The myth of the mobile PC

There's a distinction between "portable" computers and "mobile" computers. The "portable PC" is definitely a thing. But the "mobile PC" is a myth...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor

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.

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