Deconstructing the Mobile Web


A space for seeing the world in a different way

A column by Dirk Knemeyer
May 8, 2006

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the mobile Web is largely overplayed hype—the clumsy extrapolation of the behavior and use of a basic set of interfaces from one environment to another incompatible one. As a result of this broken mental model of mobile computing, we are not taking advantage of the real potential this technology offers.

The genesis of my thesis began innocently enough today, when I was reading Good Morning Silicon Valley and saw this quotation from Gartner analyst Daren Siddall:

“Most mobile users still see their mobile phones primarily as a communication device, although they're beginning to experiment with using their phones to access Internet content. It will take another step for most users to become comfortable with the idea of buying actual products using their phones.”—Daren Siddall

Siddall is identifying a relatively linear continuum of the evolution of mobile device adoption and use:

Communication Tool Web Interface Transactional Device

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His conception is pretty accurate. I also think it encapsulates why more mainstream use of data services on mobile devices is progressing slowly—for example, the adoption of mobile devices for things like making monetary transactions. The mediocrity of mobile devices as Web interfaces is artificially constraining a more complete lifestyle integration that would allow digital technology to logically replace physical infrastructure.

Mobile devices do not generally provide appropriate interfaces for accessing content on the Web. First, their resolution is incredibly low—a small fraction of that of desktop computers, notebook computers, or even Web-enabled television sets. These days, most people have access to such high-resolution devices during a majority of their waking hours—at least in the developed world. Why use low-fidelity mobile devices to traverse the Web when most of us who are even aware of the mobile Web already spend most of our days on computers? Wouldn’t we benefit more from spending our transitional time between terminals doing things like thinking, observing, reflecting, and communicating? Generally speaking, the only reason for needing to access the vast majority of available Web content from a mobile device is long-term inaccessibility to a more traditional computing device. The fundamental question we need to be asking is: What is the right tool for the right task?

Using the wrong device for a particular task results in poor usability. For example, most people still prefer to print out lengthy Web content to read on paper instead of on their often large computer screens, because reading on paper provides a better experience. In contrast, the low-fidelity nature of surfing the mobile Web prevents widespread adoption of the medium. Most people don’t want to struggle to digest content on baby-face screens when they can see Web pages in much higher resolutions on their home or office computers. However, since the initial rise of the Web in the 1990s established the evolutionary pattern of people adopting the Web for use as a communication and information tool prior to being comfortable trusting it as a transactional tool, the impotence of mobile devices for information delivery artificially constrains the adoption of other, much more optimal uses of mobile computing technology—for example, communicating personal information to other devices during transactions.

The mobile Web is great for communication. Text, voice, and email messaging are all very appropriate activities for a mobile device and have a high degree of usability on such devices. Indeed, mobile devices are actually more optimal for communication than desktop or laptop notebook computers are. In general, the fidelity that voice and text-based communication requires is quite low. Most important are time-based factors such as the immediacy of response and freedom of movement between places, which characterize mobile devices perfectly. The issue I have with the mobile Web is the notion that people would or should transfer their general Web interaction behaviors over to mobile devices. That simply is not a reasonable expectation—or really even possible given the limitations of the user experience within the current paradigm for mobile devices.

On the other hand, ubiquitous computing is ideally suited to replace interactions with physical media and embedded digital systems. Using a mobile device to make payments rather than using credit cards, ATM cards, or even hard currency is a natural. It would be far more convenient to use a mobile device for many other digital transactions, including, but not limited to, library cards, movie rental cards, frequent-purchase reward programs, grocery store ID cards, membership cards, gift cards, and many others. Business cards have been zapped between PDAs for years. At least for now, we would still need to carry identification cards that serve as our legal proof of identity, such as a driver’s license, passport, birth certificate, or social security card. But that need is less about the inability of mobile devices to securely serve this function and replace the physical media—the security technology exists—and more about the lack of appropriate input devices within the necessary government agencies. But in all of the other examples, the input devices are already in place and in use—often in the form of bar scanners. It would be a trivial process to shift from physical cards to digital validation, eliminating what are ultimately redundant physical boundaries. The issue is one of adoption.

Most people in the United States still think of their mobile devices as cell phones. But people are increasingly taking pictures with them. Many are text messaging. In a few cases—largely restricted to power business people, technology early adopters, and the young—they might even regularly surf the Web with them. But the gap between our current adoption and use of mobile devices and a potential cultural shift to largely the widespread use of digital identification and transaction is vast.

Make no mistake: these are not revolutionary or novel ideas. People have grokked this potential in mobile computing for a long time. That’s the reason why hardware companies are trying desperately to design a Holy Grail mobile device. There is a big, shining pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow. Microsoft, with their Origami device, is just the latest to deliver a big steaming pile of waste in the effort to get there. But progress is being made. Origami is getting closer to the sweet spot. Companies are filing interesting patents—ranging from innovative mobile interfaces from Apple® to direct mind-to-computer interfaces from Sony®—at a prodigious rate. This is well-traveled territory and as much about synthesizing the place-bound and mobile computing experiences as it is about just designing for mobility.

What I find interesting about this thesis is my identification of the bottleneck: an established behavior pattern that makes us expect people to first use mobile devices in a way that is analogous to place-bound Web experiences before they will accept or migrate into a more transactional, digital identification paradigm that is actually appropriate and even optimal for mobile computing. While this might be what is happening so far—and thus slowing evolution beyond that point—it does not necessarily need to be our mental model going forward or even the accepted evolutionary process for mobile technologies. Anticipation over the ROKR phone from Motorola®—which people expected, in some ways, to synthesize the iTunes® online buying-and-selling experience with the portable iPod® music storage and player, but did not actually realize that potential—shows that we can accelerate the evolutionary process, if not bypass it entirely.

The mobile user experience does not fit into the browser-like box within which people are conceiving its potential capabilities today. The sooner we conceive of mobile-computing paradigms along their own continuum—detached from the original evolution of the World Wide Web—the sooner we will enjoy the potential of a mobile-computing world. 

Managing Director, SciStories LLC

Co-owner of Genius Games LLC

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Dirk KnemeyerAs a social futurist, Dirk envisions solutions to system-level problems at the intersection of humanity, technology, and society. He is currently the managing director of SciStories LLC, a design agency working with biotech startups and research scientists. In addition to leading SciStories, Dirk is a co-owner of Genius Games LLC, a publisher of science and history games. He also cohosts and produces Creative Next, a podcast and research project exploring the future of creative work. Dirk has been a design entrepreneur for over 15 years, has raised institutional venture funding, and has enjoyed two successful exits. He earned a Master of Arts from the prestigious Popular Culture program at Bowling Green.  Read More

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