Mobile has been the imminent future for quite a few years now. Excitement about m-commerce quickly succeeded (or perhaps augmented) the excitement of e-commerce. M-government was almost as quick to follow e-government. And all of that was long enough ago that all four terms now have a slightly old-fashioned ring to them. But the reality of mobile never kept up with the promise. Yes, in theory there were clever things you could do when you were out and about, but in practice most people didn’t do them.
Not everything has stayed the same, of course. WiFi and 3G have increasingly allowed laptops to break free of physical tethers to the network and laptops have themselves shrunk into netbooks which prioritise portability over power. Coming from the other direction, phones have become more powerful, but have done so much more quickly than they have become more usable, at least until the iPhone started to change the nature of the game.
All of that has had some important consequences – it is hard to imagine some aspects of social networking taking off in anything like the way they have if access to them were limited to wired devices – but hasn’t otherwise done much to change the nature of the experience.
For me all that has changed abruptly. I claim no prescience in this, I know that many others will have been there well before me, but quite suddenly my experience of the mobile web feels very different for three important reasons.
The first is that I can operate effectively with nothing more than a phone. I have just spent the last two weeks travelling around the United States, using a mobile and nothing else. I have booked flights, car hire and hotel rooms. I have navigated around places I have never been to before. I have read and written emails. I have kept up with the news and checked the weather. I could have blogged and twittered if I had had the urge to do so. I have done all of that on a device not much more than four inches by two. Oh, and it makes phone calls too. There are a few things which it would have been easier to do with a larger screen and a better keyboard, but virtually nothing I couldn’t do.
The second that it knows where I am. To begin with, that means the time is always accurate and the weather is always local. But much more subtly and valuably, it assumes that when I am looking for something I am likely to be looking for something local. It puts me, quite literally, at the centre of the map.
The third that it fits in my pocket. Phones have done for quite a while, of course. But phones which can use something close to the full power of the internet in a way which is actually usable have been much clunkier until recently. The important thing about that is less that it avoids the need to tote around bigger and heavier devices as well – great though that is – and more that access is suddenly available without prior thought or decision. I have never carried a laptop around without thinking really carefully about whether it’s worth it. 135 grammes of phone doesn’t present the same dilemma.
That’s all very satisfying for me, but doesn’t really justify a blog post. So apart from a bit of personal smugness, what if anything does any of this portend?
My first and strongest thought is that I do not know. The abstract thought that there was more to being mobile than just adding a bit of moving around to the static experience is something that has been rationally apparent for a while. The tangible experience really brings home the potential for ubiquity of access to have transformational consequences which I for one don’t feel able to predict.
My second and more tentative thought is that this doubly underlines the need to experiment with service design and delivery in ways which go well beyond stripped down versions of big screen websites. It’s too different to get it right first time and too important not to get it right. Usefully, there is a real window of opportunity: we are still a good way from there being anything like a critical mass of adoption for mainstream users of government and other services – it’s no accident that Ocado should be the first UK supermarket with an iphone, the strengths and limitations of its customer base are probably pretty similar. But what was once rare and expensive will soon become ubiquitous and cheap. We need to be ready.