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Mobile Meaning

Through the industrial age we have systematically repackaged the artifacts of our lives in smaller and smaller containers. We are in the age of miniaturization. Mobile computing is at the center of our increasingly de-centralized lives. Interestingly, artifacts like music, photos, and video have taken more portable forms while remaining sublime indicators of our identity: our history, memories, behaviors, and habits. Acquiring, creating, and consuming these artifacts—or what might be called our digital legacy—constitutes much of our mobile activity.

Trends like the steady drop in computing’s price to performance ratio, network speed innovation, cheap supply of memory, enhanced battery life, and large-scale quality manufacturing all fueled the evolution of miniaturization. But advances in user experience arguably played a more important role. The introduction and rapid adoption of multi-touch opened up the experience in ways previously impossible with indirect interface models. Rather than impose an abstraction in the way users interacted with content, content began responding in expected and familiar ways for users. Performance also made the experience responsive and immediate. There were no more spinning cursors or hour-glass icons interrupting the moment. Small nuances, like the use of physics or the way items and lists responded to touch, brought moments of delight that users understood and connected to. 

The current generation of mobile device is roughly 8-9 millimeters thick with a 3- to 5-inch touch screen, a couple of cameras, sensors, and a connection to the network and cloud. Mobile platform wars are certainly far from over, but a period of mobile normalization has begun. It’s not unlike the time when personal computing settled with Windows and Mac OS.  The core features are similar and standard interaction paradigms have stabilized.  Android vs iOS vs Windows Mobile are not really as strategic decisions as they previously were. The steady pace of incremental innovation by Apple and Google has a tangible cadence. It hasn't stalled but perhaps it has crested. While we continue to cram more and more of our lives behind that 4-inch display, we also lose out on many of the important attributes that make our digital legacy important to us. There is something missing from the experience. Touch is a great enabler but it breaks down when we have access to every song recorded, every picture we have ever taken, and several terabytes of history and social interactions that we are constantly encoding about ourselves.

Another aspect that is missing from the mobile experience is the concept of patina, the wearing that comes with regular use. In the physical world this might be the dog-eared pages of a favorite book or the small scratch on an LP that occurred at a rocking party. This slight degradation in quality is actually part of the story and part of our culture. The miniaturized and regenerated versions of our legacy are more often sanitized pointers. The next advance in mobile comes not from further miniaturization of our lives into a smaller package but rather the unpacking of those experiences into the environments around us. Mobile becomes a halo that surrounds us and travels with us wherever we go. 

Several important changes are in play. First, devices on our body will multiply. Sensors, cameras, input methods, and displays will work their way into our clothing and our fashion. While we might still carry a slab shaped device in our pocket, the interface will be distributed and will monitor our movements and gestures. It will listen for commands and whisper in our ears. The second major change will be our environment responding to us in new and interesting ways. The proliferation of large displays and projection technologies will relegate the small display on our phone to private or a constrained set of tasks. A new layered interaction model of touch, voice, and gesture will emerge. The successful apps will always run. Hyper-contextual modulating between our legacy, who we are, and the environment around us will provide powerful collaboration between people. As important to consumption will be the continuous exchange of what we are doing, where we are, and who we are with. This will again work into the collective memory, attaching to our legacy and bringing in a new type of patina effect. It won’t be quite the same degradation that occurs in the physical world, but new stimuli that allow for more meaningful navigation and recall.

Several elements in this scene of High Fidelity, one of my favorite books and movies, express the possibilities for the next way of mobile computing: the spatial display of a large quantity of content, sharing of that with others and, most significantly, applying personal history and story to navigation to bring meaning into the experience. This maximized view offers the next logical advancement for mobile and gives application developers much richer and more meaningful opportunities to connect with users.

As vice president of creative, software innovations, Paul Pugh leads frog’s focus on the fast-evolving mobile industry and software design.

Paul will share his insights on designing meaningful “mobile first” experiences at the Open Mobile Summit on November 7 in San Francisco. For more information about attending this event, click here

Image credit: Flickr user dearsomeone