Friday 9 November 2012

Musing on the Meaning of Mobile

I’ve been working in mobile for a long time, since before apps and before the Web came to mobile devices in fact! Back in those days the meaning of mobile was obvious. It was a mobile phone, with SMS and possibly in more advanced cases with a WAP browser. Don’t worry if you don’t know what WAP is, because it isn’t any more. Its passing is not much mourned.

Back then the meaning of mobile was clear. It was a battery powered device, with a tiny screen, a 10 character keypad and connected over an incredibly slow intermittent data connection. A key point, though, which is what made it really interesting, was that you could use it “while in motion”. Even so, you had to be a real enthusiast and staring eyed believer in the future to think data on mobile was anything other than an amusing curiosity at best. OK, I was one of those staring eyed believers, and we used to huddle in small groups for warmth, chanting our mantra: “Next year will be the year of mobile, won’t it?”

That “next year” has come, thankfully, since all that huddling got a bit uncomfortable. It was certainly time to find something new to chant – so now we say “Do you remember when we used to say next year will be the year of mobile?” Anyway, things look rather different. Tablets often have quite big screens, and usually don’t have a fixed keyboard at all. Many, if not most devices have WiFi and often have fast connection speeds over it.

Mobile devices have become quite powerful computers, with capabilities that hadn’t been thought of or would not be very useful in desktop computers or laptops. A compass and geo-location, for example. Basically, if you need geo-location on a desktop computer you’re probably in more trouble than a computer can help you with.

The “while in motion” aspect of mobility is still important, though to my mind not as important as it used to be. It is quite common to think of Internet connected set top boxes/Smart TVs and even Kiosks, such as you’d find in a store or on the streets as being a funny kind of rarely moving mobile device. That’s because they share important properties with other mobile devices that don’t relate to being used in motion and don’t even relate to being used in more than one place. A laptop is mobile in the sense that can be, though often is not used in more than one place. Equally, a tablet which is more obviously mobile, in most cases (90%, apparently) never leaves the home – and its most common location of use is the sofa (apparently).

So it’s not entirely a question of “counting angels that can dance on the head of a pin” to ask what we mean by mobile today. Answering those questions has important consequences in the way systems are designed and how they are developed (if your service is to be used in motion, you’d better be careful that it is conservative with the amount of data it uses – very conservative if the user is likely to be roaming).

The best way to think of this, for now, I think, is that mobile does not mean that any single overriding property is shared by anything that qualifies. It’s better explained by the concept of family resemblance, which we are all familiar with through observing that members of the family may look alike even though they don’t all have red hair, and don’t all have blue eyes and so on (I have neither so that’s not my family, btw).

I first came across the idea of family resemblance while reading “Women, Fire and Dangerous Things”, which makes reference to this concept, originally from Wittgenstein, it would seem, who used it to describe similarities between languages. I seem to be drifting from the point …

What are those characteristics, then? Well, you could argue that till the cows come home (cows don’t count as mobile in this discussion, even though they are in motion while coming home).

Here’s a starter:

- The bandwidth available may be limited compared with broadband speeds commonly seen in developed markets.
- Round trip delays are more variable and more pronounced that is usually the case on domestic or business broadband connection.
- The user may be charged a variable rate relating to the amount of data transferred over a connection.
- The display area may be limited in comparison with a typical laptop or desktop screen.
- The processing power available may be limited compared with a desktop device.
- Human interaction mechanisms may not consist of a keyboard or mouse and may include touch and haptics.
- There may be a range of sensors, not only including a camera but also accelerometer, compass, geo-location and others not typically found in a traditional desktop environment.
- The place of use may vary over time and the user may be in motion during use.
- The delivery platform may rely on battery for power.
- Ambient noise or light may not be optimal.
- The user may have a restricted range of motion available for interaction, when compared with sitting at a desk (one handed, or hands-free, for example)
- The user’s attention may not be primarily focused on using the application or service.
- Software (installed firmware etc.) updates may not be possible at all or practical at any point in time, for cost, speed or other reasons.

That’s quite a long list, isn’t it? And that’s not all, either!

So the question is, is it useful to conceive of mobile as a separate category at all? Everything’s getting cheaper faster and better isn’t it? We can’t even say with any precision what mobile means.

Actually, although the meaning of the term has become a great deal less focused, it’s more important now than ever. The business of providing satisfactory user experiences, exploiting device capabilities where they exist and doing other things where they don’t is a very complex business. It’s not “let’s just develop for the desktop and probably the mobile stuff will catch up”, it’s something else entirely.

Already, statistics say that over 30% of email is opened first time on mobile (OK, OK, by some definition of mobile!). I don’t think it will be long before we start to say things like “Remember when we used to go and sit at a desk to read email?” in a way that is reminiscent of a long ago age, when homes that were lucky enough to have a phone had it in the front hall and you’d specially go to the hall to use it.

We are now in an age where desktop computers are merely a less mobile sort of device whose use is diminishing and fit in “a spectrum of “mobility” – albeit at one end.

Mobile may be meaningless, but thinking about the characteristics of mobile is more important than ever.