We hear a lot these days about the massive transition in consumer attention from desktop to mobile devices. That transition is an undeniable reality, but it would be a mistake to assume that it’s just about mobile devices themselves. What the smartphone has done is to enable a change in mental attitude when it comes to the use and consumption of online services. As Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research has suggested, the popularity of mobile devices has led to a “mobile mind shift,” which he defines as “the expectation that any desired information or service is available, on any appropriate device, in context, at your moment of need.”
Smartphones have done a remarkably good job of meeting that expectation, partly because of their portability, partly because of their ability to situate the user in particular places. But there’s no reason to assume that the smartphone will be the only means of fulfilling the expectations Bernoff outlines. The mobile shift is really about the mobility of the user, not the device.
Products like Google Glass have already tried, and so far mostly failed, to capitalize on this device-agnostic approach to the mobile mind shift. But the insight behind Google Glass will ultimately prove correct: users will want access to online information and services in whatever manner is most convenient for them at a particular moment, while also expecting those services to integrate seamlessly across all of their devices.
If I look up a local business on my laptop, I want to be able to send its contact info to my phone or directions to my car, or better yet, have all of that happen automatically without my having to do anything, because all of my devices are seamlessly interoperable. To cut down on the tedium of grocery shopping, I want my smart refrigerator to keep track of the items I’ve run out of and generate a list that goes directly to my phone.
Extending beyond device interoperability, the mobile mind shift is also about mobility between online services. In this regard mobile devices themselves still have a long way to go. Much of the smartphone user experience is still compartmentalized by apps that don’t speak to each other, where consumers would likely prefer a more flexible approach that gets them the answer they need no matter which service can provide it. Rather than looking for restaurant recommendations on Yelp, booking a reservation on OpenTable, looking up the restaurant location on Google Maps, and ordering a car with Uber, consumers would prefer one transaction that links all of these services effortlessly.
Indeed, Google Maps recently updated its mobile interface, adding integration with both OpenTable and Uber. Similarly, Mapquest recently announced the addition of roadside assistance services through a deal with Urgent.ly. These types of integration deals offer a limited version at least of the integration across services that will likely become more comprehensive over time. Apple’s Siri voice recognition app hints at a slightly broader vision, linking as it does to several services on the iPhone, though all of them are under Apple’s control.
Wolfram Alpha, which powers Siri’s knowledge base, began an initiative earlier this year called the Wolfram Connected Devices Project, aiming to establish an open standard for interconnectivity between electronic devices of all kinds. Wolfram Alpha is betting that device manufacturers will agree that the benefits of interconnectivity will outweigh the potential competitive risks.
The same choice may not come easily in the case of online services, but greater interconnectivity is likely to be inevitable anyway. Consider Amazon’s new Echo device, a voice-activated black cylinder that is meant to be used in the home, where it will help you with recipes, play music, wake you up in the morning, manage your shopping list, give you the weather report, and so on.
The reality may not live up to the hype of Amazon’s commercial for the product, but there’s no question that Amazon has tapped into the zeitgeist. A device that connects you to all of the services you need through a simple unified interface is at least one answer to the demand represented by the mobile mind shift.
Of course, a single device cannot suit every purpose. Consumers live within a complex ecosystem of devices and online services. The solution to interconnectivity lies not with a single product but with open platforms such as Wolfram Alpha’s that will establish much stronger and more useful linkages between devices and services than anything we have today.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.