The myth of the mobile PC

The myth of the mobile PC

Summary: There's a distinction between "portable" computers and "mobile" computers. The "portable PC" is definitely a thing. But the "mobile PC" is a myth...


We're used to thinking about a laptop as a "portable" computer, but we've been using that term for so long I wonder if we've lost a handle on what it actually means.

These days we talk about "mobile" more than we talk about "portable" -- an iPad is a "mobile computer", not a "portable computer". That distinction is really important.


Consider the Surface. I'm not looking to bash the Surface proposition here, but examining how Microsoft is positioning that device is helpful to understand what "portable" and "mobile" really means.

A selling point of the new Surface Pro 2 is the docking station. On Twitter this week I happened to mention that the idea of a docking station for a mobile computer was oxymoronic. That debate got pretty lively -- but I'll come back to why I think that in a moment.

Whenever Surface has been promoted, Microsoft has always used images like this:

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 14.07.29
An image of a Surface 2 Pro device, taken from Microsoft's website.

 On the other hand, whenever Apple promotes iPad they do so like this:

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 13.27.12
An image of an iPad and iPad mini, taken from Apple's website.

Similarly, Google promote their tablets like so:

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 13.27.43
An image of a user using a Nexus 7 tablet, taken from Google's website.

There is one key difference in all of those images, and it might not be what you think. Microsoft is the only one that promotes their tablet as needing a desk. (Sure, you can't see the desk in the photo, but it is there I assure you! Physics, etc.)

This shows that Microsoft considers Surface to be a portable computer, not a mobile computer. A docking station is an oxymoron in that context because why would something that's mobile need a fixed location where it is supposed to be? That idea is "anti-mobile". 

(By extension, this also shows that Microsoft thinks that Surface is a laptop, not a tablet -- but that's not an argument I expect to win with anyone on the product team.)

The singular distinction between portability and mobility is that a mobile computer is something you can use whilst you're moving, whereas a portable computer is something you need to take from place-to-place, but have to install before you can use it.


The image above of the kid reclining using the Nexus 7 tablet in a classic use case of a tablet. The idea with a PC is that you go up to it and use it -- i.e. it lives somewhere and you go up to it. The idea of a tablet (or smartphone for that matter) is that you use it wherever you happen to be.

Despite the fact that most PCs are laptops, the majority of them don't move around that much. Their design is one that requires specialist equipment to make the most of them -- namely a desk, and a chair. Their most ergonomically appropriate mode of us is the user sitting up, typing on a keyboard, looking at a screen straight in front of them. Everything that's led the evolution of the PC to this point has created this arrangement as the optimal one for comfort when undertaking focused work activities for long periods of time.

This is the reason why the "mobile PC" is a myth. Unless you have something at least something to sit on, and ideally something to sit at, the PC is very difficult to use. A tablet is totally forgiving, adapting itself to you, not the other way around.

Even if the user moves their laptop around, it'll usually be moved between a set number of discrete locations -- say the study at home, desk at a client, table in a coffee shop.

To this end, I tend to look not so much that a PC is "portable", but rather that it is "adaptable" -- i.e. that it can be adapted to work in different locations.

Coming back to the Surface docking station discussed above -- a docking station helps when you want to make working in a given locations more efficient. (Perhaps if you're really flash you'll have one docking station at home and another in the office.)

This also explains why docking stations for iPads are so unusual -- they are mobile computers, not portable ones. If you're reclining on the sofa and fancy baking a cake, you'll pick up the iPad and look for recipes there and then. In the pre-post-PC era, you would have had to have gone to your PC, booted it up, and looked online. (Interestingly, in the pre-PC era, perhaps you would have gone to find a physical recipe book and taken that back to the sofa to peruse. We've come full circle.)

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Mobility, Smartphones, Tablets

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  • There are trees in the forest, we get it...

    ...but then my assumption is that Microsoft's biggest issue is not with their products, but the assumption that people are as smart as they seem to think they are. Take the images in question you have presented. You focus on the obvious, which most people always do...granted. I look at it another way, you know tablets are totally easy to use in any way and any place. What Microsoft seems to think is that you know this by default. So with their Surface, they add the image that you would also be able to use this (and I'll say it IS) mobile device, and add that whole PC value experience to this already completely understood and acceptable fact that you COULD very well use it without all the PC accoutrements of productivity. I know this because for the better part of a year, I *HAVE* used it in this manner. Why is it that Apple and Google think they need to hold our hands in their ads? Basic Principles, People are Stupid. Microsoft gives customers more credit than they seem they're worth...and I actually like that, but c'est la vie, lets always give them the back of our hand and shake our heads like they are the ones with the problem. =\
    • To Add to Your Comment...

      I think the pictures reflect more the marketing decisions of the companies promoting the devices than anything else.

