I think that one of my motivations in this mobile-only experiment is the attitude that persists in some parts of the IT community, and that was prevalent when I arrived for my short stint at Microsoft back in 2011 – that mobile phones are “content consumption” devices, that couldn’t be used for “proper” computing.
That view, if you’re looking for a terribly reductive single cause for the Redmond companies position of catching up from the rear in mobile, explains their troubles. Thankfully I think it’s mostly disappeared from the company today. I’m sure that in the 1980s Minicomputer and Mainframe companies were saying that Microcomputers couldn’t be used for “proper” computing too. Only a few of us remember Wang and DEC and a bunch of other long-gone manufacturers as a result.
The content consumption thing always struck me as balderdash. In terms of pure data, I’ve generated more using my phones than I have on any other devices – photos and video are hungry consumers of storage. Content creation devices as much as consumption for sure. But there is a broader question about what constitutes “proper” computing that is more akin to studies of mass media than to computing.
As new media have developed and evolved over the decades, so older ones have been mutated and either died or found new (or more precise) purpose. With the invention of television, both radio and cinema evolved and redefined themselves. Some media have disappeared altogether over the years – my kids will never know the symbolism of a Telegram, nor the previous importance of the Fax machine. Will they know printed books? Maybe, but probably as prestige luxury items. They know what CDs and DVDs are, but as we consume all of our media via USB storage or streaming in our house, they have no idea of what those shiny discs are all about.
The same goes with types of application for computers. It all used to be about number crunching – quite literally, in the case of the human computers who predated the electronic versions of the 1940s and 1950s. With the emergence of the first computer games in the 1970s, their practicality as a source of entertainment was first understood (and that was a large part of the push behind the microcomputer revolution in the 1980s). With more power and more graphical interfaces, other media started to emerge but most people would use their machines purely for the creation of email, word processing documents, presentations and spreadsheets.
Hence the “proper computing” and “content consumption” views: if you can’t run an Office suite and can’t type, you can’t create…
But with a combination of Apps and interesting software services, I can create a whole bunch of stuff on my phone as easily (or even more easily) than I can on a more traditional laptop: Zoho Invoice creates my billing (the last one I raised was whilst walking to a train on Waterloo Station); I’ve eulogised enough about my expenses management using Expensify; all of my travel planning and management is done through TripIt, the management on the day is with the airline apps from BA and EasyJet…
And that’s where you start to realise that actually we’re now able to do stuff that is so much more useful because of a mobile context. Getting rid of bits of paper to get onto an aeroplane using an App for example. With that sort of utility, desktop or laptop computing becomes increasingly redefined as something you only do when you need to use a spreadsheet or do a large amount of typing.
Whilst the software giants have woken up from their stupor, there are many in the IT industry who have not. I’m under no illusions that because my digital life is lived in the Cloud, the shift for me in terms of device that I use is relatively minor in comparison to the challenges faced by someone beholden to Corporate IT.
When I look at my wife’s use of mobile, telephoning is still pretty high up her list of top applications because her corporate services are either unavailable or sand boxed away in the name of information security.
This, in itself, provides yet another reason why the world of small or even micro-businesses will continue and increasingly run rings around those in big organisations in the years to come. This isn’t just a story about computing – this is a story about business agility.