It’s the Convenience, Stupid!

As I type this blog entry into my iPad I’ve begun to think about mobile devices, from smart phones to tablets to laptops and why they are so much more popular now than desktop computers despite the fact that they are almost universally less powerful, slower, and have fewer features and capabilities. Lower prices certainly have something to do with it, but I think that’s only part of the picture.

Convenience of Mobility

Ask yourself this: when you are having an argument about the final score of Super Bowl XXX (DAL: 27, PIT: 17) are you more likely to:

  1. walk into your office
  2. sit down at your desk
  3. turn on your PC
  4. open a browser
  5. navigate to the Wikipedia article

Or just: use the Wikipedia app on your smart phone, which is already turned on, connected to the Internet, and resting in your front pocket?

The smaller and more convenient the device, the more likely it is to be on hand when it is needed. Most consumers are willing to give up on the bells and whistles of Flash-based websites for the “right here, right now” ability of mobile browsers.

Where Mobility (Alone) Fails

I didn’t get very far into writing this post on my iPad. I gave up several paragraphs ago. Even at it comparably large screen size (for a mobile device) the iPad is frustrating to use as a device for creation rather than consumption. Even many types of netbooks and smaller laptops become difficult to use for extended periods of time, let alone the comparably tiny screens of a smart phone. When it comes time to do any real data entry, the convenience of having a mobile device at hand is not enough to overcome the barriers that even the best of the current devices present.

Try a slightly different scenario: You are planning to update the article for Wikipedia on Super Bowl XXX with new images, links, and an entirely new section on the Cowboy’s three interceptions in the game. Are you more likely to:

  1. Spending several hour hunched over your smart phone trying to type more than five words a minute
  2. Stop your writing process every few minutes to try to navigate to the needed reference links hoping your smart-phone will let you copy the URLs out of the site’s address
  3. Produce an unedited document without a spell checker or attached images

Or: spend 20 minutes writing and editing the changes on your desktop computer using a word processor?

For data entry, right now, there’s nothing better on the planet than a full size keyboard and mouse. This is why they have been a staple of desktop systems for nearly 30 years.

Touch screen devices and multi-touch gestures are useful in many respects, but they have still not caught up to the simplicity, precision, and speed of the modern mouse. Tiny qwerty keyboards are improving, but still have problems with finger spacing and often rely on temperamental auto-correction algorithms. In addition, on-screen keyboards provide no tactile feedback to the user, increasing the odds of typos. The screen itself becomes a hindrance in these situations with the keyboard taking up as much as half the screen real estate making it aggravating to navigate around a large form or document. Finally, the screens themselves are at issue. Most mobile devices have enormous difficulty with fingerprints on the glass and reflect enough glare in natural light to make them virtual unusable outdoors during the day.

Where Mobility Needs to Go

The next big phase in mobile devices will require a completely new method for data entry. Voice to text is one possibility, but beside the needed improvements in translating text, mobile devices will need improvements in microphone and noise cancellation technologies. Other suggestions have included eye-movement technology based off of accessibility tools used by the physically disabled or a revival of classic handwriting conversion tools.

Personally, I’m not sure that I’ll see the necessary leap in technology in my lifetime. Most consumers are happy with their mobile devices built for consumption and content creators would probably be slow to migrate away from their desktop machines even if the tools were available on another platform. Trends in the industry are moving away from flexible and visionary mobile content creation and more toward regimented and simple devices built almost exclusively for consumption.

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