Closing the Gap: Using a Tablet for Scouting

by Craig Stark

30 January 2012

A Review

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Not so long ago, in what now seems like the dark ages of online bookselling, most of us who were starting out as booksellers were flying blind. Unless you had deep experience in the trade or had compiled a comprehensive scouting book, there were no resources to help us to make buying decisions in the field. More often than not we were left to our instincts, and mistakes were inevitably made. The only alternative was to write down ISBN's, titles, etc., and look them up at home. This might have worked okay if you were shopping at thrift stores, but estate sales? Almost always not - in fact, a decision to forestall a buy at an estate sale could cost you big time. I passed on an Easton Press collection at an estate sale once, rushed home to look them up, called the seller back - and poof, they were gone. A $15,000 to $20,000 profit had evaporated in minutes.

But perhaps this early, poignant loss helped me in the long run because I began to seek out methods for not letting it happen again. At that time, you could research closed auctions on eBay back as many as six months, so I sat down almost every day with one purpose - find out what's selling and write it down. The result was a scouting book that soon grew into a productive tool, especially as I began to see more widely applicable patterns in what sold. I wrote these down as well and later came to call them flashpoints.

When cell phones became widely available, the first scouting service popped up - Dave Anderson's ScoutPal. Initially Dave developed this tool for his wife Barbara, but when both of them recognized the substantial edge this gave her over other booksellers, he saw the potential to take it to the public. Later, he saw a similar potential in developing a PDA/scanner tool that was not only much faster but also didn't depend on a live connection to work. This wasn't quite closing the gap between the resources I could access on my office computer and what I had available to me in the field, but it was getting close.

Smartphones were the next technological leap with built-in cameras that could replicate the bar code scanning process. More importantly, it was now possible to do much deeper research in the field - do more or less what you could do at home, that is, and quickly. At the time, I thought the gap had been effectively closed, but I soon noticed that I wasn't taking advantage of this as much as I thought I would. The reason for me was one of scale. Smartphones are so small that they aren't all that user friendly for bookselling purposes. Too much swiping to enlarge the screen view, for example, or accidentally touching a link that takes you out of where you are. Also, some mobile applications have less functionality than desktop versions.

For a few weeks last year I took a laptop with me and tethered it to my jailbroken iPhone for a connection. This was useful for situations where I had time to return to my vehicle to research something, but hauling the laptop into a sale wasn't practical. Yet another scale issue, this time on the too-big end.

Then it dawned on me that what was called for was an in-between device, something big enough to use efficiently but not so big that it was difficult to walk around with. Since it was first released in early 2010, I had resisted purchasing an iPad (or other tablet) because it seemed to duplicate devices I already had, but now I saw a possibility that it might be useful for scouting after all, assuming that it could be set up to emulate a computer.

Well, last month Santa brought me my first iPad (an iPad 2), and I've since experimented with it as a scouting tool. What follows is a preliminary report.

First, scale. At 9 ½" x 7 ¼" and 21 ounces, this is a good fit for me in the field. The screen size (over six times the size of my iPhone) is ample for both viewing applications and typing. Though one can pay more for a 3G version of the iPad along with the additional monthly usage fee for 3G connectivity, in my case the cheaper WiFi version works fine because I can tether it to my iPhone for a connection. By the way, jailbreaking your iPhone is now a very simple process with an extensive history of usage stability. [Note that your service provider might monitor tethering activity and require you to upgrade your data plan.]

Next, hardware. I experimented with several protective cases and accessories and settled upon the following setup:

This Logitech keyboard doubles as a protective case for the iPad 2 and looks like this when not in use:

The keyboard itself is surprisingly easy to use despite its compact size, and the brushed aluminum housing matches the iPad. The iPad rests securely in a groove (there is no physical connection) for easy removal when taking it, for example, into a sale, and the keyboard acts as a stand for use in my vehicle.

For additional protection I purchased a Grantwood padded case:

This is the only case I could find that was large enough to hold the iPad/keyboard combination - and the fit is perfect.

I'll discuss iPad bookselling applications and other software matters in Part II, but I'll mention here that, if you jailbreak your iPad as well - again, a very simple process - you can install an app called BTStack Mouse that makes it possible to use a mouse with an iPad.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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