Is mobile doomed to be consumption only?

Is the mobile device doomed to be a consumption device forever? One would think if we were going to see some complex trading applications, spreadsheet managers, design tools, coding tools, or publishing/crm tools they would have emerged by now. I am trying to explore the viability of the mobile device for complex interactions before I make up my mind on the matter.

I am largely considering the smartphone in this excercize, but I plan to extend the exploration to tablet devices (and by that I mean the iPad… I chuckle to myself when people mention the ‘tablet market’. Will likely shift someday, but… c’mon.)

Content consumption has largely been nailed on mobile devices:
Well, it began with the swipe-able list. What a beautiful sight to see. It seemed to be the first thing anyone would pull out in any mobile demo. That smooth scroll followed by the subtle bounce was a breathtaking pattern for its time.

We got a little inundated with fancy scrolling lists and people started making the content pull more weight as a navigation element. I am sure that content consumption will evolve, but content consumption is well in hand with the introduction of apps like Flipboard, or Feedly. The content is the “button” and the hero of the experience in these apps.

One of the more elegant video apps is the browser version of Youtube. It is fast loading and has some fancy features. Given the growth of video on mobile, I think that is pretty good to go as well. One area for improvement might be the “associated” content that is always available on larger screens. This leads me to some of the factors leading to the current perception (and evident current reality) that mobile devices are for consumption.

Commonly attributed barriers to complexity on mobile devices

1. Screen size… more specifically, complex applications tend to need a viewable area and a place for buttons and doo dads…. Although, tvs are pretty big and they are about as clunky as a mobile phone… so maybe this barrier is more resolution exacerbated by the other barriers.

2. Hitspots… phat fingers make it tough to manipulate objects on the screen in finite ways.

3. Inputs… Typing is a pain in the butt on mobile devices and complex apps tend to require that. But the issue is not just the interaction and glass screens, it is also the modality and screen real estate for the keyboard. I have the claw hand that is required for combining keystrokes as I become more of an advanced user on my design tools on the desktop.

4. Bite-sized Engagement… If I have a few moments before a train arrives, i am probably going to fling a few angry birds, and not edit a spreadsheet.

Not so commonly discussed barriers

1. Ability/talent… The phat finger issue can be overcome by a select few who are talented enough to make some seriously complex stuff with a tiny screen and some rudimentary tools. I am mostly thinking of the art that some people can create with one of the iPhone drawing tools.

2. Lack of fun… Complex applications tend to be related to work and what is the fun of that? Unless it is a source of expression like the aforementioned barrier, I am going to the fun app first.

3. Bandwidth… My blog post just autosaved itself and I am pretty sure it will again in a couple of moments because my wifi connection will most likely be available here at home. When I go through the train tunnel and my spreadsheet disappears I may cry.

4. Modality… A desktop experience allows us to switch modes very easily (I’ve checked my email and performed at least three google searches while writing this. That experience would be quite disruptive on a mobile device. They also require a relationship between tools and the canvas that is pretty well established on a desktop experience, but not quite possible on a tiny screen.

5. Some desktop patterns still suck… We haven’t exactly nailed complex interaction patterns on software applications and we are a long way from unlocking the full potential of web-based apps. This doesn’t help when it comes to creating mobile versions of these tools.

6. Lack of interaction innovation… This is a slippery slope, because it might be a futile effort, but hopefully this exercise will help me answer that.

Where is the complexity today?
For starters – games, to do lists, email, and music creation tools. Gaming is a category that may hold some of the keys to unlocking richer interactions and applications on mobile devices because it balances the fun aspect with the complexity. I’ve been playing Fifa soccer (football?) on the iPhone and the interactions are pretty complex. Though once the game is on there is really only a couple of inputs at any one time.

Some common desktop tools that are far from successful in a mobile environment are trading applications, spreadsheet managers, design tools, coding tools, or publishing/crm tools. These are some of the tools I will be exploring in the subsequent posts.

is the mobile device doomed to be a consumption device? I am not convinced that is the case yet. Should we just leave the complex stuff to the desktop? I think at best the mobile devices will be a strong companion to those complex desktop experiences, but where the hand off occurs is what I plan to explore further.


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