Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

25 June 2013

Defining Mobile

Clark @ 8:27 AM

At the recent Guild mLearnCon mobile learning event, I had a thought that seems to answer a long time debate.  The debate centers on the definition of a mobile device.  The feature/smart phone is obviously a candidate, and tablets seem pretty clearly included too, but the ongoing issue has been whether a laptop counts. And I may have finally discovered a way of looking at it that answers the question.

Eschewing the more abstract and academic definitions, the one that has most resonated with me has been Judy Brown’s.  As I recall it, her characteristics are:

  • small enough to fit in a pocket or purse,
  • you’re familiar with it,
  • instant on,
  • and a battery that will last all day.

And this has been pretty good, because most laptops don’t fit the latter criteria, their batteries didn’t used to be able to go all day.  However, this is a characteristic-based definition, e.g. about inherent properties of the device, and this can change. The new MacBook Airs, for instance, now have a battery that will last all day. And, even if the 13″ is too big, the 11″ or some other might soon fit the criteria. That is, we’re hitting a moving target.

What struck me the other day, however, was looking at it not from inherent properties of the devices, but from usage affordance, i.e. how one uses the device.  Because it struck me: to me, it’s not really a mobile device unless you can use it with two hands, standing up or in motion. More importantly, it has to be a natural usage: holding up a netbook with one hand and hunt-and-peck with one hand doesn’t qualify.  In short, if you can’t use it with two hands while moving, it’s not really mobile.

This strikes me as a way that will inherently allow new devices and new capabilities, yet still clearly distinguish what’s mobile and what’s not.  So, for instance, devices with keyboard that turns around and becomes a tablet?  A tablet’s mobile: hold with one hand, touch with the other.  A two-handed keyboard is not. Will this fall apart?  Probably, as the ultimate mobile test is whether it’s a device that goes with you everywhere: to the market, to a party, even to the bathroom.  And some may be able to, but which ones really do? Regularly?  If I had a small enough tablet, or iPod touch, probably, but the phone, yes!  However, in some contexts, e.g. work, a tablet might go with me to all my work contexts, and then it qualifies if it meets the criteria: of being able to used naturally, standing up.

This, to me, seems to provide a better criteria, at least for now.  What say you?



  1. Clark, the terms in your definition all seem to focus on the features rather than the benefits of the device. And one of the features depends on what you are wearing at the time — if I have a purse then an iPad is mobile, if I’m wearing cargo pants then a mini iPad is mobile, if I’m wearing slacks and have no purse then only my iPhone is mobile.

    To me the defining benefit is will the device allow me to access the tools I require in order to acquire the information and create the material I need so that I can remain productive when I’m away from my home/office?

    Comment by Donald Clark — 25 June 2013 @ 10:07 AM

  2. I’ve learned a lot from your posts and books Clark, thank you for sharing so much.

    These days I tend to avoid defining mobile by either device (e.g. size or features, which is getting harder to define) or context (e.g. on the go, which is often not true). My current preferred way of framing mobile is to use phrases such as “mobile means close at hand” or “mobile means being available”. I look forward to any comments that you may have.

    Comment by Paul Hibbitts — 25 June 2013 @ 3:39 PM

  3. Donald, defining it by access of tools is a good post-hoc analysis, but I’m trying to assist folks being predictive. Jay Cross made a similar case to me talking about how a traveling salesman with a laptop in his car with tools of the moment is similarly using his laptop as mobile support. To me it seems more like a mobile device rather than mlearning. I think the other thing is not the context, but which device do you really have with you *all* the time? My tablet isn’t it, my phone is.

    Paul, thanks for the kind words. And it definitely is the ‘is it at hand’ question. I think most folks always have their phone with them, and a few may always have their tablet with them. If you provide a device, whatever it is, it’s always with them ‘at the work context’ (e.g. iPad for hospital/plane, phone for sales folks).

    Thanks for the feedback!

