Breaking the Shackles of ‘PC Thinking’: How the Mobile Revolution is Very Different

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The mobile revolution is turning out to be very different from the PC revolution that happened few decades ago. Whether you are a mobile app developer or an industry watcher, it is dangerous to be tied to the shackles of the PC revolution and expect similar outcomes. There are some fundamental differences between the two revolutions that question our most basic assumptions.

1. Consumer Preference: When it comes to mobile devices and apps, people’s personal preferences and perceived utility span the gamut. Similar to sectors such as personal care products, jewelry, cars and televisions, it is very nearly impossible for one company to appeal to a broad segment of users. For example, the launch of Samsung Galaxy Note had reviewers critical about whether it is a phone or a tablet, they promptly called it a phablet , and yet it went on to be a big success. Consider the following two statements that highlight the contradiction:

The Samsung Galaxy Note is an unfortunate tweener, satisfying neither phone nor tablet buyers. PCMag.com Review
and
Not for everyone, but right for me.” User Comment on CNet.com

Personal Computers never elicited such strong reactions from users. The trend towards Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) is a testament to how important people’s personal preferences are when it comes to using mobile devices. Similar to device makers, mobile application developers will need to gather all the smarts that they can garner when building apps for these discerning users.

2. Hardware Capability: Unlike the PC revolution, there is going to be immense diversity in mobile hardware capabilities. iPhone’s Siri interface, Samsung’s S Pen and S Voice, Google’s Glasses (touted as the next mobile device ) and Kickstarter-funded Pebble Watch are all examples of how varied these user-facing hardware innovations are and will be. Not only are these diverse, many of them are also going to coexist in the marketplace.

Even when used within enterprises, mobile devices need to embrace the different user requirements and functions they perform. For example, a mobile worker in warehouse taking inventory on SKUs might prefer to eschew a touchscreen for ruggedness while someone working in a medical lab might prefer touch screen that can be easily cleaned.

The PC revolution commoditized the hardware through a standard architecture. In many ways, the exact opposite is playing out in the mobile industry. Device manufacturers will adopt newer hardware innovations as hardware becomes a major differentiator in this industry, and app developers will have to develop for the resultant diversity in hardware interfaces.

3. Software Delivery: In PCs, the web browser became the de facto medium for software delivery. A recent article on Forbes made a great point about how the entrenched Web 2.0 players will find it difficult to adapt to the mobile revolution. One big reason for this is that while Web technologies will themselves thrive in the mobile apps world, there is limited role for pure browser-based apps on mobile devices.

Apps are the dominant medium of software delivery on mobile. Even the mobile applications that want to utilize the power of browser technologies like HTML5 and JavaScript are taking the browser and packaging it up inside apps as a container. Web browsers were originally built to enable URL-based browsing, and hence require a tight safety sandbox to guard against malicious client-side code. In the mobile world, app stores serve the purpose of keeping malicious code out of mobile clients.

4. The Content Software: For the first time in software, content writing and programming have come together like never before. In the PC revolution, content and programs had clearly separate paths. Content came to be dominated by technologies like Adobe Flash and HTML, which were different from the programming technologies and languages like Java and ASP. Scripts such as action script and JavaScript did help in simultaneous application development and content manipulation, but content and software development were largely on different tracks.

Today, there are numerous content-centric apps applicable for various industries such as education, publishing, entertainment, etc. The top 4 categories of apps in the Apple App Store together account for over 50% of the apps are all content-centric apps Games, Books, Entertainment and Education and so on. A quick look down the list points to a majority of the rest being content-centric apps Travel, Reference, Sports, News, Weather. Content and programming worlds are forever intertwined. App developers need to work with content developers and usability experts need to look at user interactions with content as much as with apps, etc.

At the end of the mobile revolution, the technology landscape will look very different. We will have hardware designers pushing the envelope of human-machine interaction, software design architects well-versed in consumer behavior, and artists working in close association with software development teams. Hardware, software, delivery and consumption are all undergoing major disruptions, and are different from the PC world. Technology companies will need to break away from the PC-Way of thinking and embrace these changes to thrive in the post-PC era.

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