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To understand mobility, think ubiquity

Ubiquity Signage

The “mobile shift” is the most profound and wrenching technological transformation since the advent of the personal computer (at least). It is also one of the most widely misunderstood.

Fundamentally, the mobile shift is not about smart phones and tablets. It is not about iOS versus Android, the flailing of RIM, the prayers of Microsoft, or the second coming of Nokia. It is not about responsive design, native apps versus mobile web, or whether HTML5 is the last hope of humankind. It is not, quite, about what’s in your pocket. It’s not the death of the web, but it’s also not the emergence of just another channel among others.

Of course, the mobile shift is, in some very significant ways, about all of these things. But fundamentally and essentially, the mobile shift concerns something other than the magic of small devices, the methods for populating them with content, the fortunes of their vendors, and the creation of a new touchpoint where brands meet consumers.

We misapprehend the mobile shift when we think of mobile as a physical object and the shift as a zero-sum game from “fixed” desktop and laptop PCs to smart handhelds.

It is, rather, about the shift from scarce and restricted access to computing services to ubiquitous access. It is not about a type of computer but a mode of consumption. Not a different kind of thing but a different mode of being.

Mobility initiates ubiquity. This is the true import and impact of the mobile shift. Mobile is, no doubt, a channel. But it is not “just another channel,” because ubiquity imposes the responsibility to erase the distinctions between channels and modes of interaction.

The ever-insightful Thomas Baekdal has put it like this: Mobile means “that you free people from having to decide which device to use. If you sit in your office, mobile means using your laptop. If you sit at home, mobile means using whatever device happens to be within reach. If you are on the bus, mobile means using what is in your hand.” (And before long he could have said, “what is on your wrist, or in your glasses.”)

DCG’s latest Insight paper is about understanding the mobile shift and the convention-shattering implications of this evolutionary leap to ubiquitous computing. The paper is freely available for download for registered members of our site under a Creative Commons license.

We released the paper at the Gilbane Conference in Boston on November 27, 2012. That same day, BI Intelligence presented on “The Future of Digital” at their Ignition conference in New York City.  (The slides are currently available on the Business Insider site, but they may at some point be restricted to BI Intelligence clients.)

One slide in the BI presentation (slide #82) charts the usage patterns of mobile phones, tablets, and computers over the course of a day, with PCs predictably dominating during working hours. Another (slide #130) concludes that “digital is now a 4-screen world” (smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop) – which is also a nod to Google’s recent documentation of the increasing occurrence of simultaneous multi-screening. We concur.

No doubt, we are only at the very beginning of the era of ubiquitous computing. We can foresee how ubiquity will grow in the near term, with RFID, smart appliances, wearable computers, etc. But the future transformations remain hidden by the ever-accelerating pace of change and the unpredictability of adjacent possibilities. Nevertheless, mobile should not be seen as the “flavor of the day” that will soon enough be superseded by web TV or Google Glass – because when such things do become established, they will only add to the “1 person, many computer” paradigm at the base of ubiquity.

(Ubiquity photo by Mike Willis, CC by license)




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