Define “mobile”?

I must have been really bad in a previous life, because I find myself yet again in my career spending time staring at technology architecture models. If they in any way sound interesting, let me tell you quite strongly that you’re deluded.

However, there was one part of one of the diagrams I was pondering yesterday that was of curiosity. At the top, in a section labeled “Devices” there were two boxes: one named “Personal Computers” and another “Mobile”; both in turn contained two boxes: the former Windows and MacOS, the latter Smartphones and Tablets. Putting aside the obvious discrepancy that the sub-types in one box (operating systems) were different to those in the other (device form factors – can you tell I used to draw these things for a living?), I asked a bigger question. Why do we still have a distinction between PCs and Mobile?

The thing is it’s really difficult to define a difference.

It’s obviously not about being a phone any more. Nor can it be limited to whether things are with SIM card or not (many tablets are without, some PCs have them). It’s not a definition of portability, because laptops are, well, laptops. It’s not a definition of operating system because Windows 8 runs across both sides of the form factor (even more so with the launch of Windows 10, spanning PC through tablet through to phone). It’s not about whether you can make phone calls on it, especially with the era of Unified Communications and soft phones on PCs. It’s not about contracting, because although many personal and corporate devices are bought through a broader talk plan and data deal, it’s not the only way to contract to buy a device.

Yeah, but it’s semantics, innit? Why’s Matt worrying his little bald head about it? Everyone knows what the difference between a mobile and a PC device is, don’t they?

Well, quite obviously not these days. And these kind of structural groupings lead to problems further down the line. Let me give you a very specific example.

One of the UK’s major TV broadcasters had a distinction between mobile and PC that was obviously made some years ago. The distinction of that definition, that as we can see, is terribly difficult to articulate in today’s smart devices, high mobility world. But it becomes a bit of a monumental pain in the bottom if such a definition from a few years back has been written into significant parts of your intellectual property rights agreements. So, for example, say that Microsoft comes along with Windows 8 and starts encouraging people to write Apps for the new platform, it falls between your two definitions. From a rights perspective it ends up making building an App a very difficult task, not because of the technology, but because it’s not clear whether a Windows 8 app is a mobile thing or a PC thing.

I reckon within the next 36 months at most we’ll no longer talk about mobile in the way we have in the past. It will take a while for it to filter out of general usage, but from a technology perspective we should stop talking about it now, because it’s not helpful.

Talk about devices (laptops, desktops, tablets, smartphones, watches..), operating systems (Android, ChromeOS if you’re wacky, iOS, MacOS, Windows), services provided over those devices (traditional telephony, voice services, video services, data), delivery models (native applications versus browser applications versus virtualised instances) and network types consumed by those devices (wifi, 2/3/4/5G, wired Ethernet etc) for sure. But stop using the term “Mobile”, because it just doesn’t mean anything valuable any more.