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Author's profile photo Steve Rumsby

What exactly *is* “mobile”?

This is a bit of a meta-blog, not about SAP’s current mobile solutions but about the idea of mobility in general. It is prompted by the claim made by Jim Hagermann Snabe in his SapphireNow keynote last week – “In 5 years everything will be mobile.” I don’t dispute that claim at all. Jim may well be right. But I don’t believe we really know what “mobile” will look like in five years time so I’m not sure how much sense the claim makes. After all, “mobile” today is vastly different from “mobile” five years ago. But that got me thinking – what do we mean by “mobile” today? I had a long discussion with a colleague about that question and we couldn’t really come up with a concise definition. We all know instinctively how to tell a mobile device or app from a non-mobile one, but it seems to be quite hard to put into words.

Why is this important? Maybe it isn’t, but I suspect that what we currently call “mobile” is actually a collection of user interaction mechanisms that work well on today’s “mobile” devices but that are useful in their own right independently of the fixed or mobile nature of the device. Some of the things my colleague and I talked about as characterising “mobile” apps or devices included touch/multi-touch interface and lack of physical keyboard. Both of those exist today in non-mobile devices. I wonder if the whole concept of “mobile” will start to disappear in years to come and instead we’ll have a continuum of devices with similar interface technologies and we’ll just run appropriate apps on appropriate devices. If that happens, what will happen to development environments for apps? Will they converge? Are we already seeing the beginnings of this with convergence in iOS/MacOS and Windows/Windows Phone?

Or am I looking at this completely wrong? What do you think?

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      Author's profile photo Ramesh Babu Nagarajan
      Ramesh Babu Nagarajan

      In a way  you are right. With the expected usage of cloud computing on large scale everything will be come mobile. So the definition of mobile can be like this.

      "Any business process that can be executed using a device from anywhere without being constrained to a physical location, then it is Mobile"

      Author's profile photo Steve Rumsby
      Steve Rumsby
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks for the comment.

      I don't see mobile and cloud as related at all. I can take my existing on-premise ERP system and run it on servers in the Amazon cloud. That doesn't make it a mobile app. And I can run mobile apps connected to my current on-premise system.

      I think it is really difficult to pin down what is meant by "mobile" in the sense in which we use it today, and that's why I think the concept is fundamentally wrong and that it will disappear over the next year or two. "Mobile" isn't really mobile, it is a collection of UI techniques tailored to work on current touchscreen devices, and those techniques will become more and more applicable to non-mobile devices and the same UI technologies - touch screens, voice, etc. - appear on non-mobile devices.

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      I think you've just inspired another counter-blog from me 😉

      Edit - just realised this is an *old* blog - thanks to Fred Verheul for bringing it to my attention on Twitter just now!

      Author's profile photo Steve Rumsby
      Steve Rumsby
      Blog Post Author

      Looking forward to it...!

      Author's profile photo Fred Verheul
      Fred Verheul

      Hi Steve,

      More than a year has passed since you wrote this blog post, but not really much has changed, so the question is still valid IMO.

      For me, mobility is the ability to do lots of computer supported work wherever I am, whenever I want. It's about not being tied to the workplace (whatever that is). That implies that the devices you're talking about are easy to carry around and are general purpose enough to get work done (barcode scanners don't count 😉 ).

      Everything else, like the UX aspects you talk about, is derived from that.

      To comment on the first comment: in client server terms, the client should be mobile (which doesn't mean it should be able to walk btw). Cloud is just the opposite: it's the server being 'mobile'.

      Just my 2ct 🙂


      Author's profile photo Steve Rumsby
      Steve Rumsby
      Blog Post Author

      I think what most people really mean when they talk about a mobile app is "touch driven", and by a mobile device they mean "no physical keyboard". However I think these distinctions are driven by current hardware rather than being useful distinctions in their own right, and we all know how quickly hardware changes in this game. Devices like the Microsoft Surface with its smart cover sit on the boundary. Is it a mobile device? Obviously yes, but it runs desktop apps (at least the non-RT version does) quite happily. What about the current crop of Windows 8 laptops with touch screens. They're not what people normally call mobile devices but they could happily run "designed for mobile" apps.

      I thought back when I wrote this blog, and I still think now, that "mobile" isn't a useful category either for apps or devices. If that's true, then having a completely different development environment (e.g. Sybase SUP) for "mobile apps" doesn't make long term sense. The future has to be in a single platform for apps that work on all types of device.

      Then again, trying to second-guess where technology will be in a few years is never an exact science. 🙂