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In design, words matter

One of the more interesting and complex design challenges these days is unfolding as we speak: in the war of the smartphone. Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS-powered iPhone and iPad, and perhaps Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 and HP’s WebOS are all vying for dominance in the mobile information space.

Notice that I used the term “mobile information” and not “mobile computing” to describe the space. How we describe things matters, because words set frames, frames set perspectives, and perspectives drive analysis and decision-making. And it could be argued that how a company culture labels things internally directly affects the frame of reference, and helps guide what problems are prioritized, and how to go about solving those problems. This is one reason why words and labels are so critical to effective brand definition.

Let’s take a moment to consider just this: “mobile information” vs. “mobile computing.” For many, these two terms are interchangeable. Many in fact say that the iPhone is a mini computer in your pocket. Yet, millions of users I’m sure don’t ever think of the term “computer” when using their iPhone. So, which is it? Let’s investigate.

If you were told to design a mobile information device, what quickly pops into your head in terms of how the device looks? And if you were told to imagine what an idea mobile computing device looked like, would it be any different? I encourage you to share your answers to these questions in the comments. Here are my answers:

Mobile information device: device has a large screen that displays text very well (for easy readability), and enables me to quickly and easily navigate and find information that I desire to find with minimal interaction. It needs to be connected to as many content sources as possible so that the information I desire can be provided to me. I imagine this device would also be able to talk to me so that it can provide me information while I am unable to hold it or look at it.

Mobile computing device: device is compact, and is designed to take in all kinds of information effortlessly. It should sense where it is, what I want it to figure out, and have a lot of computing power to crank out answers to the problems I give it. It should also have access to huge databases and be able to do complex calculations. It should be processing things for me while I do my regular activities. It should be my agent.

Modern smartphones are a bit of each, obviously, which is about right. But the product vision of a mobile device can become differentiated based on which design path it takes. How would you categorize each smartphone in terms of a mobile device? Here’s my take on the primary two dimensions:

  • Apple’s iOS: Mobile information & gaming device

  • Google’s Android: Connected information & computing device

  • Microsoft’s Windows Phone: Connected computing device

In this estimation (which I invite you to challenge in the comments section), I’ve identified that each mobile OS has a distinct primary and secondary purpose — or design path. And because all OS’s are still relatively young, we may see an increasingly obvious divide amongst them as they evolve down their design paths.

Currently, smartphone is the descriptor we use to distinguish these devices. This label won’t suffice for long. We will need a new level of more descriptive labels to begin distinguishing the varying purposes of these different mobile operating systems and the devices in which they live.

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