A couple weeks back I wrote about things we lose in the cloud.

I think it’s important to continually evaluate what we trade in to get the benefits of new technologies. It certainly isn’t that I dislike new stuff. I just want to be aware of the trade-offs.

In that spirit, this week’s column is focusing on what we lose as we move to a mobile computing experience — as we become "post-PC."

Mobile computing brings with it a ton of great benefits: computing that is location-enhanced; manipulating digital stuff where and when we need it most; ability to capture and process data when we’re inspired — not just when we’re at a desk.

Primary challenge of mobile computing

Every new technology has a primary challenge — the thing that makes working with the new technology difficult either as a technologist or a user of the new technology.

People tend to argue about the primary challenge (usually engineers or mainstream adopters of the technology) or pretend the primary challenge doesn’t exist (marketers and early adopters of technology).

For mobile computing, the primary challenge is haptics. One of my favorite geeky fields, haptics involves how we coexist with technology in the real world — i.e., screen sizes, how a device fits in the hand, how we manipulate and control it, etc.

Haptics is one of those dark arts that involves a blend of engineering, biology, design and understanding of the human experience.

We know when we pick up something that has good haptics, even if we don’t necessarily know how to express it. At a coarse level it’s sometimes referred to as "look and feel" (sometimes by someone who has never looked at or felt the thing being referenced).

The challenges of haptics are found in all the headlines of mobile device reviews:

  • "iPhone lacks keyboard and therefore is a nonstarter!"
  • "Look at how big this screen is!"
  • "Ooooh! Touch interface with slidy bits!"

This field has been around for a long, long time. Margins of a book or magazine exist because human beings need somewhere to put their thumbs.

Mobile devices are specially challenged by haptics because of the requirement that a mobile device be … well … mobile. In order to be mobile, in today’s world, a device needs to fit in a pocket.

This means the device has to be small. If the device is small, that means all those interface elements need to be small. The small interface leads to a variety of shortcuts for getting our ideas into the mobile device.

In addition, since the device is small, the screen will be small, too. If the screen is small there will be shortcuts for displaying the computer’s results.

What we lose

Those two shortcuts — shortcuts in our ability to enter information and shortcuts in the computer’s capability to display results — are a direct result of the haptic challenges in making a small device.

And they are the source of one of the things we lose: the ability to process the depth of our experience.

The depth of our experience is lost in a wide variety of ways as we switch to mobile environments:

  • Texting shorthand where we accept numbers and letters instead of complete sentences.
  • Shortened responses in communication.
  • Changing of communication channels from longer-format channels like email to shorter-format channels like Twitter and texting.
  • Placing various information and data in context, such as communicating the meaning captured in a photograph or video, or the relationship between two articles and authors, or the story behind an event or gathering.

Oftentimes, the brevity of mobile communications is welcome. But sometimes it isn’t sufficient to truly solve a problem or communicate an idea.

Mobile computing, while exceeding nonmobile computing in its ability to capture the world around us, currently lacks the capability to enable rich connections between the things we choose to capture.

Not that it will always be this way, of course. Apple’s Siri is already working to get around the challenges of screen and interface by replacing it with voice. But for now, making connections between the data we gather while on the move is challenging and limited.

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