Musings on mobile, clouds and the post-PC world – design for the task

By June 14, 2011Uncategorized

Today I attended a breakfast meeting with Werner Vogels CTO of Amazon.com and am writing this post during the lunch break at the Money in Mobile conference here in London.  Maybe unsurprisingly the conversation at both events has revolved around mobile and cloud services.

I’ve written about Spotify and other cloud services enough that regular readers won’t be surprised when I write that I think that all services are headed to the cloud – access and collaboration are simply much much more convenient that way.  If my music is available via the cloud then I don’t have to worry about carrying any specific device with me, ditto if I use Evernote or Dropbox for file management etc., and I think that convenience trumps everything other than having the right device on hand to complete the tasks you want to do.  For example – Evernote is fantastic for reading notes on my iPhone and Blackberry, but it isn’t much good for creating them, at least not for long notes.  For that I want a task suitable device which has a bigger screen and probably a keyboard, and hence I carry my laptop around with me to take meeting notes even though it is a bit of a pain to lug around.

Ross Sleight of mobile marketing agency Somo talked a lot about this notion of ‘task suitability’ on a panel at the conference today as part of a discussion about whether we are heading for a post-PC world as tablets take over.  His belief is that tablets are suited for many tasks, particularly consuming media, but not so good for others, particularly creating media and using heavy duty applications (e.g. finance and HR).

That matches with my device use.  The main reason I carry a laptop around rather than my iPad is so that I can write blog posts and quickly process emails.  The iPad isn’t task suitable for those activities – it is doable, but too slow and painful.  (One of the reasons I recently bought an ASUS Android tablet with a detachable keyboard is to get the best of both worlds.)

The main reason that all this is interesting for me is in helping startups to figure out what devices and platforms they should develop for.  Thanks to Ross I now have a simpler answer – they should look at the way the service is (or will be) used and design for the devices and platforms that have the closest match.  If that is a music service then listening is the main use case and that should probably happen on mobile, maybe with periodic activity on the web to update settings and playlists, if it is video editing then a big screen and a keyboard will be key and the focus should be the computer and this will also be the case for most work oriented services. 

In the case where there is an existing web service considering whether to develop for mobile the answer is probably to look at which pieces of the service have value and could transport to mobile easily – Facebook do a good job of this, offering a cut down experience of the overall site focused on the most popular use cases.  The flip side of this argument is that developing for mobile just to have a mobile app probably doesn’t make sense and moving the whole service to mobile is equally unlikely to be the right answer.  Having a good answer as to why different parts of the app were selected to go on mobile is a good sign.

This has been a future gazing post and there are technology limitations to be overcome before cloud and mobile reach their potential and some of the concepts discussed here aren’t a reality just yet.  It won’t be long though.

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  • You took a more practical takeaway from that panel than I did 🙂

    I’m thinking about books at the mmoment. What is the different use case for a book on a tablet or a mobile? At the moment, mobile/tablets are generally about portability, which books already have. Is it the cloud (is that enough)? Any thoughts gratefully received.

  • I like the cloud for books because I can read on my Kindle when I have it with me and my iPhone to fill time when I’ve left the Kindle at home.

    Reading a book on the iPhone isn’t a bad experience at all, but the Kindle is much better, and even an iPad is better than an iPhone.

    I also like being able to leave notes electronically and refer back to them at will without having to worry about where the book is stored, or who I lent it to.

  • Thanks Nic – “task suitability” is an issue we are constantly exploring at Somo as we firmly believe that porting fixed line web PC experiences and functionality to phones or tablets is not taking advantage of the platform potential or their current use cases by customers. You are spot on above – when thinking mobile/tablet one should always start from the position of how do I enhance my customer’s experience using this platform, not what can I port over from our current digital experience as the contexts of usage are so different (I always like Google’s (overly simplistic) contexts of “bored now, repetitive now, urgent now” (http://www.informationweek.com/blog/main/archives/2007/04/google_lays_out.html) for phones as a starting place for exploration of how mobile services can help customers – although tablets are generating a number of different contexts of which “consume/interact now” seems to be the lead usage. I still think Net a Porters iPad app (http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/net-a-porter-magazine/id380535940?mt=8) is one of the best examples of envisioning ecommerce and content for a Tablet platform.

    WRT books Nicholas – I had a lot of experience with publishing on mobile in a company called Missing Ink Studios where we developed apps for Macmillan, Egmont etc.  In short, I think that porting ebooks to mobile or tablet devices is purely a distribution exercise for publishers – namely that users will find a device platform where they are happy to consume existing texts (if you are anything like me I have 3 or 4 books on the go at once and thus having them in digital format is a boon due to weight to carry around – if I am a light book/1 book on go at time reader, digital format is not such a pod.)  

    The genius of kindle is not just the task specific nature of their hardware (e ink being far better for reading imho to ipad screens) but the fact that where-ever I am on any device I can access my books (so bored now at station waiting for delayed train means I can pick up a book i was reading on another device on my iPhone).  Thus as Nic points out the cloud here really benefits through providing accessibility to content. 

    Ultimately though the key issue publishers have to explore (excepting price pressure for digital new gatekeepers, piracy and all the other issues digital opens up) is whether a simple port of paper content is making the most of the platform’s capabilities.  I’m now reading a lot of short stories on digital because they fit into my time span for commuting, rather than reading long form novels (and this was a dying format). My kids are interacting with books in a different way on tablet and phone as they explore richer experiences with audio and animation.  Faber’s the Wasteland App (http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/the-waste-land/id427434046?mt=8) reframes the epic poem with different views in video, notation, notes etc.  They are publishing for the platform not porting, and this is an area where innovation can be driven by authors and publishers alike, not to the detriment of traditional books but as a complementary, platform specific experience. Futurebook (http://www.futurebook.net/) from Bookseller is well worth a follow and read if you don’t already.

    In summary – contexts and usage cases are starting points for mobile and tablets which means porting existing assets/functionality is not the sole (or desired) solution for a mobile strategy – as an interim step fine for testing or enhancing distribution, but as an end goal no.

  • Thanks Ross – I hadn’t seen those Google mobile contexts before.