Toward a Theory on Mobile Computing

image: aeromental.com

Ghost in the Shell: Arise

I keep trying to understand where consumer computing is going. There is a disconnect between what people say they want and how they actually use their devices.

I’ve been having this discussion of and on about tablets and what a proper tablet is “supposed” to be and I think all involve agree the essential part is touch as the main input. The early tablet PCs were based on rudimentary touch and pen inputs and lacked the interface and the apps to encourage adoption. They were fascinating devices but they were married to the PC interface without accommodation of new inputs; the use of a pen just to move objects seems a waste.

The fact that Microsoft showed off a tablet that was touch first, but Apple released it is telling of where both companies were at the time. And I could add Ultra Mobile PCs with a special overlay that provided a touch area but no apps as another example. Point is Microsoft has always tiptoed around what would sell devices.

But that is the prologue. What is important and what needs to be asked is what is the future of mobile computing. Beyond apps, beyond touch what is the future of mobile computing. Compare the iPad Air to the original iPad. The original iPad was a device positioned between the smartphone and the PC. It was a companion device. The iPad Air is being sold in many ways as a replacement for the PC. Outside of windowing (the visual act of showing open programs on top of each other) the iPad provides a version of computing familiar to many. And that is just one form of mobile computing.

If you expand the mobility part of the computing paradigm Chrome OS gets included. Now Chrome OS is not the first operating system to be about stripping out the OS nature of computers to deliver a web appliance. The Litl company had a similar idea with the Litl webbook. And even before both Mozilla showed off Aurora a concept for a web operating system. These concepts reflect the shift many users have had away from using only locally stored programs to making wide use of the web and applications only accessed through a browser. It has little to do with touch and in fact remains closer to the PC model than a phone. And so the question becomes what is the future of mobile computing.

Apps, the shorthand to describe applications built to run on smartphones and tablets, were created in part because the web didn’t fit on mobile phone screens. Many apps are simply websites or web apps (same as apps but run on the Web) built because the web wasn’t built with smartphones or devices without keyboards in mind. As time has gone on apps developed for tablet screens have added a complexity closer to computer programs on the desktop. They do this because as users have gotten accustom to using tablets and smartphones their expectations of what they should do has increased. More screen real estate means more information that can be displayed. More information the more complex the overall app can become. The introduction of touch has also changed the nature of web design. The idea of responsive design and mobile first design in which the website is made to better perform on touch displays have grown.

Another change in the web is the maturation of web apps. There are sites out now that function much like a desktop program does. Think of the people who use Mint to manage their finances or edit video on YouTube. The web has become an OS layer on which we work. The web also allows programs to be lighter on devices moving a lot of work off the hardware.

All these changes make determining and describing what mobile computing is and what it will be complex.

When I look at the future of mobile computing especially as it becomes a major part of the consumer landscape it resembles the Surface 2. The idea that both light, native applications will sit alongside web apps and will accept both traditional inputs and touch is where I see things headed.

In a recent review of the iPad Air the reviewer praised it in all the ways we know it works; its apps, its lightness, and it longevity. But he also raised the natural questions most ask about these devices; where is the ability to use this as a daily driver, to multitask.

Mobile computing in a nutshell and in transition.

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