      The Surface ad emotes practicality, usefulness. The iPad ad emotes edginess, prestige. The Nexus ad emotes engagement, particularly for the generation shown.
      • I would SO enjoy reading the results of your Rorschach interpretations.

        Just saying. Very Big Grin.
      • "The Surface ad emotes practicality, usefulness."

        The Surface ad shows a group of young people dancing around while they attach and detach the keyboards to their tablets. That denotes neither practicality nor usefulness.
      • Using PR to define tech?

        Thank god for PR to tell us how to hold it or we would all be holding it wrong!
    • Too Much Assumption

      I think both sides of this argument are over thinking the issues. I don't think Apple and Google are "holding our hands". Their ads are simply showing their vision of how the device is used. I see plenty of folks use iPads with third-party keypads or with the device in landscape mode, propped up by the cover, typing away with the on-screen keyboard.

      The whole argument that something isn't mobile because it can be used in a more traditional manner is at best, just, ONE, person's, opinion.

      Of course that opinion is like trying to define a mobile home. Even if it's an RV (that is, it doesn't commonly live in what's colloquially called a "trailer park"), very few use it to the fullest extent while driving it down the road. Yes, there are always those who will still try to make macaroni-n-cheese while moving but I file those tales in the same place as the RV urban legends where enormous punitive damages are awarded when the cruise control is confused for an auto pilot.
      • not sure where you see "plenty of folks" using third-party keyboards

        At our company there are 5/6 people with ipad (including me), not one uses an external keyboard. Where do you see that? Haven't see that at the coffee shop either, all people I see using ipad without any external keyboard.
        • Most of the people at my company are using physical keyboard...

          nearly all. May have to do with the amount of typing/content creation expected vs browsing ?
  • Semantics

    This is one of those articles that feels like we're arguing over semantics, however, I do believe that Microsoft won't truly be a player in post-PC until they release a 7 or 8" tablet running Windows RT on a Tegra processor.
    • Completely semantics.

      I honestly wish Microsoft had used Windows Phone 8 for their tablets and left desktop Windows alone. If they had, I think none of us would be constantly debating whether Windows tablets are a valid alternative to the far more popular Android and iOS tablets on the market. One OS does not fit all devices. Two, on the other hand, covers everything quite nicely. I'm also surprised that some manufacturers haven't already created tablets that run WP8 instead of Win8. The other tablets are more successful because both Apple and Google realize tablets are far more similar to phones than they are to desktops.
      • Finally....

        BillDem says something that makes sense. From the beginning of the Windows Phone experiment, I wanted a Windows Phone tablet. AFAIK, Microsoft will not let OEMs put Windows Phone on anything that does not have phone capability. They do not want Windows Phone competing with Windows RT.

        After a recent article by Matt, I think that Microsoft may need to make a bigger differentiation between Windows Home and Windows Work (Pro, Ultimate, Enterprise). I think that Windows 8, as it stands right now will work well for most people in the home environment. I'm using one now. Sounds like a line from a commercial, but it is true.

        But, there has been far too much resistance to the Modern UI in the workplace, and for those who use their computers for work. I think that MS may need to listen to them, for the versions of Windows 8 intended for the workplace.

        Now, I think that Matt is reading the images above incorrectly.

        Apple isn't saying anything about the iPad, other than they have two sizes. They aren't cluttering the picture with docks, keyboards, etc. for two reasons.

        1. They do not make any of these that they intend for the iPad.
        2. They do not need to. As the #1 selling product, the message in the ad is "we have two sizes." They do not have another message.

        In the past, Apple has done many ads showing what you do with an iPad, and none of them involve a keyboard or dock, because Apple does not intend for them to be used that way. Apple could easily have done that Nexus ad, that sort of thing is right up their alley, but Google got to it first (in an ad sense).

        The message from can use it any time, any place. Good message.

        The message from Microsoft is...we do more than the others. That is the Surface selling point, and I think it is a good one. Unfortunately, I think MS overestimated the number of people that wanted a tablet that does more.

        But, I do think that Matt has a partial point here, because all the MS ads show Surface being used on a desk or table.

        As a counter, think of the Lenovo YOGA ads. They show all the ways a YOGA can be used. MS needs to do some ads that show the Surface being used as a tablet. I think that a very effective could have someone start off with a Surface, on a desk, typing away. He stands up, folds up the kickstand, closes his TouchCover over the screen and takes off. Next, he or she folds back the cover and uses it like a tablet, no kickstand, no keyboard, using it just like an iPad, or an Android tablet. At the end, he sits down, props it up on the kickstand and watches a video.

