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Weighing Your Options: The Mobile versus Portable Scale

The Mobile Home

The words “portable” and “mobile” have been used interchangeably for years to talk about how easy it is to move a computer from one workspace to another. Correctly, dictionaries now describe “portable” as something that can be moved, while “mobile” is moved freely or easily. As a result, the word “mobile” has increasingly dominated as an adjective to describe a plethora of goods: There are mobile homes (weighing 12 to 14 tons) and portable potties. There are mobile cranes and portable generators. While each of these are much larger than most of the mobile devices that we think about like cellphones, they still have meaning when considered in reference to something stationary. A mobile home is smaller than a house. A portable generator is smaller than a fixed power plant.

That being said, a lot of ambiguity still remains in the proper use of these terms – especially when it comes to distinguishing between “portable” and “mobile” computing and communications technologies.

We all remember the jokes about a device that is portable: As long as the power cord is long enough to keep it plugged in, it technically can be moved. That means that nearly every type of device that has a battery is considered portable today. But, that does not mean that every device with a battery is “mobile.” There is still a meaningful distinction between these two terms, and a continuum along the mobility scale – especially when it comes to computing devices.

The Portable Typewriter

A laptop is portable, but it is not technically mobile. A tablet, on the other hand, is portable and mobile. (Even better, a tablet can also be a laptop and – bonus – desktop.) That is why,the other factor influencing a device’s position on the mobile-to-portable continuum is the technology’s utility. For example, a portable typewriter just allowed office functions to be temporarily set-up in another location, but the work remained the same.

When considering the value of portability vs. mobility and, thus, the pros and cons of laptops vs. tablets vs. handhelds for your work environment, prioritize the workflow requirements. For field workers of any type, the goal is not to set-up offices remotely, the goal is to empower them to work while being mobile. To access the information needed in real-time, in real locations so that they can perform their functions now to meet business and customer demands without delay. Once truly mobile devices get into the hands of mobile workers, new capabilities become possible. Mobile devices can connect directly to equipment for diagnostics and maintenance; you can enable IoT in more places; and most profoundly, your business will benefit from the transition of technicians into information workers, albeit with impressive mechanical skills that become more impactful with real-time information in hand.

Slip-free grip for mobile devices

Now, one could argue that portable devices, such as laptops/notebooks, can deliver similar capabilities. You could also attest that mobile devices can be too big or too cumbersome to use while mobile. Think a 14” tablet or a notebook PC that, while “mobile” by some folks’ definition, wouldn’t feasibly be mobile when you consider the practical utility – and quite frankly, in hand/on foot usability – of the device.

At the same time, some mobile devices can be too small to meet a mobile “computer” definition based on utility considerations. Some smartphone manufacturers have optimized looks over function, and they’ve ended up with batteries that are too small to deliver a full speed computing experience for the life of the device. And, the screen of some “mobile” technologies can be too small for the task at hand. For example, a smartwatch is great for short notifications, but these aren’t information devices or mobile computers that will give your field technicians the full data and application access they need to do their jobs. They are “there’s-new-information, you-should-look-at-your-phone-or-tablet-to-see-it” devices. In other words, mobile computers are far more beneficial than portable computers for anyone with a field-based or part-time-mobile workforce. However, do your due diligence to ensure you’re choosing the right mobile device based on this transportability, utility and usability scale (see graphic below).

Utility Usability Scale

Tiny device – Tiny information

Some devices are so small that they’ll lose them before they can use them, or wonder why they were asked to try to use their tiny screens.

Mobile and Artwork

Other devices are small, but with a form-over-function inspiration. When the first ultra-light notebooks hit the market with a huge price tag almost 20 years ago, we dubbed them “executive jewelry”. Execs at a client company wanted to show off their personal super-light notebook.

Executive Jewelry

But, because they were expensive, had short battery runtimes, limited I/O, and smaller screens, these same executives would outfit their organization with modestly priced utilitarian devices. Today, there is a democratization of electronic jewelry, but remember there is a tradeoff between small and beautiful versus durable and useable.

Mobile and --- Work!

The Goldilocks device: light enough to carry, long enough battery life to last a shift, and a big enough screen to access the information needed to complete the mission.

Goldilocks mobile device

This is the 2-in-1 or detachable tablet that can be a laptop or desktop replacement AND mobile computer to satisfy all workers’ “office”.

Find Me a Table for This

When any device gets up in weight or has an awkward form factor, it crosses over to “portable”, more like a portable typewriter than a pen. More often than not, clamshell devices (pure notebooks/laptops) fall into this category. Some larger convertible or 2-in-1 notebooks are also on the heavy side and, therefore, more stationary than portable or mobile.

Portable – when mounted in a truck

There are a lot of “mobile” device providers that expect their devices to be mounted in the cab of a truck, police cruiser or crane. As long as they deliver the information needed, and are never needed out of the cab, they’re fine. But please don’t call these mobile.

Bring a Forklift

Some “mobile” set-ups are really control rooms that can be set-up remotely. Some drone control units are essentially a computer-and-communications room in a container. They are set-up out in the world to control nearby drone aircraft, but while in operation they are fixed. There are even concepts of portable 3D printers on a large scale which can “print” the components of a house.

So, knowing what we know now about the very critical differences between “portable” and “mobile,” let’s make a resolution to be more precise in our definition moving forward. We will only call a device “mobile” if it is truly easy to move and use while working – by field workers’ standards.

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