Are We Headed for a Mobile “Big Bang”?

Our technology-packed mobile computers could soon reach critical mass

In October, I attended a mobile conference where the wearable tech Google Glass was being demoed. To say the least, I was underwhelmed with my user experience. I know it would be foolish to this dismiss the eyewear on this basis – after all the first mobile telephone was carried like a briefcase by a stockbroker’s chauffeur.

What struck me was one enduring word – mobile. We spend a lot of time these days trying to define things. (Don’t get me started on big data.) The moving goal posts of technology and culture make our jelly-nailing an unfortunate necessity. In the case of mobile, its morphing definition bears some scrutiny because it heralds a necessary change in mind-set.

In the year 2000 when we said mobile we meant mobile phone. Toward the end of the noughties, the tablet and its infinite variants came along and confused us. It too was portable and quite often functioned as a telephone, but it no longer looked like a phone and it was no longer just a phone.

By 2010, what we really meant by mobile was mobile device: phone, tablet or laptop.

The move to mobile computing set us on our trajectory of increasing technology density – more sensors, more computing power, and thinner and faster devices. With the increase in density came our moment-to-moment reliance on mobile.

Mobile devices, particularly the phone, act as dashboards to our lives. It’s not surprising we check our phones close to 110 times per day, according to a study by Locket.

The device gene pool is growing more varied (enter the phablet) as Darwinian forces of utility, services and hardware costs drive us toward a better user experience. Meanwhile, potential game-changers are hovering in the wings.

Might foldable screens create a split in the phylogenetic tree that relegates the tablet to Neanderthal status? Or will eyewear like Google Glass eventually consign the screen size question to the history books?

Wearable (mobile) technology may herald something more profound, taking us toward an inflection point where the density trend is reversed.

Two technologies under the spotlight this year – Samsung’s watch and Google Glass – are an acknowledgment that the features of a mobile don’t necessarily need to reside in the same place. Assuming Google Glass becomes more elegant, it does make sense to have the screen and microphone up there by the eyes and mouth instead of in our pocket; and why not put some of the sensors, like the compass and accelerometer on our wrist?

If this trend develops, our future screen time could be distributed still further, beyond personal devices. As more digital displays appear in our environment – on the back of train seats, on desks in meeting rooms or in retail spaces – the need to reach into the pocket will be further reduced.

Parallel drivers of this trend will be biometrics and digital identity. Only when I can be quickly identified – for example by thumb, iris or the NFC chip in my watch – can I flit between screens, accessing my data and services without the need for a personal device with a screen.

On this basis, the implied suffix for mobile would no longer be phone, tablet or computer….but data.

We might be headed for a kind of Big Bang which sees the densely packed mobile computer reach critical mass and explode out to multiple personal and non-personal devices – and fears about losing one’s device replaced by fear of being locked out one’s data.
Like the literal Big Bang, this expansion would take place over time – initially wearables might connect by Bluetooth to pocket devices and of course older demographics will cling to the one-device paradigm as determinedly as they currently cling to their PC.

This type of evolution would have serious implications for the advertising and marketing business. The liquidity of content and how we consume could change radically. Individuals who worked hard to get to grips with planning and evaluating the mobile channel might reasonably regard this possible future with trepidation.

Whilst we are using applications to capture behavioural data from mobile, tablets and computers, this approach would become unviable with further device fragmentation, particularly as non-personal screen time increases.

Cookie-based behaviour tracking has served us well on web, but is already under threat in the mobile context and has an uncertain future in a more diverse UI ecosystem.

Almost certainly we will need to start fishing further up river. For example, by partnering with mobile network operators or monitoring WIFI traffic in the home. Neither gives us the full picture, but both go beyond the device specific. We may see multiple upstream data sources being necessary to get the full 360 digital view.

There would also be implications for surveys – whose death has been prematurely forecast more than a few times. Adapting them to be more bite-sized for mobile is the current refrain, but a move away from personal devices will add further complexity.
Challenging though the transition to mobile is it is, at least notionally, a single channel.
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Director of Innovation Alex Johnson is a market research technologist with 13 years in Kantar. His doctor tells him either to abandon his preoccupation with semantic correctness or change career.

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