GenuineVC David Beisel's Perspective on Digital Change

November 14, 2005

In the summer I wrote a quick entry entitled, The Mobile Phone: “Social Computer”, in which I said,

“Until now my mobile telephone has been a two-way radio capable of playing a few mildly-amusing games and taking a few crude pictures. It is now becoming a portable input & connecting device initiating meaningful connections with people I know and people I don’t yet know.”

Om Malik and others strongly disagreed with the assessment of the mobile phone as a social computer,

“Mobile phones have a different behavioral relationship with their users… But mostly – phones are not computers – they are terminals on the edge of the network, they lack the complexity of a PC, and are managed. They are devices that help people communicate, not compute. They let you consume bits some of the time, not all the time.”

Since I wrote that piece, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about social mobile content and software, and have come to realize that looking at the mobile phone “through the eyes of a PC” was and is limiting.

The intention of my original post was not necessarily to strictly liken mobile phones to computers, but rather to point out their transformation from a mere telephone to a more sophisticated and rich device. I see the argument between “computer” and “not a computer” as a semantic question which I will leave to others. (Perhaps I mistakenly interjected myself into that debate.)

My evolved perspective is now that mobile phones are increasingly resembling computing devices (richer OS’s, flash memory cards, more sophisticated applications), but they are also fundamentally different and should be treated as such. This changed viewpoint rests on the recognition of the mobile device as a uniquely personal one – not for computing per se, but rather used first for connectivity and increasingly for social networking and a specific set of information retrieval.

Of course the obvious differences between a PC and a mobile phone are the input ability/interface and display screen limitations. Those have been highlighted numerous times by many others. However, I view the essential dissimilarities between a mobile phone and a PC as the same reasons why I believe there are tremendous opportunities to come on the mobile platform. The four defining characteristics of a mobile device being location-aware, portable, immediate, and understanding give socially-enabled mobile content and software the ability to transcend the functionality of a PC.

The device in your pocket is always with you. Soon it will know where you are, who you’ve communicated with, and if you are currently available. If you need any specific incremental information, you can get it immediately. Immediately. And more importantly, as Jon Turow and I recently discussed, this device will increasingly an understanding of what you are doing. Are you eating at a restaurant? Are you taking pictures? Are you by yourself or with other people with their devices? A mobile device will “know” more about you than a PC ever could, and that information can enable valuable services that are far beyond anything that we’ve seen on a PC.

Consequently, the way that users interact and connect with the “content” that is available on mobile phones is fundamentally different from that of a PC. That is not to say that we cannot derive lessons and learnings from the history of the PC and web platforms which can be applied to the mobile device. But it does translate into the notion that a web or PC experience cannot be directly transferred to onto the mobile. Just as offline producers couldn’t just easily repurpose their content onto the web, web content and software producers won’t and shouldn’t be able to do the same on mobile.

So Om was right – I was mistaken about thinking of the mobile phone in the same manner as PC. But I still agree with Trip Hawkin’s assessment that the highest value media types on mobile phones are going to be ones that “provide access to a social network,” which was the true intention of my post. And whether or not you call that device a computer is secondary. To me, phones trending towards social mobile devices signal the unique convergence of connectivity and content into one platform. This union creates an opportunity for exciting new services (many potentially made by start-ups).

  • http://www.ads.typepad.com Zach Coelius

    I just got back to your blog after a hiatus and it is still great. Keep up the good work.

  • http://cenriqueortiz.com/weblog C. Enrique Ortiz

    You were NOT wrong (neither Om or the others) — there are just different views to the same thing…

    But in anycase, it IS a computer, but a smaller, passive one that is very good at enhancing communication between people, sharing information and consume (preview) small amounts of content; it is an access point to friends, family and work peers, and other people. It also is a bridge to the Internet and other networks. Lots of computations do occur on these small computers — for processing radio waves, video, sound, number crunching and so on… The DSPs on these devices are more powerful than what PCs used to have.

    So you see, you were right…

  • David Gong

    Devices, phones in particular, are probably enhancing the social interactions we are entitled to as a society. I would argue that it’s our intrinsic social propensity that makes the phones a symbolic social re-discovering agent. It’s not by design, rather it’s by usage and imagination. So besides connectivity and content, convenience and creativity might be the third and fourth forces that drive the convergence. We will see more innovative services around the latter two components.

  • David Gong

    Devices, phones in particular, are probably enhancing the social interactions we are entitled to as a social being. I would argue that it’s our intrinsic social propensity that makes the phones a symbolic social agent. It’s not the computing power, rather it’s the desire and imagination that push technologies into seamingly new frontiers. So besides connectivity and content, convenience and creativity (or freedom to do so) are the third and fourth forces that drive the convergence. More innovative services might spring up around the latter two components.

  • http://www.thebusinesseditors.com Stuart Rock

    An interesting debate. For an indication of the direction that mobile is taking in the UK (which is a particularly dynamic and inventive market), can I refer you to a recent piece of research in one of our magazines, Real Business: “50 to Watch in Mobile.”

  • http://www.thebusinesseditors.com Stuart Rock

    An interesting debate. For an indication of the direction that mobile is taking in the UK (which is a particularly dynamic and inventive market), can I refer you to a recent piece of research in one of our magazines, Real Business: “50 to Watch in Mobile.”

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  • David Beisel
     - 20 minutes ago
    Streetwise Editor-in-Chief @galenmoore arrived at #WebInno early this week to mingle in the crowd: http://t.co/BreCChdxZk
  • Rob Go
     - 49 minutes ago
    @robertbiederman I think it depends on what kinds of projects you would zero in on. I think it's more trained than craft
  • Rob Go
     - 12 minutes ago
    @robertbiederman @pmpetitti based on the projects I see on your website, I'd agree
  • Rob Go
     - 1 hour ago
    Thinking about companies that reorganize labor markets http://t.co/G0v41uH8zN

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