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Summary:

Mobile technology has advanced at a breakneck pace the past few years. There are netbooks, handhelds and smartphones. The iPad has led many to proclaim the perfect mobile device has finally arrived. Guess what? There is no perfect mobile device, and there never will be.

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Mobile technology has advanced at a breakneck pace the past few years. We’ve seen the rise of the notebook, the launch of the netbook and the mass adoption of the smartphone. There have been many handheld devices that put a full computer in the palm of the hand. Smartphones are powerful computers in their own right. All of these advances have fueled the search for the perfect mobile device. The appearance of the iPad led many to proclaim the perfect mobile device had finally arrived. Guess what? There is no perfect mobile device, and there never will be.

That’s a pretty harsh statement, but I believe an accurate one. Mobile technology is by nature a very personal thing. When something is personal by design, it becomes different things to different people. That’s the very nature of something personal. What is revolutionary to one person may be simply evolutionary, or even a step backwards, to another. What works for some won’t necessarily work for others.

I have covered handheld devices for a long time, and this coverage often produces strong reactions to those exposed to it. It is common to see knee-jerk reactions to articles about a given gadget along the lines of “why would you use that for task X?”. These reactions are typical given the personal nature of the technology. A particular gadget may be the best solution for some, but fall short for others. There are so many factors in determining how useful a gadget might be for an individual, and it’s the total package that makes or breaks the utility a single device can bring to each of us.

The appearance of the iPad has evoked emotional reactions from many along these lines. Almost every article you see written about using the iPad for a particular task is met with strong reactions from readers. Those reactions are often along the line of “why not use gadget Y for that task, as it’s better than the iPad.” This is a good response, as the iPad is not the best tool for many tasks compared to other types of devices.

I have seen the same reaction to almost every mobile gadget I’ve written about, and the fact is there are many factors to consider. If the goal is simply to use the best device for every single task that might be undertaken, then we should all use the most powerful notebook computer we can find. That would certainly be the best tool for any job. But these are often expensive, and not very easy to carry around.

There are many factors in play with mobile devices that determine the utility each provides to the individual. Portability is a big factor; while a 19-inch powerful notebook would be the best tool for any given task, it’s certainly not easy to carry around in a mobile scenario. Price is a big consideration too — that’s why netbooks have been well received. We don’t all have thousands to drop on a single tool, and often affordability is a determinant of adoption.

For others battery life plays a significant role in whether a particular gadget is a good fit or not. The individual’s work needs are the drivers that tell if a given device (or device form factor) is a proper fit. That giant notebook would certainly fail in this area.

What, then, is the best tool for a given job? The tool that is with you when you need to do the task. That’s the simple truth when it comes to mobile technology. It doesn’t matter if that big, powerful laptop will tackle any job at hand if it’s too big to carry everywhere. The same applies to many mobile gadgets. If they are too difficult to bring along, they can’t provide much benefit.

By the same token, it’s not a good plan to force compromise in our work by solely adopting a mobile device that is too restricted. The argument that gadget X is a better fit for a given task is often a good one. If a certain type of device better serves the tasks most commonly undertaken, then that’s the type to use. But that doesn’t mean that other types of devices aren’t useful for others. Mobile technology requires we keep an open mind, as everyone’s needs are different. It’s that personal thing again.

It is important to understand when a certain type of device, iPad or other, can do a certain task in a pinch. While other gadgets will be better at performing the task, if the “compromised” device is at hand, then that’s the better tool. When I write about using gadgets, the goal is to point out what can and cannot be done with them. It’s not to state that everyone should adopt this particular gadget — it’s to point out how the device can be used if needed. I think that is useful information.

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  1. James, I have to say this is the best piece you have written in a while, and I concur with your line of thought.

    Best gadget sure does depend not only on personal preference (style and budget), but whether the device is fit for the task.

    Case in point – I’ve used a smartphone/netbook combo now for roughly two years. Plenty who’ve seen me work have wondered how I could get so much done, and have been floored when I show them all the functionality and productivity these two gadgets offer combined.

    Some have said it’s underpowered, other times it’s been overkill, but the bottom line is that it works for me, gets the job done, and I’m happy using it. I in fact no longer go out with my bigger notebook, so that says something right there.

