Google doesn't consider tablets to be "mobile devices", how do you define "mobile"?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Google doesn't consider tablets to be "mobile devices", how do you define "mobile"?
The idea of a "mobile device" is a little tough to get a gauge on. For the purposes of Phone Arena, we tend to limit the idea to smartphones, tablets, wearables, and occasionally cars, but usually just the first three categories. There is always a blurry line because for a long time, "mobile" essentially meant "a device that fits in your pocket", like a phone or PDA. Then, the definition was expanded to include tablets, but the reasoning there was tenuous at best. Tablets were packed into the "mobile" idea mostly because they ran traditionally "mobile" operating systems like iOS and Android and because they had similar input methods (touchscreens). 

That definition alone became a problem, because suddenly Android was in appliances, cameras, and stereos, iOS was in cars, and Windows makers put touchscreens on desktops and laptops alike. Cars are definitely "mobile" in that they are designed to travel, but they certainly don't fit whatever definition of "mobile device" came before. The other trouble with adding tablets to the definition of "mobile" is that there isn't really a huge difference in portability between a larger tablet and a netbook or ultra-portable laptop. But, even more than that, there isn't that much of a difference in the use case for each device. 

Earlier this month, there was a slight controversy for Google because of an SEC filing that implied ads could come to a wider range of devices like thermostats. Google quickly denied the idea, and clarify the language that led to the trouble. But, there was another part of that SEC filing that was even more interesting, and relates directly to the idea of tablets as mobile devices. Google said in the filing:

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Google classifies tablets along with laptops rather than with phones because of how they are used. The fact that tablets run the same operating systems and apps as smartphones creates some sort of relation between the devices, but isn't enough (at least in Google's view) for the two classes to both be considered "mobile devices". And, that idea makes sense. Phones are used in short bursts, and are the first device you'll reach for if you're away from home. Tablets are most often used in longer stretches as media consumption devices or for some old school web surfing. Tablets are most often used on the couch, in bed, or during your morning constitutional (to use a SFW euphemism). 

The connection between tablets and smartphones is more akin to the connection between a Mac Pro and a MacBook Air than anything else: they use the same systems and apps, and share a common interaction method, but are very different in terms of their purpose and use case. So, how should we approach this idea given that our main purview here at Phone Arena is in covering the world of smartphones, tablets, and wearables?

Convergence blurs the lines

One approach is to simply ignore the disconnect between the classification and usage, because it is possible that the shifting definitions will continue to shift, and may eventually blur the lines even more. That is obviously the plan of companies like Microsoft and Canonical, who are working towards converging traditional PCs with the whole sphere of mobile devices. If Canonical gets its way, traditional desktops will disappear and be replaced by docking stations for a smartphone or tablet. The "mobile" device would be connected to a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, and you would get the traditional Ubuntu desktop UI for that usage, but the mobile version when using a phone or tablet alone. If Microsoft has its way, desktops will stay mostly the same (though they would gain touchscreens), but tablets and laptops would merge into one device, and all would use the same touch interface. 

Google and Apple don't much care for the distinctions, and neither has unveiled any real plans for convergence. There are rumors of a larger iPad in the works, which could butt up with the MacBook Air, but Apple has been adamant that iOS and MacOS will remain separate. There have been rumors about Google bringing Android to laptops, but we still don't know if that is really happening, or what it would mean for Chromebooks. Presumably, an Android-based laptop would look quite a bit like the Asus Transformer Pad, or even the Microsoft Surface, but either of those configurations serve to reinforce the idea that tablets are more closely related to laptops than they are to smartphones. 

Although, it is unclear if this means that tablets aren't really mobile devices, or if laptops should also be added to the definition. Laptops have always been considered to be portable computers, but ever since the rise of the smartphone, there has been more and more of a distinction placed between "portable" and "mobile". Laptops were portable, because they could be carried if you want, but the effort to do so was a bit of a barrier. Smartphones were obviously mobile, because they are very easy to carry wherever you go. Tablets, depending on the size, live in the range between the two, but tablets tend to skew bigger, which would mean closer to the portability issues of a laptop. That is to say, if you want a tablet to be "mobile", you will need to get a bag to carry it. 

