“Mobile” is not a Thing

What is mobile? What makes one thing mobile and another thing … not mobile? What makes the design and development of a service mobile? What differentiates the “mobile” web or makes a “mobile” browser different from a traditional browser?

I’ve been involved in the development of mobile services since joining a Vizzavi in 2001 where we built one of the first “mobile portals.” Even before that, in the dot-com era, I was building content services for early radio connected hand-helds such as the Palm VII. In 2005, I helped to found the Mobile Web Initiative in W3C and I also founded Mobile Monday London. In 2006 I co-founded the Mobile 2.0 conference series. In 2008 I co-founded Over the Air, a self-described “mobile-focused hack day.” I’ve worked for two mobile operators. So you might think I should have a pretty good idea of what “mobile” means.

For years, I remember people asking “will this finally be the year of mobile?” Even in 2014, people were frantically proclaiming that the year of mobile had arrived! I got news for ya. Somewhere around 2011, it happened. It’s come and gone. We are post mobile.

So what do I mean by that? Mobile is in fact all around us. Mobile has become what “color television” or “desktop publishing” once was: a thing that is so ubiquitous that calling it by name is unnecessary and anachronistic. Of course people are accessing services and applications via their mobile devices — everyone is. In fact, people using multiple devices throughout their day. That is the world we are living in.

So what does this mean? In this post-mobile era, application developers and designers need to embrace a “responsive” approach. User interface, whether it be on a mobile phone, a tablet, a “traditional” laptop or desktop (my daughter asked me “what’s a desktop?” recently, but that’s another story), something in between these categories or an internet-of-things widget, needs to be responsive to the user’s device and their context. The UK Government Digital Service post from 2012 says: “no separate website for mobile users.” I think we need to go beyond that: no separate strategy for mobile users, no separate design for mobile users, no separate thinking for mobile users.

When it comes to the future of the web, we also need to embrace this way of thinking. It doesn’t make any sense any more to have separate web technologies or standards for mobile devices. We need one approach, one security model and one set of standard technologies across all devices and modalities.

Let’s stop talking about mobile and start talking about people.