Mobile Everything

Posted by on May 12, 2010 at 3:38 pm.

It isn’t much of a stretch to say that the iPhone set into motion a significant transformation when it was launched, changing the phone from a device used to make calls and take pictures to an entirely new computing platform.  While the current impacts have largely been around how people interact with information online, the coming years will show that the more lasting impact will come because it transforms how we interact with the world itself, and that this change will be the defining technological trend of the coming decade (a view which is certainly shared by people who spend far more time looking at these things that I).

Our current mode of interacting with information online is principally session-based:  we sit down at a computer and interact for a time (though sometimes a very long time), and then stop, and leave the online world to rejoin the physical world (or as the collegiate taunt went, “Log off the computer, log onto life!”) So when those times come that I’m away from my computer but think “I should look that up online”, the transaction barriers to actually going online (walking to my computer, finding my laptop, waiting for everything to come out of sleep or power on) often leave me thinking “I’ll do that later.” Usually I don’t, though, because what I was interested in was only relevant at that moment, or I’ve just forgotten the task.

With a smartphone or other device which is really more personal (like the iPad), we usually have it on (or very near) to us, it takes very little time to initiate your online engagement, and in many ways, is much easier to disengage from as well.  The interactions are no longer in a session, but instantaneous and frequently transactional:  we do a little task and then stop.  I keep my grocery list on my Android phone, and now when the kids complain that we are out of string cheese, I quickly add it to my list.  I don’t have to hunt for a scrap of paper which I’m likely to loose, or stand in the store remembering only that there was a request for “something.”

Even more unusual, smartphones, now have access to information which is both contextual and personal to you.  The applications we use on our computers derive input almost exclusively from the keyboard and mouse, and maybe a web camera or microphone.  Our new devices gather an entirely new range of inputs—location, orientation, acceleration, ambient light, magnetic field, temperature, proximity—all of which are available for use by different applications, in addition to the standard inputs of text, voice, and video.  The use of just the location sensor has created a huge number of new applications and interactions, many of which are either completely nonsensical on a desktop computer (such as Foursquare and other location check-in services) or become far more valuable on a mobile (like the Zillow application to see real estate for sale around you).  Even more functionality will come with the addition of RFID readers to mobile phones, which could allow everything from mobile credit-card payments, building access, and the ability for your house to know you are home and turn up the heat. Other innovations add their own device or sensor to the phone,  like a credit card reader and application that allows anyone get paid from a credit card (friends short on cash at the pizza place?   No problem, you can take credit even if the pizza place doesn’t!).

Because we’ve never had this type of ubiquitous device with a massive stream of personal data (created, discovered, and sensed) flowing in (and out), much of the innovation will be things we can barely even conceive of now, because there exists no analogue. This is why the impact of mobile computing goes far beyond just access to information and how we go online, and starts to thread through our “real” lives in very significant ways.  Though we will need to think about the inevitable tradeoffs which result (privacy and security being the elephant in the room—but that’s a vortex of discussion to descend into later), it is clear that these little devices are going to impact our lives in ways just as significant as the personal computer and the internet have in the preceding few decades.