Of course, there is also the other side of the coin, where smartphones and phablets are starting to blur the line between themselves and tablets. Smartphone manufacturers are pushing closer and closer to the 7-inch mark that has so far defined the lower boundary of a tablet. The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is 6.4-inches, but Sony seems to believe the device is more of a tablet than a phone, or at least is marketing it that way. Then, you have devices like the 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Mega, the rumored 7-inch Mega, or the 7-inch Asus Fonepad. All could be considered phones, because they have phone capabilities, but instinctively we tend to put those devices more in the category of "tablets that make phone calls". 

This again seems to reinforce the idea of tablets being more related to laptops, because it is so much easier to blur that line and converge those two classifications. All attempts so far to blur the line between a phone and a tablet that have pushed too far past 6-inches are inherently clunky when trying to use them as you would a smartphone. The most popular phablets are still those that stay under 6-inches, like the Galaxy Note. 

Ultimately, it seems as though the best definition for a "mobile device" is something that can easily be carried on your person without the aid of a bag. That is to say: if it fits in your pocket, or can be worn, it is definitely a "mobile device". Even here, the definition can get blurry if you wear cargo pants (which can hold a 7-inch tablet), or if you wear pants with pockets that are useless (which would likely indicate that you are either a female or a hipster.) But, the general rule still holds for the majority of cases. 

Defining the scope of our world

The other way to deal with the tablet conundrum is to re-evaluate how we demarcate the mobile world. In most cases, this sort of discussion doesn't really matter. You choose a device that does what you need it to do, and that's the end of the story. The reason we're spending time on this topic is because it is a major factor in how we define the scope of our coverage, and in turn that defines the community that gathers around our content. Regardless of usage or form factor, tablets are a big part of what we do and what you come here to read about. The question is really in where we draw the lines. As of right now, we mark our territory with smartphones, tablets, wearables, and software for those mobile platforms. 

Many other websites that began life as "mobile-centric" places have slowly expanded out. Many sites that are supposedly focused on Android actually cover anything to do with Google, regardless of if it is connected to Android or the mobile world. But, we believe that the mobile world (as we define it for ourselves) has more than enough interesting activity to keep us (and you) busy creating (and consuming) quality content without blurring these lines too much. 

We try our best to keep consistent as to what topics we cover, but we're curious how you feel about where we've decided to draw those lines. One trouble that we run into, as mentioned, is the blurred line between tablets and laptops, but a more common trouble we have is finding the line between mobile devices and devices that are controlled primarily through mobile, which is an ever expanding realm. In the past, we have covered devices like the ill-fated Nexus Q or troubled Google TV. Both run Android and can be primarily (or in the case of the Q, only) controlled via a mobile device. Similarly, there is the entire world of home automation that lives in this same gray area. 

Home automation itself doesn't fit into the mobile space, because (quite obviously) houses are not mobile, nor are any of the devices that you would control with home automation like lighting, and appliances. But, home automation is finding a time of rapid growth right now, and it is all due to the rise of mobile. Home automation is a difficult and annoying thing for the average person to get a handle on, unless there is an easy way to perform tasks at any time, from anywhere, which is a big part of what makes "mobile" mobile. We covered Android@Home from time to time since it was first announced. We've covered Microsoft beating out Apple and Google to purchase home automation company r2 Studios. And, we've covered connections between the iWatch and home automation, as well as the rumor that Apple will be announcing a home automation platform at WWDC on Monday. 

How do you define "mobile"?

All of these things are big news, but not necessarily news about mobile. As Google alluded to in that SEC filing, the constant introduction of more and more new "smart" technologies and devices is constantly altering the definition of "mobile". More and more of those "smart" technologies simply wouldn't exist, or at least wouldn't be commercially viable without the things we call mobile devices, even in the most narrow definition of mobile. And, that can make our jobs more difficult as we try to relay as much of the most interesting information of the day, but keep it confined to a consistent theme. 

What do you guys think? How do you define "mobile"? Is it a more strict definition, like the one that we try to adhere to, or is it more fluid and changes with the times? How do tablets fit into the picture? And, maybe most importantly, what do you guys think of the definition of mobile that we use here at Phone Arena? Would you like it to be more broad, or do you only want to see stories that are more directly related to smartphones, tablets, and wearables?

Looking forward to this discussion!
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