Last week, Jason Grigsby wrote a lovely contribution to the ongoing saga that is ‘mobile context’.
I tend to agree with Jason that there is something a bit strange about declaring the case closed. As mobile is different in so many ways, there surely must be some way we can take advantage of this new always on, always connected, and often physically mobile state of being?
Assuming we find a way to (easily) make stuff look good on a ridiculous number of screens, assuming we develop consistent ways to detect the capabilities of each browser, devise standards or patterns that promote respect for said capabilities, ensure people don’t have to download large stuff when they’d prefer small stuff, and we continue providing opportunities for enhancement on more capable devices—assuming we can do all these things—what comes next?
Will we just end up with an incredibly responsive/flexible/adaptive (I vote we just call it “super-clever”) web? Basically, the web we had before...just a lot more clever?
I quite like Jason’s idea, that there are useful aspects to mobile context, “we just don’t really know how to use them yet”. And I think the mobile web (or rather, the web...now that mobile is such an important aspect of it), will continue to play a huge role in our lives as it remains the common thread across so many of the devices we interact with.
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The technology gap
We have always inherited the behaviours and mental models of our time. Models born of the fashion we wear, the music we listen to, the language we speak and the technology we use. All of these influence how we think about the world and in turn, cause us to dream up things that previous generations would never have considered.
And up until now, generations were typically involved.
It took 40 years for radio to reach an audience of 50 million users (the number that marketers use to gauge “penetration” of a product in society). The telephone did it in less than 20 years. The TV, in just over 10. iPods took close to 5 years.
And You Tube...took less than 6 months. (src)
And that’s of course nothing compared to the staggering pace of adoption for mobile.
It took more than 20 years to grow the worldwide base of PC users to 600 million. Smartphones got there in 8.—Asymco
Researchers are beginning to discover that this rapid technology adoption is creating ‘generation gaps’ at a pace that was once unheard of.
People two, three or four years apart are having completely different experiences with technology,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center ’s Internet and American Life Project. “College students scratch their heads at what their high school siblings are doing, and they scratch their heads at their younger siblings. It has sped up generational differences. (src)
And this is not the first place I’ve read this in recent weeks. Sure, a 3 year old will always have different interests than an 8 year old—even in the same family—but this is different.
A 3 year old growing up with a Kindle around the house can’t help to think differently about the word ‘book’. There are just over 2 billion under 18s on the planet (with about a quarter of them under 5) and these young people are growing up in a period of constantly changing technologies and mental models.
The extent to which they experience these changes has a lot to do with geography, culture and economic circumstance (only 10% of these young people live in developed economies), but it is happening—to all of us.
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And now, for our next trick
Sorting out what mobile context means, whether a responsive web is the way forward, and what role apps and web sites will play, is really just a few things on a growing list of ways we must begin to think differently about the world around us (a world that we—the ‘tech’ industry—often influence every day with the work we do).
- What does it mean to design for the web, now that Internet access, has been declared a human right?
- What does it mean to use the web when your primary access point is a mobile phone? Pew Research’s latest study indicates that 28% of Americans access the web primarily on their phone. In other countries the number is far higher and it’s estimated that by 2015, about 50% of Internet traffic will be from a mobile device.
- What does it mean to engage with books when the first book you encounter (and possibly most books after that…) are on an iPad or Kindle? I’m already frustrated that one of my e-readers lets me copy text while the other doesn’t…except I’ve also got bookshelves full of ‘real’ books that I adore even if I can’t copy and paste from them. What will reading and engaging with books mean to those who grow up in a house with no analog(!) reading material? (E-book only households already exist—but not for the reasons you might think).
- What does it mean to engage with knowledge when your primary sources of knowledge are Facebook, The Huffington Post, Wikipedia and YouTube? The BBC routinely annoys me by playing YouTube videos of unfortunate souls having bizarre but slightly humourous accidents, yet it’s undeniable that news has been greatly enhanced by the advent of citizen journalism.
- What does it mean to discover the world when the only maps you've used are Google, Street View and SatNavs?
- What does it mean to play (and what makes something fun) when many of your toys look like this?
- What does it mean to engage with brands when most of your interactions take place on Facebook?
- What will be our relationship with food, when going to the supermarket involves something like this. (Ok, this is a bit far fetched but it speaks to a growing trend of mass customization that is making its way into many of the products we interact with.)
- What does it mean to learn about science, architecture, design—and the world in general, when your school has one of these? How kids learn (their behaviours, the tools they use, and their very motivation for learning) has already changed—most educators just don’t know what to do with it yet. (sounds familiar...)
Context will play an intricate part in all these new behaviours, and will undoubtedly provide opportunities, but maybe not in the way we originally thought. Some days I feel that our discussions of mobile context, intent, and location APIs are actually missing a much wider point. (And don’t get me wrong…understanding changes in behaviour, and moving forward with web APIs is still hugely important).
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The future web
We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. — Marshall McLuhan
I think the reason mobile context feels so important, yet remains so elusive, is that it is itself in a period of rapid change—shaped by the very tools and technologies we are designing.
And as the context changes—so do we—which changes the context once again. The fact that this is happening sometimes in the space of months adds to the confusion. Which brings us to what is maybe the true question.
What should the role of these technologies be going forward?
The web has developed into what it is today thanks to millions of hours of experimentation and sharing of ideas. But in this day and age, rapid experimentation can quickly turn into rapid implementation. Once a product is out there, propagated by the very network it relies on, it begins to have an impact.
One person’s uncanny valley may turn into someone else’s mental model, and soon thereafter...someone’s business model. From there it’s a slippery slope to that “50 million users" that loosely defines market penetration.
And so the web evolves once again...and in turn so do we.
Scientists are beginning to suspect that using the Internet is changing the very way our memory works. Others think it may be changing the way we absorb information, altering our very perception of what it means to seek out, and acquire knowledge. For those of us who grew up in a slightly more linear world, this feels disjointed, but maybe it’s not such a bad thing:
...we can’t yet recognize the superiority of this networked thinking process because we’re measuring it against our old linear thought process. (src)
Johanthan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet warns of a future net of walled gardens and exclusive protocols. Is this what we want from our future web?
And will it even matter what we want if many of our users prefer (or worse...only understand) the alternative web that’s progressively being spun?
Maybe mobile context isn’t the problem. Maybe the real challenge (some may say, the real opportunity) lies in finding ways to ensure ‘the next web’ brings as many opportunities to coming generations as it has to us so far.
Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for. The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one? (src)
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Stephanie is a designer and closet anthropologist with a passion for the many ways people interact with technology. With a diverse background, Stephanie's expertise lies in marrying design, technology and business goals to craft simple, elegant experiences. A compulsive researcher, Stephanie is always keen to discover and share insights on the mobile web and mobility trends in emerging economies.