    For me the smartphone/netbook combo has proven to be the right gadget when mobile. At home, I’m back to my quad-core notebook. All three are a joy to use, but I wouldn’t substitute one for the other, or go without either one. All three serve their purpose and complement my work very well.

  2. Although there is no ideal device since there is no perfect size for all mobility use cases, there is room for jack-of-all trades mobile devices. For example, I’d like a processor that is good at saving energy while mobile and running fast when plugged in. I’d like a screen the allows multitouch input but also allows use of a pen, and even the joint pen-touch gestures as shown at http://www.gottabemobile.com/2010/04/09/microsoft-research-shows-off-pen-and-touch-together. I’d like a screen that can display color or Kindle-like black on blah since my needs differ depending on battery life and ambient light. And I’d like to have the freedom of a real computer, not a Disneyland-like device in which my choices are restricted severely to comply with the vision of some corporation.

    All these technologies exist to some degree. Five years from now I’d expect mobile devices to be offer more such flexibility.

  3. Are you implying that the Dell Streak/Mini5 is not going to be perfect?! I hope not ;) It is going to be my first smartphone/MID so it better be.

  4. Thanks for this, James. There’s always going to be a substantial amount of personal variation in device preference, both in terms of required features and in less-quantifiable areas like aesthetics. Fortunately, the marketplace has plenty of manufacturers to fill this space, giving consumers the choices they want.

    That issue of choice is one that’s been bugging me around the iPad response. There are lots of people saying “I’d never buy an iPad,” and that’s their right, but many then follow up by saying (at least implicitly) “and you shouldn’t either.” Isn’t that my decision to make?

  5. I agree and disagree with you. The perfect mobile device is a very personal thing. But I also wonder about the “mobile” part of it. Is a mobile device also an “outdoors” device or simply an indoors device. If transporting my laptop to and from work and leaving on the desk when I get at either destination then the 19 inch laptop might be fine. But if it is something you will have when you are walking, standing or riding a train then something else would be more useful. I like that notebooks are finally having built-in 3G so you can use them almost anywhere. But why not just go one step further and let them also make voice calls so that your laptop or netbook can be a HUGE phone with keyboard if you like. (Of course bluetooth or a headset would be a most useful in that scenario). Something like that could come close to being my perfect mobile device.

    1. You’re absolutely right. The key phrase in your well put comment is “my perfect mobile device.” Your case is unique to you, and your optimal solution is too. That’s what I am saying, you need to go with what works best for you, no matter what anyone else says.

  6. Right on! One of the things I like about this website is that you show us how to use mobile devices to do tasks, even if another device might be “better suited” to the task. If I’m on the go and need to complete a task with an iPad, or a netbook, or a smartphone, it is very helpful that you’ve shown me how to complete that task with the tool at hand. Like a wise man once said, “When all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.”

  7. Quentin Dewolf Tuesday, April 27, 2010

    the problem i always have is that my unique requirements never have the broad appeal. this means that what i want will not be built. it would be optimal if mobile devices became more modular. pieces could be mixed and matched to make more personal devices. eg i would pay more, give up battery life, and weigh more to get a discreet video card in a slate tablet variation.

    1. The trick may very well be multiple devices. While we always strive for that one device to fit all needs, sometimes that won’t work. There’s nothing wrong with using multiple devices to get the job done.

  8. I disagree and agree. New Mobile devices are chosen based on how people use them relative to past devices. Once new devices are integrated into culture and business, they become the “perfect device”.

    1. I have to respectfully disagree. What is the perfect device for you many not even come close to working well for someone else with dramatically different needs.

  9. The iPad is as near-Perfect as you can get to with an actual shipping product that you can purchase today.
    Once they add a few goodies (i.e. camera, multitasking, sd) it should be crowned the “Perfect Mobile Device” and as such should be awarded a trophy from JKontheRun during its webcast award ceremony to be held next year.

    This iPad is actually quite the productivity tool as I find myself doing more work on it before 9am than most PC users do their entire day !

  10. I think my 4-year-old daughter’s iPhone 3GS has got to be an almost perfect device. She dropped it in her cereal bowl (completely submerged in a milkly sugary liquid) the other day while she was hard at work on her facebook account. After washing it with some wet towels and letting it dry it still works. Note however that she now uses her iPad more than her iPhone so maybe the iPad is indeed the “Perfect Mobile Device” at this point in time.

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