they can circulate for many years," Kroll said. "That said, we have replacement programs and warranty programs that are very inexpensive. We acknowledge that we're not selling for a consumer environment."
The Android-based system is also limited, by design. The devices are easy to reset, so that librarians can completely wipe the tablets each time someone's term for borrowing is up.
Library patrons can take the tablets for seven days, with one renewal -- as long as no one else has already placed a hold on them. The libraries are putting security tags on the tablets as well, with a clear message that it they're broken or lost that the person who takes them will be on the hook for roughly $100.
"We're trying to be very honest," she said. "But we don’t believe that will limit the circulation of the device," given the demand for gadgets they've seen in the past.
Rainie, of Pew, said that the jury is still out on the impact of these programs. But he expects we'll see much more of them in the future. "This is the first wave of a story that you can see playing out," he said. "It's not just lending gadgetry. Libraries in New York City have an experimental program handing out MiFi devices -- literally handing the Internet to people. These technologies are the way that people are learning and navigating different information spaces now."