The blurring distinction between fixed and mobile

By February 2, 2010Mobile

There is a lot of talk about the potential of mobile at the moment.  Mary Meeker has perhaps been leading the charge with predictions that mobile will drive the next big computing cycle and will be 10x the size of the desktop internet wave of the 1990s. She is far from alone though, as many others have been chipping in with similar thoughts – e.g. Fred Wilson lists mobile (specifically Android) as one of his six areas of interest for 2010.

So I buy into all that.  The confluence of better devices, improved bandwidth and the opening up of the mobile value chain will make whole rafts of new things possible – e.g. the increased media consumption I wrote about yesterday.

But I am bothered by one thing, and that is the notion that the opportunity unfolding in ‘mobile’ is somehow different and separate from the broader web.

I posted some early thoughts on this subject when the slew of tablet releases at CES led me to conclude that the Full range of screen sizes renders web-mobile distinction obsolete. My points there were that you can by a device with any screen size from 2” up, netbooks and tablets are almost as portable as mobiles, and touchscreens and voice recognition are levelling up the playing field from a data input point of view.

I then tried to make this point on a panel at the Mobile Games Forum conference a couple of weeks back and got back a couple of angry and incredulous comments from the audience that prompted this post.

The first questioner cited the excellent work of Tomi Ahonen, who talks about how different mobile is from the internet.  To that I say different yes, but distinct, no.  There is really nothing you can do with a mobile that you can’t do with a small netbook with a spare battery to keep it on the whole time – so the differences are of degree rather than type.  The only exception to this is the notion that the mobile is a uniquely personal device, but I’m not sure I really buy into that.  I now carry two devices, an iPhone and a Blackberry and as we all head to a multi-device future I can’t see any one of those having a kind of magical primacy.

The second questioner was of the belief that app stores are a unique part of the mobile landscape and make it different from the wired web.  Nicholas Lovell, also on the panel, replied by making an analogy between the iPhone app store and AOL – which points out that in the early days of a new medium consumers need the comfort and ease of use of a walled garden, but that as trust and proficiency grow a wider range of services and content become more appealing.  So I expect app stores to be slowly displaced by an open web interface to mobile content over the next few years rendering this distinction obsolete.

Other differences between mobile and the fixed web are also on the decline:

  • Location – mobiles no longer have a monopoly on location as GeoIP technologies to locate laptops and other devices are on the rise
  • Voice – post Skype the mobile monopoly on voice is also gone
  • Connectivity – all good laptops have wifi and GSM radios now, as do all good smart phones

All of this is important to me as I wrestle with the question of where the opportunity lies in mobile.  I’m starting to think that at the level of apps and services pure play mobile opportunities are going to be the exception rather than the norm.  Most services will be accessed across a range of devices and platforms and the interesting question is where the locus of activity or critical enablement lies.

One example is services built on data capture which only becomes easy enough when you can use a mobile device, but which are then accessed via a richer web interface.  As part of my health obsession (which has been slowly growing for years and received a big boost recently when I read Transcend) I’ve recently begun using DailyBurn and Fitbit to capture the exercise I do and the food I eat and then calculate the energy I burn and consume.  I access both these services primarily via the web, but they each have a mobile component (iPhone app and wi-fi enabled accelerometer respectively) without which data capture is too much hassle.  In effect these are mobile enabled services.

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  • Good stuff, Nic – I agree completely.

    Smartphones and tablets will each run specific parts of an overall service, with each part optimized for the device's capabilities.

    To take a random example: a travelling salesman service. Mobile can offer point of contact data and location collection. A tablet could also be used to show product examples on the larger screen. Back in the office, a standard web service can be used to do the heavy lifting.

  • Nick

    I completely agree that the lines are blurring; 'mobile' looks increasingly like the Web, and devices bigger than phones are increasingly capable of locating themselves, connecting on the move, etc.

    The challenge for application builders (and their VCs) is to find and improve upon solutions that truly respond to my changing requirements as I interact in different locations or from different devices.

    My requirements of a site whilst stood on the street are probably very different to my requirements whilst sat in a hotel room, office or at home. I'll *probably* be using a mobile device on the street, but who's to say what device I'll choose to pick up in the home? Today, it could be either laptop or smartphone, although the 'right' answer is becoming less clear-cut. If an iPad-type device takes off and realises even half of its hype, I could quite honestly see *never* using my laptop in the home except whilst sat at my desk.

    An application shouldn't presume to dictate which device I'll use… but it should respond appropriately in order to deliver the most effective experience on each platform.

  • Hi Paul – the scenario you describe is a good ultimate goal, but for the short term I can see users deciding which device to use partly based on the app they want to use and how it works on different devices. E.g. I have started using the Amazon iPhone app at home because it is often faster than the laptop.

  • Hi Nick.

    Yup, we're certainly going to make those sorts of choices, but the criteria we use will be complex and (probably) personal. Amazon offers a common set of capabilities, and *you* make decisions about how best to interact with them. Every business or technical decision Amazon makes to limit functionality on one of its channels (the iPhone app, the on-Kindle store, the website, whatever) runs the risk of clashing with your personal habits and requirements.

    As mobile devices become increasingly smart and connected, we really do move an awful lot closer to a paradigm in which the device is simply a differently-sized window onto the service with which we want to interact.

    Microsoft is actually pretty close to it with their talk of three screens and the Cloud. The bit they get wrong is the assumption that WINDOWS is the glue. It's not. The Web is.

  • dharmeshmistry

    We must remember since the launch of WAP in the UK in 1999, one analyst or another has forecast “the year of the mobile” for the last ten years ;o)
    I agree with you the lines blur, but I would go further and say in the end everything becomes a PC only the screen size and input device will vary. We have to think that we will use technology every: Behind a desk (PC), on the move (In-car, in-Flight…), mobile (smartphone, netbook, ebook, laptop…) and even at a coffee table (MS Surface table).
    The constant will be web access and apps (in the cloud or loacl) and the variables with be screen and input means. Longer term it might be that as technology proliferates, someone will say, why do we need a PC everywhere, why can't I have a small unit that contains my processor, memory and links wirelessly to my chosen screen/input means….

  • dharmeshmistry
    Some notes on “Multiple Access Devices”

    See example of online voting across devices… 1999 ;o)

  • Hi Dharmesh – I agree with all of that. In fact it could well go even
    further, and all we will have to carry is a method of authentication.

    From an investment perspective of course we have to take a view on
    the timing of these developments.

  • dharmeshmistry

    On authentication, we almost at nirvana for 3 factor authentication: Something you know (password), Something you have (chip card / token) and really need people to feel comfortable with some biometric information to complete Something you are (Iris, fingerprint, …)

    This is the golden question when to make an investment ;o) Not only from a private equity perspective but from a “technology aggressive” end user one.

    On mobile we're seeing initial R&D spend, sometimes coming out of Marketing even for things like iPhones apps. No-one I have met from Tier 1 FS can claim short ROI benefits. Although solutions like could create game-changers because this is the big investment challenge from an end user perspective on mobile: how do I reach the widest mobile audience without having to write 5 versions of my app.

  • Notions of early adopters and chasms spring to mind 🙂

    Thanks for the links

  • dharmeshmistry

    What are the three screens MS talks about?

  • Phone, PC, TV.

    See, for example,


    sent from my iPhone