What Does Mobile Mean, Anyway?

We tend to assume characteristics upon hearing the term #mobile. We probably shouldn’t…

There are – according to about a bazillion studies - 4 billion mobile devices in use around the globe.

It is interesting to note that nearly everyone who notes this statistic and then attempts to break it down into useful data (usually for marketing) that they almost always do so based on OS or device type – but never, ever, ever based on connectivity.

Consider the breakdown offered by W3C for October 2011. Device type is the chosen taxonomy, with operating system being the alternative view. Unfortunately, aside from providing useful trending on device type for application developers and organizations, this data does not provide the full range of information necessary to actually make these devices, well, useful.

Consider that my Blackberry can either connect to the Internet via 3G or WiFi. When using WiFi my user experience is infinitely better than via 3G and, if one believes the hype, will be even better once 4G is fully deployed.

Also not accounted for is the ability to pair my Blackberry Playbook to my Blackberry phone and connect to the Internet via that (admittedly convoluted) chain of connectivity. Bluetooth to 3G or WiFi (which in my house has an additional chain on the LAN and then back out through a fairly unimpressive so-called broadband connection). But I could also be using the Playbook’s built-in WiFi (after trying both this is the preferred method, but in a pinch…)

You also have to wonder how long it will be before “mobile” is the GPS in your car, integrated with services via Google Map or Bing to “find nearby” while you’re driving? Or, for some of us an even better option, find the nearest restroom off this highway because the four-year old has to use it – NOW.

Trying to squash “mobile” into a little box is about as useful as trying to squash “cloud” into a bigger box. It doesn’t work. The variations in actual implementation in communication channels across everything that is “mobile” require different approaches to mitigating operational risk, just as you approach SaaS differently than IaaS differently than PaaS.

Defining “mobile” by its device characteristics is only helpful when you’re designing applications or access management policies. In order to address real user-experience issues you have to know more about the type of connection over which the user is connecting – and more. 


This is not to say that device type is not important. It is, and luckily device type (as well as browser and often operating system), are an integral part of the formula we all “context.”

Context is the combined set of variables that make it possible to interpret any given connection with respect to its unique client, server, network, and application needs.

It’s what allows organizations to localize, to hyperlocalize, and to provide content based on location. It’s what enables the ability to ensure performance whether over 3G, 4G, LAN, or congested WAN connections. It’s the agility to route application requests to the best server-side location based on a combination of client location, connection type, and current capacity across multiple sites – whether cloud, managed hosting, or secondary data centers.

Context is the ‘secret sauce’ to successful application delivery. It’s the ingredient that makes it possible to make the right decisions at the right time based on current conditions that address operational risk – performance, security, and availability. Context is what makes the application delivery tier of the modern data center able to adapt dynamically. It’s the shared data that forms the foundation for the collaboration between application delivery network infrastructure and provisioning systems both local and in the cloud, enabling on-demand scalability and at some point, instant mobility in an inter-cloud architecture.

Context is a key component to an agile data center, because it is only be inspecting all the variables that you can interpret them in a way that leads to optimal decisions with respect to the delivery of an application, which includes choosing the right application instance whether it’s deployed remotely in a cloud computing environment or locally on an old-fashioned piece of hardware. Knowing what device a given request is coming from is not enough, especially when the connection type and conditions cannot be assumed. The same user on the same device may connect via two completely different networking methods within the same day – or even same hour. It is the network connection which becomes a critical decision point around which to apply proper security and performance-related policies, as different networks vary in their conditions.

So while we all like to believe that our love of our chosen mobile platform is vindicated by statistics, we need to dig deeper when we talk about mobile strategies within the walls of IT. The device type is only one small piece of a much larger puzzle called context.

“Mobile” is as much about the means of connectivity as it is the actual physical characteristic of a small untethered device. We need to recognize that, and incorporate it into our mobile delivery strategies sooner rather than later.

[Updated: This post was updated 2/17/2012 - the graphic was updated to reflect the proper source of the statistics, w3schools ]

Published Feb 13, 2012
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