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The Earth is Always Flat Where You’re Standing
by Nancy Nicolaisen
February 25, 2009
LongPause. Deep breath. Story resumes. Well, yes, it’s been a busy few months in the small, mobile devices field, what with being up to the eyebrows in day-in, day-out, day-job kinds of things.


Untitled Document LongPause.  Deep breath. Story resumes.  Well, yes, it’s been a busy few months in the small, mobile devices field, what with being up to the eyebrows in day-in, day-out, day-job kinds of things.  All work, work, work, with smart people and smart little devices from eight time zones and four continents ( if you count the sub continents, which I don’t have any idea why you wouldn’t, since a couple of billion people live there).  And this brings me to my point (I do have one…). I’ve been hit—flattened, if you will-- by a great big epiphany, and it is this:  Almost everyone in this business (including me) has been asking the wrong questions up to now.  We’ve been making foot prints in the sand, plodding through the trackless wasteland that is mobile device content development (only a slight exaggeration) trying to find elegant routes to cross-platform code portability, app reliability and security validation, distribution channel access, and profitable mobile content publishing business models.  It is fair to say there is no freeway to these destinations.  In fact, the pretty good trails don’t even stay in place for long, given shifting economic winds, every variety of technical fragmentation, and the unsettled nature of mobile device ecology.  So. What we’ve all been pursuing, without a huge amount of success, is a solid set of “Hows”.  And the reason “How” is so incredibly elusive in this space? We’ve skipped a really important prerequisite: Understanding “Why”.

And here’s the diagnostic symptom of this syndrome: Virtually without current exception, everyone sitting on a cash war chest in the mobile content development space is trying to figure out how to shoehorn an Internet browser experience onto small mobile devices (both smartphones and the mobile internet devices variously called MIDs, UMPCs or SCCs). Similar to, say... a subprime mortgage crisis, this catastrophe began with eminently pragmatic, bottom-line motivations. Using existing browser based content to make a quick port and a quick profit is tempting.  After all, it’s apparently a wide open door to an emergent global market which, according to even the gloomiest forecasts, will run to 100s of millions of units within the next 36 months. And it’s pretty important to get there.  Last year smartphones outsold PCs by 4 to 1, so the writing is not just on the wall, it’s on the wall in about seventeen languages. But like so much in life, running at a thing and grabbing with both hands isn’t usually the best way to get it.

At the risk of stripping the metaphorical gears here, there are patterns about archetypes and outcomes that could easily apply:

Or, extrapolating to Browser-on-Phone:

We won’t get a connected mobile culture simply by leveraging existing laptop or notebook targeting code—not as whole apps, or even as whole concepts.

Start By Asking the Right Questions
As every curious person knows, there are two fundamental elements to productive experimentation: First, ask the right questions; And second, recognize the answer when you find it, even if it turns up under the bed or behind the door.  What does this mean? Here’s an instructive technology tale, and a true one:

One day in 1970, Spencer Silver was toiling away in the bowels of 3M Labs attempting to create a super-strong adhesive.  A really, really, super strong adhesive--one that would be powerful enough to, say, glue the rings of Saturn together--when he discovered…a super weak adhesive.  Unfortunately, it barely qualified as an adhesive at all.  It made things stick to one another, but they easily peeled apart.  In fact, it almost entirely lacked that wonderful quality everyone so appreciates in an adhesive: adhesion.  Oh, well.  That’s the beauty of being a salaried research chemist.  You get to fail a lot of times, and no one minds much.  Fast forward four years. While singing in his church choir, Arthur Fry, one of Silver’s 3M colleagues, was frequently embarrassed by the fact that the bookmarks kept falling out of his hymnal, causing him to come in late on nearly every tune, as he frantically searched for the correct page.  In a moment of sheer exasperation (his and the choir director’s) Fry remembered Silver’s lousy adhesive, and thought it would be just the thing to keep those pesky bookmarks planted where he wanted them.  Three things came of this insight: 1) Fry managed to sing the right hymns and come in with the rest of the basses.  2) The choir director presumably lived a longer and happier life than would otherwise have been the case.  3) 3M sold $100 million dollars worth of Post It Notes, which remain the fifth largest selling office supply item in the world.

Now for the analogy that links smartphones and MIDs and UMPCs to Post It Notes.  Undiscerning translations of laptop and desktop user interaction patterns to these platforms is probably the biggest opportunity to miss an opportunity out there today. It’s the wrong match of problem and solution and has the potential to be an appalling waste of time.  So let’s get to the right questions, and without further delay. For starters what does mobile mean, anyway? If “mobile” means “talk or text from where ever”, then why isn’t a low end phone good enough and what doesn’t it do? But if “mobile” means ultra-portable access to big computing iron and heavy lifting client/server functionality, why isn’t a notebook good enough, and what doesn’t it do? Forget what people can do with small devices.  What are they doing? And where, how often? It’s fair to say that no one has accurately or completely answered these questions, either in the technical sense or in the matter of articulating a technology consumer worldview. This is largely why we have such extraordinary, and extraordinarily durable, fragmentation in this space. 

The Five Senses Approximation and Flatness

Clearly, the first step on the path to intelligent innovation in the mobile space is to acknowledge that we need to start innovating, which is pretty much the polar opposite of dragging every desktop idea we’ve had since 1979 along and trying to squeeze the mindgrapes out of it until it fits on a two inch screen. Which is not to say there has been no success, just that we haven’t coherently integrated it into something  that allows users –lots of them, in lots of places—to react to small devices like this: “Uh huh.  That makes perfect sense.  That’s just how I want to do what I need done.” And, needless to say, I am pondering this, a lot. SO. Here’s the accumulated body of experimental data from what I’ve seen, done and worked on in the last eight months:

So if you think at all about this stuff—and I do, all of the time-- here are a couple of places I’ve seen recently where something is going really, really right:

Urbanspoon for iPhone
Immersion Corp,
Interaction Design Institute Ivrea

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About the Blogger

Nancy Nicolaisen has authored three books on C++ programming topics; hundreds of articles for print magazines including Byte, Dr. Dobbs and PC Magazine; and was the chief contributor to's Windows CE Zone. Former researcher and Computer Science Professor, she specializes in small device and embedded systems programming.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 Nancy Nicolaisen. All rights reserved.

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