Why 'Mobile' Is Dead

Thursday Nov 4th 2010 by Mike Elgan
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently claimed that the “iPad isn’t mobile.” Welcome to the new world of “everything is mobile.”

"The iPad isn't mobile."

That pronouncement came this week from the world's youngest billionaire and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg.

In talking about new Facebook "mobile" applications, he was trying to make a distinction between cell phones and touch tablets from a usage point of view.

The audience laughed when he said it, because people instinctively know that the iPad, of course, is a mobile device. There were people in the audience taking notes on them, for example. We iPad business travelers often take them on trips instead of laptops.

Some of us carry them everywhere. It gets 12 hours of battery life. Of course it's mobile!

In reality, Zuck is trying to draw a distinction that no longer exists. The "mobile" idea is dead. Here's why.

Why We Use "Mobile"

During any product bifurcation, when one product category forks into two, an adjective emerges to describe the new product type. For example, when radios that used transistors emerged in the 1950s, we started to affix the word "transistor" to radio to distinguish "transistor radios" from regular radios, which were vacuum tube-based radios.

Around the same time, when color TVs came on the market, TV manufacturers, TV studios and the general public added the word "color" to TV to differentiate from mainstream black-and-white sets.

In the early 1990s, when most PCs had no CD player and could only make beep and buzz noises, a new type of PC that offered massive-storage media (CDs) and rich sound and video was called a "multimedia PC" to set these new computers apart from the older kind.

Likewise, the word "mobile" cropped up years ago to describe a new kind of computer, and also a new kind of telephone. New technologies for better batteries, component miniaturization and wireless data communication enabled these new, moveable or "mobile" devices. The term mobile served to distinguish them from the regular or mainstream PCs and phones, which couldn't easily be moved or used on the go.

With new categories of devices springing up all the time, words like "portable," "ultra-mobile," "ultra-portable" and so on came into vogue, as companies tried to differentiate usage models. But the "mobile" adjective has long served as the adjective that separates the old kind from the new.

Why "Mobile" is Obsolete

When desktop PCs were mainstream, laptops or notebooks were called "mobile" or "portable." But nowadays, these "mobile" computers are the mainstream.

The people who buy and use them may or may not use them as portable devices. Many of them just sit on a desk at home or work and function just like desktop PCs.

Mobile devices used to be the wireless ones, but now wireless networking has replaced Ethernet networking in homes and in many offices as the mainstream form of communication, even for "desktop PC" hardware and for laptops that never leave the desktop.

The software that runs on laptops is identical nowadays to the software that runs on desktop PCs. So there is very little software now that's "mobile software."

Further, many PC users -- mobile and otherwise -- use cloud-based software for e-mail, backup and many other uses. If you use Gmail, for example, at home on your desktop PC, and also on the airport and hotel PC while traveling on business, is that "mobile computing"?

That same Gmail account is accessible from your phone, tablet and every other device you have for general computing. Does this fact make Gmail and other cloud-based apps "mobile"?

Years ago, those of us in the content-creation business had to offer "regular" web sites, plus "mobile" web sites for cell phones. Some services still do this, but enable the "desktop" version from mobile devices as an option. As even the smallest pocketsize devices become more powerful and high-resolution than desktop PCs of 15 years ago, special versions are becoming increasingly unnecessary.

The newest online services use technologies previously used exclusively for "mobile" devices. For example, Twitter uses your location. It doesn't care whether you're on a desktop PC, a laptop or whatever, the location feature indicates the mobility of the user, not the device.

On the phone front, the usage distinction between mobile and landline phones is gone. One-quarter of all homes in America now have no landline phone. And even many that do have such phones, they're used only for telemarketing, DSL connectivity or some other unimportant use. From a usage model, people use "mobile" phones both as mobile phones, and also just as they did landline phones.

And finally, while rich people in rich countries often have the luxury of multiple devices -- desktop or laptop computers at home and work, iPads, smart phones and so on -- millions of people in the third world can afford just one computing device -- which tends to be a smart phone. To many third-world entrepreneurs, a smart phone isn't a phone; it's their company's data center.

Almost Nothing Isn't Mobile

OK, what's the point of all this? The point is that mobile is so mainstream now that we don't need the word anymore. Almost nothing is built these days for non-mobile usage. It's no longer a useful way to differentiate software, web sites, connectivity or even primary usage patterns.

Just like we dropped the word "transistor" when most radios had transistors, dropped the word "color" when most TVs had color and dropped the word "multimedia" when most PCs had multimedia, it's time to drop the word "mobile" because most computers, telephones and software are mobile.

If you still don't believe me, try to explain the purpose and function of a non-mobile computer or a non-mobile phone to a 20-year-old. For people who grew up with mobile tech, there is no other kind. Not really.

While the word "mobile" may still have some usefulness for Silicon Valley billionaires who need to offer subtly different versions of their apps for various devices, "mobile" is no longer needed for everyday speech to differentiate between movable tech, which is everything nowadays, and non-mobile, which practically doesn't exist anymore.

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