It’s usually the case that, as soon as a new operating system is out, everyone is happy (or not) and they’re talking about all the new things the new operating system does (or doesn’t) and the new features (even the annoying ones) and this goes on for a good month or so before people start talking about the next version of the operating system. As I write this, OS X Yosemite is eminent; Windows 10 is the topic of discussion; and iOS 8 is the thing you simply must have on your device unless it’s the version of iOS that turns your iPhone into an iPod Touch. Rest assured that a month after Yosemite drops people will start talking about, I don’t know, OS X Joshua Tree? (Makes sense after that part where Apple shoved the latest U2 album onto your device.) Windows 10 will be followed by 11, or 12, perhaps 20, maybe they’ll call it Windows 20X6. (Homestar Runner will be my reference here in that 20X6 is pronounced “twenty exty six.”)
So what’s that got to do with the library or library technology? Simple, and it’s something that was confirmed for me at the last Polaris Users Group. (Literally, this will be the last one. After Polaris was acquired by Innovative, the PUG will be folded into the IUG… which isn’t an acronym at all.) What’s the big deal about the new operating systems from a library technology, and general technology perspective?
That’s right, nothing. Not a sausage’s bit of difference will the new operating systems make for library technology, at least when it comes to use of the ILS and at the front desk.
Because Innovative, Polaris, and VTLS; another new and happy member of the Innovative suite of software and services, collect ’em all, kids; are moving towards something that they call “platform agnosticism.” Does that mean you’ll soon be able to buy Innovative for Linux? Maybe Polaris for OS X? No.
It means that my favourite operating system is becoming the operating system in library technology. For those that’ve read my drivel, listened to my podcasts, and heard me rattle on about tech stuff, you already know good and well what my favourite operating system is. For those who just got here, welcome! And let me explain that my favourite operating system is Firefox.
Or to put it another way, my favourite operating system is a web browser.
Innovative wanted a lot of things from Polaris when they backed a truck full of money up to their main office in Syracuse and started unloading comically large bags with dollars signs printed on the side of them. There was a joke that Innovative was buying Polaris’ customer service.
That… that wasn’t a joke, library friends and true believers. Kim Massana, the CEO of Innovative, as much as said so during the opening parts of PUG. However it soon became clear that Innovative wanted something else that Polaris was working on, something groundbreaking in its implications for front desk technology and the library world at large.
Somewhere along the way Project LEAP became Project Leap and Project Leap has since turned into Polaris Leap or simply Leap.
But what is it?
Quite frankly, and without any hyperbole here, Leap is game changing and alters the landscape of ILS and library technology in its scope and entirety. That’s because Leap is a browser based ILS client. You can access the customer service functionality of Polaris using Leap and a web browser. If that doesn’t make your library business day, let me at least explain why it makes mine.
I spent 16 years in library circulation and instruction and I’ve worked with the Polaris ILS since it was in its original beta back around 1999. Everything you do in Polaris is done through a Microsoft Windows based staff client. Polaris itself is a Microsoft shop of the highest degree. They use Microsoft from desktop to server, database to delivery. That means all of the computers you need to run Polaris, from server to end-user had to be Windows machines. Front desk? Windows machines. Check in? Windows machines. Cataloguing? Windows. Admin? Windows.
Leap breaks this in awesome, wonderful ways.
I’d say about 95% of everything you need to run a front desk is available on Leap right now. The missing 5% is actually there, but its implementation is clumsy. I also have no doubt that the clumsy bits will be made elegant and far more features will be added to the system. Now, imagine your front desk. You bought Windows PCs, lots of Windows PCs. You bought lots of expensive Windows PCs that, if you had your way, needed to be refreshed every three years. With Leap you can buy some rather less expensive PCs….
And install Linux.
You don’t have to refresh those PCs as often because all they’re running is, perhaps, Lubuntu or another light weight Linux distro. Lubuntu will run on a PC for five to six years. So you don’t have to refresh the hardware as often. Money saved. Linux updates are free and don’t have complicated licensing schemes. Money saved again.
