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Laptops are mobile devices, too

Something I’ve been wondering about is why laptops aren’t really treated as mobile devices, in any interesting way. Laptop manufacturers tend to treat them as portable desktops, and people interested in “mobile device design” focus on PDAs, cell phones, and the like.

Now that laptops outsell desktops, it’s worth treating them as interesting and distinct entities that warrant special consideration as a mobile device. What, say, are the tools for the working-at-coffeehouse types? For the airplane commuters, the road warriors, the college students, etc.? What makes sense for a laptop to have that would have never made sense in a desktop? Why don’t we have location-awareness built into laptops?

Anyway, something to ponder. I would wager that the folks thinking about “mobile device design” would get a lot more traction if they considered the laptop as a platform, not the PDA or cell phone.

  1. This was exactly the thinking behind a user research/conceptual design study I was involved in a couple of years ago. We found some very unique and powerful models of meaning and of usage, with some cool approaches to design and features that followed.

    They’ve yet to productize any of that work; I don’t know how or if they will ever do so, but the opportunity space, as you surmise, is pretty nice.

  2. I completely agree. While companies market different “levels” of laptops to different markets (college student, executives, etc.), they aren’t designed with specific portable behaviors in mind.

    Well, maybe that’s not true. The iBook can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. But it seems that you’re referring to behavioral requirements along the lines of designing a Wi-Fi locator into the OS of every laptop.

    So is the laptop presently a small, mobile desktop or a big Newton?

  3. It’s worth noting that there is one significant laptop-as-mobile device bit of interaction out on the market.

    The Tablet PC. Not my cup of tea, personally, but should be recognized as a worthwhile departure from bound-to-the-desktop computing.

  4. The photos you are showing illustrate people using their laptops as desktops. Laptops, by-and-large, are used as portable desktops. They definitely have a need for location-based services and other elements that cross-over into the mobile device realm, but they are far from mobile devices. The late-90s and early-00s saw location-based services developed for mobile and laptop use, but laptops were not used as much as portables as they are today and the market drove that segment to focussing on mobile devices. Location awareness is very easy to build-in or add to laptops, but the built-in has not sold well when it has been tried (it desperately needs to be tried again and marketed with the capabilities you outline).

    Those mobile users around the world, which I believe far out number laptop users would laugh at the concept that a laptop is a mobile device. The use case and context of use for mobile devices is vastly different from that as a laptop user.

    The “mobile device design” is vastly different from that of a laptop. The computing power, display, and bandwidth are all limitations that are not as relevant on laptops (this is one of the four receptors in my Personal InfoCloud and Model of Attraction that designers and developers must take into account). Saying this, a laptop user has her own distinct needs separate from a desktop user. These lost user needs across their various devices with their different user interactions and use contexts needed a place in a design and development framework, hence the Personal InfoCloud and Model of Attraction. These frameworks are getting a lot of interest from those who are actually working to solve the problems you describe and the tools are seeming to work very well for them.

    In short laptops are not mobile devices and the design is vastly different, but there are cross uses that are similar.

  5. I’m personally amazed at all of these things people tell me I will do with a cell phone or other such small device. For instance, I’ve never been able to figure out why someone would want cell phone video?

    If you are going to do work or multimedia, you need a bigger form factor like you get with a laptop. Pads of paper are approximately 8.5×11 inches for a reason.

    I’d like to see laptops evolve. For instance, they need MUCH better battery life, universal wireless connectivity with good bandwidth. I could see them lose some things like DVD and even hard disk drives. I think all of these things could happen as we move into much more integrated networks.

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