Janne Jalkanen pointed out something that I regrettably failed to ever mention: what really makes a cell phone different from a laptop with WiFi? Or, as I see it, what’s the big deal with this mobile lifestyle thing I keep harping about?
Janne and I spoke about it and he helped me solidify what the difference is between true mobility (the mobile lifestyle) and just being mobile. Janne had discussed it with others and I’ve incorporated some comments from Series 60 guy Antti Vaha-Sipila. What I write below, then, is not just mine, but synthesized from conversations with Janne, Antti, and others.
I definitely see that a pocketable, networked, one-hand operated device is the core of the mobile lifestyle. A laptop can never be a true part of one’s mobile lifestyle.
Snap question: Which do you carry around more often: your phone or your laptop?
I think you would see that your mobile phone ends up in more places than your laptop – the supermarket, the bathroom, the movie theatre, the car (even while you drive), the baseball game. What’s more, the mobile also ends up beside you wherever you use your laptop – the park bench, the café, the office, the den.*
Therefore, the mobile is always with you in a way no other device is. In that way, it is a personal device, a part of you, all the time, and is easily integrated into your lifestyle, the flow of your life.
And here’s, I think, a key concept (from Janne) that snapped into place the whole thought: the phone sits in the background, waiting until you need it. Then – a call comes in, an item comes into view that is great for a video or photo, a calendar reminder goes off – and you make the choice to bring it into the foreground.
Successful mobile devices are ones that are background devices that don’t force themselves into the foreground. Background activities can be listening to music, waiting for appointment reminders, carrying snippets of actionable data (contact info, calendar, some notes, a to-do list), and waiting for a call or SMS.
Things like video, chat, playing games, and browsing the Web are full-time foreground activities, and, while they can be done while away from the desk, aren’t really things I consider doable while walking or driving, or even for small snippets of time.
True, many of the background activities have actionable, arguably, foreground activities – reading the reminder, taking a call, responding to an SMS. Yet, I think most are point activities that end rapidly, or, in the case of a call, can be done while carrying out other types of activities.
A laptop is geared for foreground activities. You have to set it up somewhere to open it, and you need both hands and both eyes to fully engage in it. Really, you don’t see many folks walking down the street with a laptop, opening it up every now and then to listen to music, check email or call someone on the same time scale and flexibility of a mobile device.
So, in short, a laptop with a fixed or wireless connection will always be a foreground device that requires attention and engagement. A mobile device is a background device that makes it easy to pop into the foreground for a brief moment before simply falling into the background once more.
Therefore, to create an app that is truly geared for the mobile lifestyle, you need to take advantage of the background status of the mobile device and not bring it too far or often into the foreground.
*I also believe that it’s horses for courses – use the right device for the job. A mobile DVD player is great in the car with kids. Play Station Portable is great for portable foreground playing. The laptop with WiFi is great for Web browsing at the café.