Hail To Thee, Oh Web Browser!
If you’re using a roaming a librarian out in the stacks, they can carry a tablet. Maybe it’s an iPad or a decent Android tablet. Does that tablet have a web browser? I bet it does, and with that browser you have Leap. It’s the same Leap the front desk uses. All the functionality of the front desk staff client on your tablet. (The Polaris developers working on Leap were quick to point out that it’s not really designed to be used on a phone… yet.)
Even if you’re not using Linux on the desk, browser updates are free and they happen everywhere at the same time. Granted, if you’re running Windows then you’re not getting your Safari updates at the same time as OS X users for the same reason that OS X isn’t getting Internet Explorer updates. Yet a running joke to users on both operating systems is that Internet Explorer and Safari are the best browsers ever… to download a better browser. I admit that, as a cyberpunk, I tend to hang out with a lot of tech people and technologically minded librarians. So maybe that sample size is inherently skewed when I say that no one I know uses Internet Explorer or Safari as their default browser. They’re using Firefox or Chrome.
You know what the beauty is of Firefox and Chrome updates? Almost without exception, they happen everywhere at the same time. My Windows boxes get Firefox updates the same day my OS X computers and Linux boxes do. Hell, I don’t think Chrome even updates anymore, at least not in the way anyone would call an “update.” It checks to see if there are new bits and installs them. It does this on OS X and Windows. Since Chromium is Chrome for Linux, it can lag behind a little, but not much. Chances are if Chrome updated, so did Chromium.
Write Once, Update Everywhere, Be Everywhere
Leap is a web app, just like Gmail or Google Calendar or Wunderlist or Outlook Web App or Outlook.com. The thing you need to keep in mind that Leap is a single page web app. If you’re not sure what that means, think of Gmail. When you do something with Gmail, you stay in Gmail. You don’t leave Gmail to deal with Gmail functions. You look at your inbox in Gmail, write messages in Gmail, update settings in Gmail, and so on. Leap works on the Buckaroo Banzai philosophy of no matter where you go, there you are.
Any library IT professional working the staff clients on Polaris will go white (possibly red) when you talk about an impending Polaris upgrade. I’ve been through a lot of Polaris upgrades since 1999 and the weakest link is often the staff clients. They have to be updated and, in most cases, you need to update them individually. There was a new staff client deployment tool released for Polaris v4.1R2, but where I’m working it failed spectacularly and we wound up with a handful of techs running from branch to branch in a library system that covers more territory than some east coast states. Thankfully it was a Saturday and several branches aren’t open over the weekend.
Like I said Leap is a web app, it updates in one place — the server. Update it on the server and staff log into it. That’s it. No more bustling about updating staff clients. The staff client exists in a single entity, your server. New bits for Leap? The staff get them when they log in. Hotfix? No worries, the staff logs out and then logs back in. New features? Same deal, log in, and they’re there. Like Gmail, they can even call attention to the new features with pop-ups and toasts. You really can’t do that with a staff client.
It’s a safe bet that Leap won’t remain solely in Polaris. VTLS was working on a similar solution and I’ll wager Innovative was too. The funny thing is, this isn’t a new idea. Koha and Evergreen ILS systems both run in browsers but, as always, they carry the stink of open source. (I mean that sarcastically, my friends. It’s too often the case that I’ve seen libraries denounce free and open source software by saying “If it doesn’t cost anything, it can’t be any good.” Meanwhile, their website is running on Apache or nginx.)
This method of moving to the browser is coming both in the desktop and mobile world as HTML 5 and CSS 3 allow for more responsive design in the mobile sphere. After all, why worry about divining the best method of delivering data to an app when the web is perfectly capable of doing that now? Interoperability between websites and services will make that kind of thing easier too.
No big shock, really. Librarians have always been good at gathering, collating, and delivering information in the most convenient ways possible.