Two years ago, a group of us at my company had a conversation on this topic: “What’s the one device you couldn’t live without?” We were pretty well split between laptop and phone. Twenty-four months later, when I revisited the conversation for this column, everyone picked their phone or their iPad without any hesitation.
Let’s start with some background and a few premises. We’ve had powerful mobile devices ever since the PalmPilot (for some old-school geek cred, mine was made by US Robotics) came on the scene – a solid 15 years ago. These devices seemed incredible because they allowed us to take part of the desktop with us. First contacts, tasks, and calendars, and then email: the devices felt magical because they made it seem like we were using a computer away from the computer. It was a cheap facsimile of the computer experience, of course, but it untethered us, and that was amazing.
Once the Treo, BlackBerry, and other truly useable “smartphones” arrived, devices had their first advantage, and the first time you looked up a contact’s phone number and dialed was pretty special. Making a phone call with your computer was basically impossible at the time – even today, it’s nowhere nearly as seamless as a call from a handset.
Today, as the pace of technology continues, devices differentiate themselves in many different ways.
GPS. Your phone knows where you are. Far beyond mere IP targeting, knowing where a user is via GPS is a huge advantage, providing bespoke, relevant information and helping search immeasurably.
Apps. Hardware-accelerated, Internet-connected software at a blistering pace (plus a built-in distribution model): the apps marketplace has helped consumers understand the value of a program that does one tiny thing (like identify the title of a song), but does it very well. Our EVP of UX, Jason Brush, refers to this as “purpose-built.”
Browser capabilities. High-end mobile devices, broadly speaking, have much better support for elegant browser-based experiences because they use more uniform, standard browsers. Mobile browsers are way ahead in terms of being able to deploy HTML5 experiences through WebKit, the rendering engine that powers Chrome and Safari on phones and tablets.
Camera. Yes, most laptops have cameras, but except for video chat, they’re not particularly useful. In-phone cameras allow for QR codes, barcode readers, and have rendered the point-and-shoot cameras (and more recently, flip cams) completely useless. The experience of capturing and sending media in the same motion beats the heck out of attaching a camera to the desktop, moving images over from the camera, and attaching them to an email. Extra points for the microphone that, unlike a PC, is always hooked up and ready to go.
Economic model. The mobile app store has provided a vast marketplace for small software developers. The result: a commensurate lift in innovation for the platform.
Direct interface. I wouldn’t recommend writing your novel on your smartphone – typing input can be difficult on mobile devices. But, where typing falls short, direct input via multitouch and accelerometer interactions encourages navigation and engagement directly with content.
At my company, we find we’re increasingly advocating starting development with mobile. As a team, we’ve taken away a lot of useful information and perspective from Luke Wroblewski’s writings on “Mobile First.” I recommend that you take a look at his work, as it clearly demonstrates that mobile doesn’t take a backseat to the desktop anymore. In fact, the experience on mobile is better, and it should be at the center of any application strategy.
Further, the mobile surge is accelerating. With near field communication (NFC) devices coming into the mainstream over the next year, and companies like Square changing the point-of-sale options, our phones are going to become the consumer’s wallet and the retailer’s storefront. Based on such marketplace currents, the International Data Corporation has predicted a compound annual growth rate of 16.6 percent for mobile Internet use, with mobile Internet traffic eclipsing PCs and wireline devices by 2015. Mobile devices will continue to provide the richest, most fully featured experiences and we’ll see the gap continue to grow.
This column was originally published on Sept. 28, 2011 on ClickZ.