        The recent Siri-voiced iPad versus Surface is a good start, but it needs to go further. Also, MS could use a series of ads that do not press the TouchCover, but maybe just the mobile aspects of the device along with showing off SD cards and USB.
      • correct as usual

        I suspect MS might wish they'd left Windows for PC alone, too.

        Meanwhile, does anyone else find the third paragraph in AK's reply to Billdem to be as amusing as I do? Might need to listen? The fact that businesses are going out of their collective way to NOT use Metro on desktop systems is in no way a subtle point. To send Win8 out the door with Metro as the default interface on conventional desktop keyboard/mouse/monitor systems is a goof of staggering proportions, and a demonstration of just how clueless MS has become.

        In other news, I'm shopping for a new car. I plan to buy one with a steering wheel, pedals on the floor and a shifter to the right of my knee. Microsoft can build a car with a user interface using none of those features if it so chooses, but they'll have little luck selling it into a market that has been using steering wheels and pedals on the floor for over a century. That, in a nutshell, is why Metro has met such resistance on desktops, especially on the commercial side.
      • Disagreeing...

        Let me quote Paul Thurrott's opinion on this.

        "But here's an inconvenient truth: Had Microsoft created a "Metro OS" or whatever, separately, for mobile devices, that system would have sunk in the market just as badly as has Windows 8, if not worse. As with Windows Phone before it, there just isn't much demand for yet another mobile platform, not when both Android and iOS have hundreds of thousands of apps and established ecosystems. Desktop Windows, meanwhile, would have continued its inevitable decline, racing to become the smallest of the three major mainstream computing markets.

        But in melding the new Metro platform onto Windows, Microsoft has, in effect, forced all Windows customers to deal with this new mobile OS whether they want it or not. This has created an unprecedented backlash, triggering the development of a refined version of the OS, called Windows 8.1, discussed below, that softens the transition between the desktop and Metro and makes it possible for users to stick to the environment they prefer. "

        In other words, Metro on Windows was a necessary evil.
        • Re: a refined version of the OS, called Windows 8.1

          Unfortunately, Windows 8.1 is the same abomination in slightly different clothes. Don't be fooled by Microsoft promises. They already missed the train.

          What Microsoft achieved by uniting Windows Phone and (desktop) Windows is accelerate the demise of desktop Windows, as the message they send to their customers is "we have no idea what to do". Fans will stay around for a while, but even they will move away at some point in time.

          Can Microsoft save Windows? Yes! But.. there are two problems: first, Microsoft intends to kill Windows as an "user owned" OS. And second, they are not the type of company who will admit failure, ever.
          • Move on to what?

            Metro is a lesser evil than OSX or Linux. OSX especially is limited to expensive Apple hardware, hiding before custom EFIs and onerous licensing. I don't get how removing the user owning factor will make Windows better; having a marketplace option,buying a Windows license, is a great option to have and completely agnostic of Windows' current situation.
        • The sad part is...

          Windows Phone currently have more apps than "metro". Had Microsoft used Windows Phone OS as the bases for their Surface tablets (which I argued they should from the beginning), they probably would have had a larger user base right now. Windows Phone users would have been happy purchasing a Surface, knowing all their apps will be compatible on that device and vice-verser. They probably would have had a bigger market share than they do now with them going Windows 8, starting over and breaking that compatibility with Windows Phone ecosystem (WinCE). Not only would this have made sense to consumers (seeing how Apple and Google did the same thing) but it would have made sense to developers as well, having phone and tablets sharing the same OS and ecosystem. As it stands today, there's just not many Windows Phone apps that are compatible between the two ecosystem.

          Paul Thruttle is wrong more times than he is right.
  • Sorry Mathew.... are clueless. The docking station is an accessory, just like there are keyboard accessories for the iPad. I am sure you have one with your iPad. The Surface Pro is both a mobile and portable computer. Why does it have to be one or the other? If it is powerful enough to be your everyday PC, then why wouldn't you want to use it as your main PC via the docking station, then also have it as your mobile computer when you are away from your desk? I don't want to carry around 2 devices if I don't have to... you certainly do with the iPad. The Surface Pro is not for everyone, but I would love to have it with a docking station to use it as my main PC, and detached to use it as tablet.
    • Re: I am sure you have one with your iPad.

      There is no "docking station" as a concept for the iPad.

      There is a stand, of one form or another, where you can put the iPad to stay in certain position and eventually use the fact that it sits there to feed power to it (which makes sense if you use the stand to turn the iPad into an photo or video frame).

      There is nothing you can do with a "docking station" type of setup with the iPad, that you cannot do without it.
      • apple store

        Apple sells what they call a dock that has a usb connector.
        • Charging dock

          It's not a docking station, it's a charging dock. You can't plug a keyboard, mouse, network cable, or storage drive into a charging dock. You can usually plug all of those into a docking station.