February 18, 2011
My problem with "mobility"
By: Kelly Dempski

Being the lead of an R&D group called "multichannel interactions" means that people often ask me for my thoughts on mobility. The honest answer is that I have nothing useful to say about "mobility". There, I said it. That feels good.

Let me explain...

People label things based on what features they feel are notable. "Personal Computers" were interesting back at a time when the idea of a computer for a single person was very novel. Ask a teenager today what "PC" means, and I bet they won't know. Likewise, I grew up talking about "mobile phones" or "cordless phones", and now it's hard to find a phone that isn't mobile, or has a cord. On a related note, I feel like "Wired" magazine is an anachronism, but I won't dwell on that.

We started talking about "mobility" at a time when most computers and their networks were highly immobile. PDAs were as close as we got, which wasn't very satisfying at all. I watched people use phones with WAP, but I was never masochistic enough to use it myself. For years, we talked about "mobility" because it was new, it was challenging, and it was the kind of thing that thought leaders talked about in Wired magazine.

The world has moved on. I haven't had an "immobile" computer for a decade (although my time with a high end gaming laptop almost made me immobile). In fact, my laptop is far more "mobile" than my iPad, which rarely leaves the living room. I use my laptop on the plane, my iPad from the couch, and my phone from the street corner. Of course, computing is far more mobile than a few years ago. I just don't think it's interesting to talk about, or to somewhat arbitrarily tag some devices as mobile and others not. (I would argue that the iPad is closer to a laptop than a traditional "mobile" device, yet others call it "mobile", presumably because it looks like a bigger, fatter version of a familiar mobile device)

I'm sure that by now, you completely agree with my argument that "mobility" (as a label) isn't as interesting as it used to be. If not, let me give another example. At the moment, I love using the Starbucks iPhone app that lets me pay by holding my phone in front of the scanner. It makes me smile every time (perhaps as a Pavlovian response to impending caffeine). The fact that it's a "mobile" app doesn't thrill me - my wallet and credit cards have been "mobile" for as long as I can remember. What does thrill me is the experience of scanning the phone rather than watch the barista repeatedly swipe the battered magnetic strip on a sheet of plastic. I like getting rewards and other incentives. In short, the experience has improved. Or, more precisely, my experience has improved.

The fact that I have an internet connection in my pocket, that it easy to use, highly personalized, and readily available is a product of "mobility", but we need to rethink how we talk about it. The advent of apps that deliver gaming mechanisms like badges or other incentives, or apps that tie into my social network, is what we should be focusing on. My experience is what matters, whether it's the experience afforded by mobility, usability, community, affinity, or any words ending with ITY. "Mobility" is a piece of the experience puzzle, but it's only one piece.

The highly personal experience of the personal computer has advanced to the point where we have dropped "personal" from the conversation. It's time we do the same for "mobile", retiring it to a life of bingo and early dinners, while we talk about how to enrich the experiences of customers using new types of contextual information, social connections, rich UIs, incentives, and more. I have points of view on all these facets of experience, but I have little to say about "mobility".

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