I took part in a short, but thought provoking Twitter conversation with a couple of geek friends recently, which was touched off by Jeff Atwood's article The PC is Over (Oct 2012). In that post he makes a convincing argument that our mobile devices now have more processing power than we need, and there really is no point in investing in a desktop or laptop device anymore.
It's an interesting and provocative argument, but my geek friend from across the river made a great counterpoint:
@kixxauth Tablets suck for creative acts. If you only "need" mobile devices in your life then you are probably very uninteresting. ;-)— Bruce Locke (@blocke) February 12, 2013
The truth of the matter is that behind every mobile device is a series of design decisions, and all of those decisions are made to optimize for consumption; browsing the web, social media, music, videos, games, et al. That includes phones, phablets, and tablets.
Creators, makers, and hackers are ignored by most, if not all, of these design decisions. And, to put it bluntly, if you're not a creator, maker, or hacker, you're not very interesting (in our opinion). So where is the disconnect, and what is the future for creating value on mobile devices?
I've got some thoughts.
The Mobile User Interface Sucks
But, what is the real roadblock for creators on mobile devices? Again, I had to agree with @blocke:
@kixxauth Recent tablets already have enough CPU for most creative tasks. Shiny yet truly primitive input methods and UI is the problem.— Bruce Locke (@blocke) February 12, 2013
The UI for consuming media on a mobile device is adequate. Not good, but adequate. But if your objective is to actually create something, the UI sucks. It is simply not possible to produce high quality creative works with the UI current device designers are giving us (except in a few edge cases ).
On this note, the discussion turned to screen resolution, where mobile devices have an edge:
Again, the decision to push screen resolution quality on mobile devices is backed by the design goal of media consumption. Yes, it would be great to have better quality screens on desktop and laptop machines, but I don't think most creators are hung up by the lack of 300dpi on their main production devices (yet).
Achieving Work Flow
I read a blog post awhile ago which is a summary of a year spent developing software on an iPad (Sept 2012) , and which I found very interesting. The author touts working on a mobile as a more liberating experience, free of distractions.
I agree, that focusing on one task at a time is important, and achieving a creative and productive work flow is a rewarding experience. I disagree that we need to work on a device that artificially limits us in order to achieve this.
When I used to coach young rowers I would focus on their balance and sense of rhythm. These attributes are critical to rowing efficiently, and achieving maximum speed in a rowing shell. So, I would drill young athletes by asking them to row with their eyes closed. Of course my best student in this drill was a high school sophomore who had been born without his sight. Achieving perfect balance and rhythm was natural for him. He had spent his entire life honing his other senses and responders to a higher degree of sensitivity than most athletes. The distractions the other kids were experiencing from their eyes simply were not a problem for him. He went on to join the US national team. (@akjrow)
So yeah, I believe in training our minds and bodies for maximal work flow. But I don't believe we need to cut off our right arm to do it. Maybe for short periods of time we should restrict ourselves, but using tools which have a limited bandwidth for creativity is not the only way to do it.
So, I'm not buying the argument that we need to limit the capability of our tools in order to force ourselves to focus on a particular task. I'm not going to sacrifice the productivity boost I get from my mechanical keyboard, precise pointing device, and dual monitors. There are things I can do to train myself, including, but not limited to, working on a handicapped device.
I love my mobile devices. They inspire me to create stuff. But whenever I have that inspiration, I turn to my laptop or desktop machines to do the work. My phones and tablets don't even come close to the creative tools available on my "work" machines. I think we're kidding ourselves about being productive and creative on mobile devices in the future. Sure, we'll use our mobiles to jot down ideas, read articles, bookmark the web, and even create prototypes, but when it comes time to make something, we'll still be using a "real" machine.
Of course you could say that you'll just plug in a full keyboard, add a big monitor, and any other number of peripherals to your little device which are needed to do your work, but then it's not mobile, is it?