    Comment by Clark — 27 June 2013 @ 10:07 AM

  4. Clark, I tend to agree with you on this. In work scenarios a tablet would probably be considered mobile for most folks.
    Though the difficult part is – as you said – it is a moving target. We will continue to challenge our own definitions as the devices evolve constantly. Convertibles and hybrids are here while flexible screens & wearable is the next stage of evolution for mobile devices. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Amit — 1 July 2013 @ 12:25 AM

  5. Clark, great voice of reason. I have found past debates of this topic excruciating. To the outside world they will be as useful as deciding how many angels can balance on the head of a pin. By contrast your definition hits the spot. Now let’s move on and put these things to work!

    Comment by Ara Ohanian — 1 July 2013 @ 2:07 AM

  6. Clark, I find this conversation most interesting, but I’m still lost on a couple of the concepts – mobility and context.

    Being able to use a device with two hands while standing up or being in motion just seems wrong as it can be very rude or even dangerous. It reminds me of a video I saw in which a lady is walking in a mall with her face planted to her smartphone and walks straight into an indoor pool :-)

    While some people may need to be able to stand while using their device, a cop on a walking beat comes to mind, how many workers really need that affordance? I can’t recall a recent experience in my work in which I needed to stand (I’m a one person shop who has a home office and meet clients at local coffee shops or their place of business).

    If a person goes to a coffee shop and while standing in line to order her coffee ask a question and receives an answer through Twitter by using her smartphone, then the consensus seems to be that she is mlearning. But if she uses her laptop while sitting at a table to perform the exact same task, then the consensus seems to be she is not mlearning. I don’t understand the reasoning behind this.

    And similar to the above, if a person is resting in an easy chair at home and using their device to learn then they are mlearning (even though they are only 20 feet from their pad and computer). But if a person is 200 miles from their home and office and learns the very same skill on their laptop, then they are not mlearning.

    Comment by donald Clark — 1 July 2013 @ 10:34 AM

  7. Define the device in terms of the learner. Mobility is the ability to learn where the learner is. If this is by textbook then it fits the definition. If the textbook is big and the learner is travelling there may be a problem, if it is replaced by a tablet and the battery gives out and the learner is in remote Africa then the textbook remains the mobile solution.
    So by including the learning we find mobile is about being able to learn. A textbook may not support the media best suited to learning. A phone may not have a big enough screen, a laptop may provide the right keyboard for a particular task. But they are all mobile for particular learing situations. Why try to define them any other way? What is the purpose of your discussion?
    Define the device in terms of the learner, the learner’s situation: their needs and resources. Don’t define a mobile learning device by the size of the screen but by the suitability of the screen for the learner’s needs.

    Comment by Ralph — 2 July 2013 @ 3:01 AM

  8. I agree with Ralph. Police cars and ambulances fitted with laptops and “computing” on a train across Italy came to mind as examples of framing the definition in terms of the user (learner). What it also does is help learning designers dig more deeply into their rationale and goals for mlearning.

    I just got backup storage for my computer, which happens to be a laptop, which rarely leaves my home. The backup is just a bit bigger than my phone. It too will rarely leave my home. Both were designed for portability, yet neither is used primarily as such. My ipad also rarely leaves my house, but when I travel it trumps the laptop most of the time.

    I’d disagree with Ralph on the point: “Don’t define a mobile learning device by the size of the screen but by the suitability of the screen for the learner’s needs.” I’d argue that the learning outcomes drive the design. If a long text needs to be comprehended deeply, it should be served up in a way that facilitates this goal. The potential mobility of the learner should be a consideration but it shouldn’t drive the design.

    Comment by Suzanne — 5 July 2013 @ 11:26 AM

  9. […] Innovative Info: Defining Mobile […]

    Pingback by The Mobile Learning Revolution: 101 Top Resources | Fluency21 – Committed Sardine Blog — 25 July 2013 @ 10:06 AM

  10. […] Quinn’s recent post explores what defines a mobile device. Does a laptop count? Does a tablet count? Should any device that requires two hands to operate be […]

    Pingback by Enspire Studios » Does Mobile Learning Require a Mobile Device? — 31 July 2013 @ 2:01 PM

  11. […] See Quinn’s blog, Learnlets, for an updated definition of mobile. […]

    Pingback by Review of Clark Quinn’s (2011) Mobile Learning: Landscape and Trends. | Barish Golland — 20 August 2013 @ 3:36 AM

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress