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Don't Call It a Phone!
The future of mobile computing

by Sam McMillan

Every generation of working stiffs has a dream of quitting their day jobs and living in luxury. In the ’60s the men and women of Madison Avenue pined for antique shops in Greenwich. In the ’70s workers threw off their chains for the charms of the back-to-the-land movement. In the ’80s, that dream went upscale, and took root in the wine country. In the ’90s we longed to escape to Tuscany. And now, in the first decade of the 21st century, if we could just code that killer iPhone app, we could flee the cubicle farm forever, sit back and cash-in on a never-ending stream of royalty checks...

The success stories and the numbers behind them are impressive.

Like App Store poster boy Steve Demeter. Working nights and weekends, Demeter created Trism, and racked up $250,000 in sales in less than two months. Or take Ethan Nicholas, developer of the tank artillery game, iShoot. With a single iPhone game Nicholas raked in $600,000 in a month, earning $37,000 in just one day. The free game, Tap Tap Revenge was downloaded a million times in the two weeks following its release, and paved the way for higher-end versions from parent company Tapulous that sell for real money.

Designing for context: A good mobile application provides context-sensitive information that enhances the in-person experience. Nu-Tel mobile map designed by Punchcut.

In the first month Apple unveiled its App Store, more than 2,000 third-party native applications launched for the iPhone. As of this writing, more than 30,000 iPhone apps, including at least 7,000 games, are available in the App Store. By the time you read this, the App Store will have delivered well over one billion downloads.

Meanwhile venture capital money is flowing like water from an open spigot. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has bank-rolled iFund, to the tune of $100 million. It’s betting on innovators who bring “transformative, high-impact ideas with an eye towards building independent durable companies atop the iPhone/iPod touch platform.” Already it’s funded start-ups, including life coach Booyah, photo-sharing mashup Pelago and ng:moco, a games publisher dedicated to releasing games solely for the iPhone platform.

And that’s just it. It’s not a phone. It's a platform. Developers, user interface design firms and designers who get this, understand that the transformative value of the platform extends beyond the value of the applications.

In India, mobile phone owners use Obopay to send and receive money. In Kenya, txteagle combines mobile phones with crowd sourcing to perform small chunks of work such as medical transcriptions or tagging photos for micro-payments. And in Japan, novels written and read on cell phones make up half the best-seller list.

Meanwhile, in America, most of us are merely using the mobile phone to make calls, tap out text messages and take photos. That’s going to change, and fast. As smart phones proliferate, browsers for the phone grow more robust and connection bandwidth opens up, we'll see a new generation of handheld devices that transform the way we think about mobile computing.

According to Patrick Newbery, chief strategy officer at Method, “We need to stop thinking of the handheld as a functional device. It’s a channel for delivering communications, services and media.”

Designers have to think beyond the interface, Newbery says. “That's an example of legacy thinking. When you begin thinking about the device as a mode of interaction with the world around you, that’s future thinking.”

Photo of a test lab where Method sees how its mobile designs work when real users are trying to accomplish specific tasks. This allows Method to evaluate features, UX and visual design.

Evelyn Wang, Method’s director of user experience, says, “You have to design with the perspective that the mobile device is an extension of the user's intent. When you see the phone as an extension of your will, it’s not about how cool the phone looks. If you understand why people want to use their phone, you’ll change the way you design.”

Changing our experience of mobile phones is where San Francisco-based Punchcut comes in. The seven-year-old UI design company, which now employs about 40 people, looks at mobile as a way of life.

It’s not a device, or a platform, says Punchcut executive creative director Jared Benson, “It's a lifestyle. Life is mobile, media is mobile; your mobile is the ultimate social networking tool. The information and the tools built into the virtual world of mobile provide the ideal way to meet up in the real world. You can select people in your address book, connect with the ones you see on a map, then sort and filter by their interests.”

Joe Pemberton, Punchcut co-founder and brand director, says, “Clients are increasingly asking for embedded social networking components across the device. Our handset customers want ubiquitous access to the people they care about. They want to see their address book paired with location, so they can view their contacts in the context of who is nearby.”

Connecting mobile devices with social networking applications begins by asking the right questions. Shilpa Shah, associate interaction designer at Punchcut, explains. “We begin by asking, ‘How can we use a mobile device to help us connect in the real world? What contexts do we include, and what tasks do we want to perform?’” McMillan
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at