Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What Exactly is a Mobile?

The term "mobile" is used all the time in media, business, academia, and by users without a common and precise definition of the term.

A definitive sense of the terms is complicated by the rapid expansion and evolution of portable devices connected to the Internet. Smura, Kivi, and Toyli (2009) believe a mobile device must meet three criteria:
  1. ability to make voice calls
  2. physical size of device (they do not specify exact dimensions but the implication is the size of a thin laptop or smaller)
  3. the operating system.
Their definition, however, already appears to be outdated. They focus on voice-enabled networks rather than Internet access, the latter appearing now to be the defining point in distinguishing mobiles from cellphones or personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Indeed, mobile voice telephony has been decreasing in volume and duration since 2007 (Thompson, 2010). People are instead increasingly using their devices for text messaging (SMS), emailing, and accessing Internet-enabled apps or sites. Smura et al.'s definition of mobile would also exclude the immensely popular iPod Touch, which allows users to interact with Internet content but does not offer the ability to make phone calls.

Size criterion is a critical determinant as the portability and ease of access in multiple environments is a core difference between mobile devices and other portable, Internet-enabled devices such as laptops and netbooks. Smura et al.'s definition does include laptops and netbooks, but their inclusion precludes the essential degree of speed, ease and flexibility of access that entails being "mobile".

Additionally, a key difference is that online content for a mobile often must be formatted or coded specifically for that device compared to the relative universality of online content displayable on browsers on PCs, netbooks, and laptops.

Smura et al. do foresee complications arising from other devices increasingly blurring distinctions. The inclusion of operating system as a defining trait helps distinguish between devices that are “limited, for specific purpose” (p. 58). Digital cameras, e-readers, and game consoles now are able to allow Internet connection and online interaction (to a limited extent), but the primary goal of this is to support the core functionality (i.e., photography, reading, or gaming). Mobile devices, on the other hand, are portable computing devices running multiple software (e.g., contacts, calendars, document processing, file management, etc.) and offering a range of multi-modal inputs and outputs, including text/SMS, email, instant messaging/chat, voice telephony, photography, video, applications, and mobile Web browsing. Hence, the operating system is not a central characteristic; rather the key difference is between devices with single versus multiple functionalities.

There are overlaps across technologies, but to clarify future discussion, I offer the definition of a mobile device as a device that has:
  • the ability to connect to the Internet
  • supports user input and interaction,
  • offers multiple functionality
  • and has the physical size of a tablet computer or smaller
Consequently a mobile device includes smartphones (e.g. BlackBerry, iPhones, Androids, Nokia.), tablets, (e.g. iPad, PlayBook, etc..) and networked portable media player and personal digital assistants (e.g. iPod).

Agree or disagree?

Smura, T., Kivi, A., & Toyli, J. (2009). A framework for analysing the usage of mobile services. Info, 11(4), 53-67.

Thompson, C. (2010, August). On the death of the phone call. Wired. Retrieved from

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