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What is Mobile?

Mobile Only: Week 35

Benjamin Robbins, an EMF member, is spending the next year working solely from a single mobile device. Each week he shares his thoughts and experience with us on what it means to be mobile-only.

I had several conversations this past week concerning the nature of mobility. Opinions were knowledgeable, engaging, and quite varied. Thoughts ranged from function, to device, to apps, to even carriers and connectivity. There were lots of great ideas as to the makeup of mobility. In the end it became a kind of ontological question about mobility—what purpose does it serve, and why does it even exist? In short—just what the heck is this mobile thing?

Devices seem to be at the root of mobility, but are they the prime mover? Does the size of the device and its form factor dictate all things mobile? Devices are certainly key to mobility and the form factor of a smartphone does indeed provide constraints. But mobility is more than just size. Tablets are just as big from a screen perspective as many laptops, yet they provide a very different experience. The smartphone size has been around for a long time, but the experience we have today on a device such as the iPhone is not the same as the past experience on Windows Mobile or BlackBerry.

Devices also provide lots of capabilities beyond the screen. GPS, WiFi, camera, microphone, Bluetooth, MHL, and so on; the list just continues to grow. These additional features allow us to sense, orient, and connect to other devices and services. But if they disappeared would you still be mobile? If you start adding to the device is it still mobile? You can get just about attachment to augment your device, from speakers, to keyboards, to boom microphones, to stands. Do these subsequent frankenphones still qualify as mobile?

Apps are an entirely different way of looking at mobility. It would seem logical to say that apps, since they provide the functionality, are what makes mobile. The media loves to use apps as some sort of relevant measuring stick of success. For example, this past week Google caught up to Apple and now has 700,000 apps in its app store. But can you actually derive any meaning from this number? How many of those 700,000 apps are just crapplications? McDonalds sells a lot of hamburgers, but that doesn’t mean they are any good. Applications have been around for many decades, but we certainly have not been mobile.

Connectivity is yet another core component of mobility. The thought that carriers are able to provide near-ubiquitous connectivity makes the actual verb of mobile possible. Can you imagine mobile evolving to where it is today without the carriers and being able to work on the go? But movement isn’t everything. You can get an aircard for your laptop and run about the city and still have a very PC experience. Connectivity says you are on the go, but doesn’t say how you got there. You can get to Tulsa in a Tesla. But you could also take a Ford; in either case you will have two very different experiences.

Mobility takes many parts to pull off. It takes apps, it takes devices, and it takes carriers. I think it is easy for us to get bogged down in a particular area of interest regarding mobility. We all have our angle. However, we can’t become myopically focused on the piece most interesting to us. To live and deliver the ‘best-of’ mobile experience, we have to hold all parts equally.

All the components of mobility need to work in concert to provide an experience. The experience is enabled when the parts, devices, sensors, peripherals, connectivity, and apps (logic) join forces. Mobility is very much like the formulaic ending to every episode of the popular children’s show Power Rangers. In each final battle, the Power Rangers join together to form the super machine that is able to defeat the giant mutant. Mobility, like the Power Rangers, should be the experience that joins together technology, form, and function to bring out the most efficient and productive way to defeat work.

Benjamin Robbins is co-founder and Principal at Palador, a firm that focuses on providing strategic guidance to enterprises in the areas of mobility, apps, and data. You can follow him on Twitter. Mr. Robbins resides in Seattle and blogs regularly at


  1. Posted November 2, 2012 at 13:19 | Permalink

    Benjamin, that’s why I am often accused of being an Apple fanboy. I’m not really… I just love an ecosystem that truly works well together.

    Like the synergy among OSX and iOS devices, a high quality mobility strategy moves in unison.

    You nailed it here, and it’s why I often harp on the role of security in mobility. Lock down the experience too much and the usability goes out the window. No matter how good the device, the operating system, the app, the data… if I can’t use it effectively together, I’m just going to find another way.

    - Walt

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  2. Posted November 2, 2012 at 17:11 | Permalink

    Agreed. I find the ability to synch all of my stuff and share messaging and services is critical. Apple has done that well, certainly (also accused of being an Apple fan”boy”). But there are also apps out there that allow you to link and share key information easily. I’m a fan of tools like Dropbox and 1Password for that reason. If apps pull together key elements of my working world well…and allow me to defeat work…they win. Typically that means they use connectivity, multiple devices, and an app to deliver me the information I need whenever I need it on whatever device I’m using at the time. That to me is true mobility.

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