The blurring distinction between fixed and mobile

By February 2, 2010 11 Comments

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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