Almost two years ago the late lamented Steve Jobs declared that we had entered the post-PC era. Maybe he was a little late to the party. The post-PC era was heralded when mobile phone sales by unit began to outnumber PC sales buy unit and that was over ten years ago. Its arrival was confirmed at about the same time as the Steve Jobs announcement, because that was about the time that smart phones began to outsell PCs. Even so, the post-PC era won’t finally arrive until the tablets like the iPad and the Kindle have kicked laptops into the corner – and that’s happening right now.
But let’s not forget that the tablet is still in its “first generation.” The device is established, it is proving popular enough to command an exploding sales curve and you now see tablets everywhere you go. The second generation tablet will arrive as the technology matures, both in terms of its capabilities and the kind of applications that dominate its usage. Much has yet to happen. So here are ten capabilities that, I believe, will define mobile computing.
- Mobile Computing and Cloud Computing. ….fly together like birds of a feather. You need to have mobile applications and mobile data supported by a common accessible 24/7 service. That means the cloud itself or, in some situations perhaps, corporate computing resources behaving like the cloud.
- The User Interface. Ultimately this is destined to be a combination of voice and gesture. Right now, of course, a keyboard is necessary for most kinds of data entry, but in time this will fade away. Voice is still very primitive despite the advent of the much loved Siri. And at the moment you need a tablet and a smart phone together, but in time it will only need to be a tablet and an ear piece.
- Communications. Mobile computing is about communications, in a big way. The defining fact is that you are (or should be) exactly where your mobile device is. This means that if someone needs to get to you quickly, getting to your mobile device is the best strategy – and that in turn means that any unified communications strategy should have the mobile device as its primary deliver point.
- Consumer Applications. The primary consumer applications of the tablet (so far) turn out to be about information presentation. It plays music, plays video, displays photos (your whole portfolio if you happen to be a photographer), displays books and newspaper stories. It’s good for surfing the net and its good for games which have relatively simple interfaces – which is why Angry Birds has turned out to be a killer app.
- Corporate Business Applications. The primary business applications are for anyone who is on the move, from traveling sales reps to people in meetings. This is primarily about information display, including BI in all its forms. So it includes patient records including MRI scans and X-rays in hospitals, maps and handbooks for repairmen, picking lists in warehouses and so on.
- Physical Context. The mobile device destroys the PC (and the laptop too) as soon as you consider physical context. This is partly due to form factor and, to a lesser extent, battery life. A tablet or smart phone can go where a laptop cannot go. A tablet is no heavier than a book and can be used as a book – some people have velcro on their kitchen wall and use velcro to hold an iPad in position so they can read recipe applications while cooking. It sits on your knee as a television for watching Netflix or YouTube. It’s a games machine for long journeys, in a car, on a bus or on an airplane.
- Geographical Context. The device can know where it is and thus can bring relevant data to and for your geographical location, allowing you to locate everything from the nearest restaurant to the nearest ATM. This application area has already blossomed out into augmented reality, where an image can be overlaid with information that guides you to, for example, to the right entrance to a building. The device guides you to where you want to go or finds things for you.
- Credentials. If you think about it just about everything in your wallet or purse is a mobile application, from membership cards and identity cards through to credit cards. In particular the payment transaction, which nowadays is usually executed via a debit card or credit card, will soon migrate onto mobile devices – and the plastic card will gradually vanish.
- Access. Just as your wallet is likely to disappear, so are your keys: car keys, house keys, office keys etc. The mobile device, if properly programmed, becomes a security device that can identify who you are and provide access when you have the associated permission.
- Data Capture/Recording Device. And finally, the mobile device is a recording device for sound, still pictures and video.
Think about these ten points and you realize that the PC surely is going to be superseded, except of course in specialized contexts like graphical design apps or software development. You also quickly realize that there’s an awful lot of system building required to properly exploit the capabilities of the mobile device.
One aspect of this is that is worth highlighting is that we have never built applications that care a lot about context. The assumption has always been “screen and key board” and, in one or two situations, such as call centers, “screen, keyboard and headset.” In other words the user is always assumed to be in a fairly simple static situation. With mobile, that is no longer the case.
The corporate user will want data, but not long reports. More likely they’ll want something entirely contextual, which will likely include geographical data, communications data, specific customer data, specific reference data, the ability to carry out specific transactions and so on. In other words they will want mash-ups – mash-ups both of data and applications. And there is no use in imagining that we, as developers, can build a suitable interface for the user. The user will need to be able to arrange their own interface according to context, because only the user will properly understand their context.
Supporting such capabilities will be a trick and a half, in respect of data integration, data transport, security, response times and so on. We never built systems in a way that allowed them to be easily mashed-up, and right now mobile devices don’t allow mashed-up interfaces to be easily constructed.
Nevertheless, all of that will happen. It may just take a while before the industry adjusts to what is required.