Emerging Platforms

Tablets are not mobile devices

Posted by Todd Sherman on May 13th, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Spoiler alert: Tablets are not mobile devices.

Now, back to the beginning.

There is a common practice in the technology industry of putting tablets and smartphones together in a single category and calling them "mobile" devices. Both are compelling and relatively new types of devices that exhibit a similar look and feel, and share some key characteristics. However, there are significant differences between them that make one a mobile device, and the other not.

Why shouldn't they both be considered mobile? More importantly, why is this an issue?

Because mobile is the most transformative revolution in computing since the emergence of the Internet. Mobile takes advantage of extreme portability and continuous network connectivity to enable a completely new set of user experiences that traditional computing platforms cannot. Knowing which devices are mobile and which are not helps us better understand what is happening and how to better plan, and create, the future.

What’s useful is a simple definition of what "mobile" really means.

A primary characteristic of mobile devices is that they are small enough to be continuously carried around through almost all daily activities, including walking, running, and driving, and are found at home, in the office, in-store or anywhere in-between. Mobile devices can easily fit into a pocket or a purse and are comfortable in one hand, instantly available and ready for use at any time.

Mobile devices, literally, go where no computing devices have gone before.

A second, synergistic characteristic of a truly mobile device is that it's always connected, allowing immediate access to the cloud with vast online data and processing resources. (Many apps require connectivity to function.) This strongly implies an always-on cellular data network connection. (While accessibility to WiFi networks is increasing, it is still fractured, often requiring multiple logins and extra fees to use.)

Tablets and smartphones are very different from each other on both of these counts. That, in turn, drives distinctly different usage patterns.

Tablets are more portable than laptops, but are generally too large and cumbersome to carry continuously throughout the day. Even though tablets have touch interfaces and use smartphone-like apps, many of the uses are similar to those previously performed on traditional PCs, such as browsing websites and conventional ecommerce. Tablets are generally used as laptop replacements.

As for connectivity, almost nine out of ten tablets do not have a cellular data plan and rely on discontiguous WiFi networks. This drives localized and stationary behavior - similar to a laptop, users find a location with a network connection and then stay there to use the tablet.

Conversely, smartphones are both smaller and almost always sold with associated cellular networking plans, delivering continuous connectivity. These differentiating characteristics have spawned a completely new set of user experiences such as dynamic street navigation, fitness tracking/GPS apps and digital wallets. They have become digital personal assistants that are always with you and cause a significant deal of anxiety when they’re misplaced.

Still not convinced? Here are some simple observational experiments. Have you seen a jogger running with a tablet? Or a shopper in the store using a tablet to scan products? Or a Starbucks customer presenting their tablet for payment?

While tablets are not mobile, they are an impressive and disruptive advancement over the traditional PC and deserve their due. Their convenient form-factor and compelling touchscreen interfaces are a significant evolutionary step. But on the continuum of devices, tablets are much closer to PCs and laptops than smartphones.

To be sure, there is some overlap between the classifications, especially when some smartphones have larger screens, such as the Galaxy Note, and some tablets have smaller screens, such as the iPad Mini. These “phablets” have even spawned their own subcategory name. And tablets can certainly have cellular connectivity, but as mentioned, only a fraction do.

Again, what does it matter?

Technology analysts and industry pundits often lump both tablets and smartphones into the single category of “mobile devices” and then associate a common set of attributes to the combined grouping. This is useless at best and misleading at worst.

A good example is in online retail. In recent years, the new term "mcommerce" has surfaced, where the "m" stands for mobile. The implication is that it’s a whole new way that people purchase using their “mobile” devices. But the vast majority of this “new” mcommerce is the same old PC-based ecommerce activity now happening through tablets. The shopper experience and buying process are essentially identical to ecommerce on the laptop (even though it might be through an app or an “optimized” website), happening in a stationary location through WiFi. Nothing really new or mobile about it.

What makes real mobile commerce different is that smartphones are actually taken into the physical store and are used for in-store shopping activities – where more than 90% of retail takes place. These activities include finding the exact locations of products inside the store, seeing the most efficient route through the store, receiving personalized offers for nearby products, digital coupons and using digital wallets.

These activities generate large amounts of shopper behavior data for the retailer, including deep insights into shoppers’ decision-making processes. The smartphone also acts as a channel for the retailer to engage in a two-way, real-time conversation with shoppers, while they are in the store.

That’s significantly different than traditional online ecommerce.

Let’s stop putting tablets into the “mobile” bucket. Smartphones are mobile. Tablets are not. Acknowledging and understanding the difference will help drive new insights and innovation – for these devices and others

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