Mobile Only: Week 45
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.
Much of the mobile device news from the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the introduction of devices with a healthy screen size; the happy eaters of the mobile world, if you will. Huawei announced the massive 6.1-inch Ascend Mate; Sony unveiled the 5-inch, 1080p Xperia Z; and ZTE went tall and skinny when it revealed the world’s thinnest 5-inch phone, the Grand S, into the mix. These devices follow in the footsteps of the wildly popular Samsung Galaxy Note line of phones.
Phablets are large and in charge, so much so that 2013 has been dubbed the year of not the phone, nor the tablet, but the year of the “phablet”. Yet, “Not so fast,” says Bonnie Cha of All Things Digital. Cha argues that phablets look “like something that belongs in a Saturday Night Live skit. A phone the size of steno notebook that…looks ridiculous when used to make calls or jammed into a pants pocket.” Cha is not alone. I’ve had plenty of people ask me how I put the phone in my pocket or if I feel self-conscious when I make a call. So which is it? Are phablets the greatest thing since sliced bread or the most redonkulous device we’ve ever been duped to put up to our heads? The issue isn’t the device; the issue is our long-standing concept of a phone.
The telephone, which brought communication to a global scale in the early 20th century, still holds our imagination to that era. It was a fixed device that hung on the wall like a stuffed trophy and performed a single, albeit valuable, function. There is no one alive today who has lived without the concept of a phone. However, communications technology has moved on. We can now represent sound digitally and in tiny packets. We can transmit it to outer space and back again at the speed of light. We can do so in our homes, in our car, and from the tops of mountains. But for whatever reason, many still imagine the phone as a singular-function device. From an innovation perspective we’d all be better off if “phone” was collectively wiped from our memory.
When I was a kid, the garbage was the place you put everything you didn’t want. Every Friday I dragged three or four barrels out to the side of the road for pickup. But over the years the concept of “garbage” has evolved significantly. Today we separate recyclables, compost, yard waste, and trash. It is the new norm. We separate them so much that what used to be the all-encompassing “garbage” is now just a tiny box with hardly anything in it. If trash can evolve, so can the phone.
The limitation and eventual detriment of clinging to past notions will only play out more in the future as computing and communication devices continue to evolve in form—think Google Glass or other kinds of wearable technology. We are far too bound by the past and are not thinking of the possible. Will all these device form factors work? No, some will be grand flops. Not every form factor will suit everyone’s needs. But we need to be open to change in our way of thinking.
Cha is correct; a phablet is not for everyone. Some people like to put devices, keys, wallets, and so on in their pockets. Yet there are many who don’t. Screen real estate is more valuable to them than pockets, perception, or one-handed operation. Most everyone I’ve spoken to who owns a phablet loves the capability it provides. There are many people who expect to do more with their devices, be it consumption or creation, so they are constantly carrying them around. They expect an experience beyond “phone.” Communication is just one aspect in the assessment of device capabilities.
The more we struggle to fully let go of our 20th-century concepts of phone (and computer), the more innovation will suffer. Instead of trying to cram technology into the boxes of the past, we need to look at what we want and could accomplish functionally with a fresh re-imagination. We need to separate functional need from traditional form if we hope to embrace innovation. Our idols and ideas imprison our imagination. We must stop clinging to self-limiting concepts of communication and computing and dream big for the future.
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 http://remotelymobileblog.com