The (R)evolution of Mobile

Mobile revolution

I have been involved in the mobile world for years, and there’s never been a better time than the present for mobile technology. The major technologies of mobile have evolved at a breakneck pace, and we’re entering a place where conventional and mobile tech begin to merge for many, especially those in the mainstream. Devices that can be easily untethered from the desktop, while remaining connected at broadband speeds, will soon be the norm.

The move from desktop computers to notebooks has led one side of the mobile charge. Consumers appreciate all-in-one computers like the notebook, for the ease of use if nothing else. While notebooks are mobile computers, they really took off in popularity when consumers realized there’s nothing easier than hitting a single button and having the entire system up and running. As notebook pricing dropped, the more inevitable it became that they would surpass desktop systems in sales.

Notebook makers led by Dell , Gateway and HP saw the interest in notebooks begin to rise, and embarked on a new course to sell them. The volume sales mentality coalesced for the first time for notebooks — previously high-priced computers — and prices were reduced to move more notebooks than ever before. The companies soon found that selling a complete system in one box was easier than selling sets of components, and price wars began. When notebook pricing dropped low enough, consumers started buying more of them than the desktop computer.

Netbooks entered the scene quite recently, although it seems they’ve been around for a long time. While pricing certainly played a role in the popularity of the netbook, the portability also attracted buyers new to mobile technology. Many netbooks are purchased for home use, yet end up carried along for outside use due to the convenient size. Home users became new mobile users.

The rise of the smartphone was the other factor in the increased popularity of mobile technology. As the phone gained capabilities that previously existed only in computers, the benefits of computing on the go were exposed to many who hadn’t given it much thought. Almost overnight non-techies began computing while mobile, and on the smartphone. These folks began eying the notebook on the desk at home, and realizing how much use they could get by taking it with them when they left home. New mobile users were being created all the time as a result. Laptops in coffee shops could be seen more frequently, and in the hands of regular people as much as with working professionals. The mobile non-professional user began appearing everywhere.

Two smartphones can be credited with exposing mainstream consumers to the benefits of mobile computing. The BlackBerry invaded the enterprise in force, and as companies discovered the cost benefits achieved by deploying them to more of the staff, employees enjoying the technology realized it could be leveraged in their personal lives. The BlackBerry began appearing in consumer hands, and the mobile revolution had begun.

The Apple iPhone fanned the flames of the mobile revolution, as it was aimed squarely at the mainstream consumer. The appeal to the consumer for this new type of phone, combined with an effective marketing campaign by Apple, saw the iPhone appear in the hands of millions previously unexposed to mobile technology. It didn’t take long until these consumers realized the impact a mobile computer could have on their personal lives. This played a direct role in the rise in popularity of the notebook computer. Consumers are savvy people, and they simply need to be exposed to new technology to “get it”.

High speed connectivity has played a big role in the adoption of mobile technology. As more notebooks were carried around by consumers, Wi-Fi hotspots began to appear in a lot of businesses, and that got consumers familiar with tapping into the web outside the home. There is little doubt Starbucks played a major role in this process as word spread that if folks took their laptop to the coffee shop they could relax with a good beverage and get online. The stage was thus set for the appearance of mobile broadband that went with the user, and the next stage of the mobile revolution kicked off.

Notebooks began selling with integrated 3G connectivity, primarily to the enterprise at first. Consumers didn’t sit idly on the sidelines however, and soon began snapping up cheap laptops with this connectivity. The consumer, having been exposed to the “always connected” smartphone, started picking up cheap notebooks (and netbooks) in droves. The mentality began to change profoundly, from “wanting” constant connectivity to “expecting” it.

This change of mentality is currently underway, and will be the driver behind the acceptance of mobile tech going forward. While “3G” was previously a techie phrase, it is now commonly understood by the average consumer. Phones must have 3G, and mobile computers need to have it too. The consumer mindset has shifted dramatically, with the desire to have connectivity always at hand. This is a major shift in the acceptance of mobile technology, and there is no going back.

The next phase of mobile has already begun in the U.S., with an unlikely company behind it. Sprint has been able to resurrect a technology many (myself included) thought was dead. WiMAX was originally thought to be the wave of the future years ago when it first appeared. As it took a long time to roll out this technology in earnest, many felt it would never make an impact on the mobile scene.

Sprint has pushed the rollout of its WiMAX network in the U.S., and has smartly named it “4G” which appeals to the consumer now comfortable with 3G. The high speeds of 4G, coupled with aggressive pricing by Sprint, are beginning to expose consumers to connectivity like they have at home that always lives inside the mobile device.

As consumers get accustomed to having fast broadband always at hand, the mindset will surely shift from the wanting to the expecting stage. The 4G connectivity will soon not be a cool option with mobile gear, it is going to be expected. Providers are racing to get the next generation networks up and running, as they see this paradigm shift in consumer expectations.

The mobile revolution is now entering the next big phase with the appearance of the iPad. Connectivity (even through Wi-Fi) is in place to keep the iPad connected, and consumers are about to realize the benefits a simple web appliance can bring to their lives. They may use the iPad at home primarily, but we’re going to start seeing them all over the place.

The iPad is not a “real” computer, but that’s not going to matter to many. Consumers have long demonstrated that the gadget that is easy to use — and just as importantly fun to use — is well received. The fact that it is always connected in hotspots or via 3G is the final piece of the puzzle. The connectivity coupled with the appliance nature of the iPad will drive millions of sales.

The mobile revolution is in full swing, and there’s no stopping it. People are comfortable with carrying mobile gear around with them, whether that be phones or notebooks. The mindset has begun to shift from viewing this tech as just a way to get work done, to that of entertainment and leisure activities. The iPad is going to speed up this mindset swing, and make mobile tech a commonplace part of consumers’ lives. The perfect storm is about to hit.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

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