Why mobile is more interesting than desktop

When I say mobile I’m really talking about post-PC devices in general, but that term sounds too pretentious to put in a title. The category of post-PC is extremely broad, for this blog I’m really focusing on mobile and tablet and the landscape today rather than making wild predictions into the future.
Obviously an important reason to be paying attention to post-PC devices would be if they were prevalent among users and their numbers and usage growing. This is clearly something that is happening, and has been a trend since mobile phones became mainstream about 10 or so years ago. Although it’s only recently, since the iPhone, that handsets have become connected to the internet in a user friendly way which in part is causing a step change in their usage. Data from the mobile industry is produced daily (Luke Wrobleski aggregates some of the highlights every week here) but I think in terms of device sales the statistic that smartphone and tablets combined now outsell desktop and notebooks combined
and that in terms of usage the fact that sites such as Facebook and Twitter now get 33% and 55% of their traffic from mobile (source: slides 7 and 18) with those numbers growing strongly, illustrate the importance of post-PC devices.
Technical advances
Mobiles are not only growing in popularity but technically they are improving rapidly and much more quickly than desktops; think high resolution, multi-touch displays, voice activation, ambient light sensors, some OS features are leading the way for desktop OS’s, such as the app store and others that are really only made possible by the portable nature of the device – a gyroscope, accelerometer, GPS, camera, digital compass. What makes this especially interesting is that all these advances are becoming available to significant numbers of people and far more quickly than if they were on desktop PCs. Although the very latest smart phones can be expensive, the iPhone starts at £499, the payment model (although it varies between countries) means the cost is often subsidised and spread out so that it is more affordable and accessible than buying a new computer. This cycle and the significant advances made in the technology mean that people upgrade their mobile devices far quicker than they do their desktops or laptops.
Control and comfort
Form factor
Currently the way you interact with a computer is that you sit in front of the monitor with a keyboard which are static so you have sit in a relatively fixed position. You have to conform to the position of the computer, not the other way around. There is some increased flexibility with a laptop because you can sit in bed or on the sofa with it and move it around with you to a wider variety of locations or positions. But even this isn’t ideal – laptops, including net or ultra books are pretty heavy, and because of their size, shape and keyboard you can’t hold them with one hand and move around with them too easily. The iPad however weighs 601g, which means it’s 4.5x lighter than a laptop and about 2x lighter than even a netbook. Of course phones are even lighter and more portable. Tablets and phones are clearly more comfortable to use, especially for long periods of time and the comfort gained from the control the user has over position and location of use should not be underestimated. A sense of control is a significant psychological factor that most commentators in the media fail to report on when talking about the success of these products, instead focussing on visual appeal or feature list.
The other factor which I think will makes touch devices special products are their direct manipulation interaction methods. They are controlled with your finger, there is no intermediary between your action and the response on the screen, no keyboard, mouse or stylus. They’re responsive, accurate and, because they use capacitive rather than resistive screens, that don’t require any pressure. This is one of the reasons for the success of touch screens, this direct manipulation and the corresponding fast system response gives the user a real sense of control which is not to be underestimated for a positive user experience.
This perception of user control and convenience both in the micro-interaction on the screen and the macro-interaction with the position and location of use has contributed to the success of these devices in integrating with peoples daily lives. The phone in particular affords an intimate experience and it is really the only private computer people use and typically the only one people have with them at all times. When I worked at American Express there was this statistic that was often quoted that it takes the average person about 10 hours before they notice they’ve lost their wallet compared to about 5 minutes for their phone. Given these factors it’s not surprising that the phone and to a lesser, but increasing extent tablets, have for many people replaced the following:
Camera (the iPhone is the most popular camera on Flickr)
Music player
Wrist watch
Dictation recorder
Portable gaming device
Alarm clock
Address book
And on the horizon, wallets, keys, PCs, bar code scanners, and who knows what else…
So it is the large sales numbers, high usage, usage in a variety of settings, novel interaction methods (and the opportunity to help define interaction and design standards) and cutting edge software and hardware which sets mobiles and tablets apart from desktops and means they are more interesting products to work with as a UX designer.