It’s been 10 years since Google first announced mobile would be overtaking any other form of internet use (and they were right), but there’s still a battle being waged between traditional computers and their more portable equivalents.

And that ongoing fracas has taken an unexpected twist in the last few months, as many of us are working from home and are now more likely to gravitate towards our already open laptops while second-screening throughout the day and night.

With pros and cons to every device, what should your focus be on when designing your user interfaces and other digital experiences?

Mobile first

It was big news in 2017 when Statista recorded mobile internet use finally exceeding 50% of the user share, after over a decade of augury. It’s clear that Instagram and WhatsApp are more than enough for some internet users.

Any time you need anything, your phone is in your pocket, ready to go. Whatever you want, there’s an app for that, with a customised UI and native data for speed of access. When you’re done, just chuck it back in your pocket and off you go.

There are however drawbacks; primarily, the small screen size makes it difficult to watch video or deal with a large UI.

To overcome this, mobiles are getting larger (see Alex Barredo’s Medium for a full run-down) if thinner – often to the consternation of users, as this completely flies in the face of the benefits of mobile. Most of us prefer to have a pocket-size phone and a back-up larger device.

One might use the Facebook app or quickly order something while riding the bus to work. If, however, you’re sitting down in front of the TV in the evening to research your next major purchase or descend down a YouTube rabbit hole, you’d use a larger device like a laptop or tablet.

The first laptop computers were enormous bricks that didn’t really have any advantage over a tower hard drive, processor, screen, keyboard and mouse. As they got smaller and lighter, however, people realised their home computing could now be done in front of the TV, in bed or… in the bathroom and the desktop began to die out.

Of course, there’s still a hardcore group of gamers who need a powerful PC and those who enjoy putting together their own Frankenstein custom desktop with more power than a jet engine. Nowadays, however, these are very much in the same class as people who still collect records and those with imported sports cars; with desktop orders almost halving from around 150 million units to less than 90 million from 2010 to 2019, according to Statista

Going keyboard free

Further, when the tablet first arrived, it became clear that not only did very few home users need a complex OS, neither did they do much typing beyond the odd misspelled, text-speak tweet, so keyboards were rather extraneous. A cheaper, more-convenient alternative to a full computer could be found in an iPad, let alone the following wave of cheaper Android tablets.

Essentially, tablets were just mobile phones with big screens for video and larger interfaces, as well as more battery life, more memory and more processing power. However, this isn’t necessarily the case any longer.

Since not everyone has a tablet, but everyone has a mobile phone, that’s where the technology is being developed. It’s an unusual, high-end tablet that has more than 64gb of storage, but you can choose from numerous options for mobiles with over 256 gig – a particular necessity when you want to download a variety of apps, video, music and podcasts to use, watch and listen to without your data allowance taking a beating. Still, it makes tablets a little inferior as a larger device.

Laptopping sales figures

Between 2010 and 2016, sales of tablets grew from just 19 million worldwide to 175 million, eclipsing laptop and desktop sales, at 157 and 103 million, respectively, according to Statista.

Since then, however, sales have dropped back to 137 million, and laptops are way more popular than tablets again, with laptop sales at 166 million last year. Statista believes this a trend that will continue.

The COVID-19 lockdown has also been good for laptops. With all of us stuck in the house, mobile use has dipped and laptop traffic is up, according to the Telegraph.

Indeed, the New York Times reports use of the Facebook website has increased by 27%, while the corresponding app has seen just a 1% rise in visits.

Meanwhile, 15% more traffic is going to YouTube, but the use of the YouTube app has actually fallen. Home working is going to become the new normal, since we now know it works, so this probably won’t end with the lockdown.

If you want an alternative to a mobile for home use – big screen, good processor, storage to back up all your pictures and music – it makes more sense to get a laptop nowadays, particularly since the drop in sales of recent years has lowered the price significantly.

Affordability and better specs are not the only reasons laptop manufacturers recovered the sales top spot, however. You see, to compete, laptops are getting more like tablets…

Hybrid devices

Full disclosure, I don’t have a laptop or a desktop any more. I’m a console gamer and I don’t do anything that needs more processing power than a decent smartphone. Of course, I’m a writer, but I just picked up a Bluetooth keyboard case for £20 that essentially converts my cheap tablet into a full laptop. Not only has it saved me money, but the app-based OS is far less hassle than installing software.

Indeed, all desktop OS are becoming more like smartphones now. The latest Mac OS has a lot of crossover with iOS, Windows 10 has followed suit and Chrome OS is just an expanded version of the Android OS that was designed for phones first. Unless you need to fiddle with code or power a decent gamer rig, you really don’t need anything more than apps.

Many laptops, indeed, now feature ‘tablet mode’, whereby the keyboard folds away so you can focus on the touchscreen. Microsoft’s premium Surface laptops actually have detachable keyboards, so you can cast your typing option aside altogether.

Elsewhere, some firms are getting more creative. Samsung is moving away from producing incendiary devices and has created its DeX concept. With this, you can dock your Samsung mobile and connect it to a keyboard, screen and mouse, using your phone as a basic desktop processor and hard drive.

With that, you can have a full desk setup at home and in your office, but then take all your files and settings with you in your pocket.

Future devices

In future, I can see this going further, with your high-powered, large-capacity mobile phone essentially becoming a portable hard-drive to connect to external devices. You could wirelessly link it to your TV to watch Netflix, a keyboard to type, a tablet-size screen to watch video on the go and an earpiece to make calls.

At the minute, flexible and hybrid devices are pretty clunky, but as they get more dynamic, having the option to use one device as a tablet or a laptop will become more attractive, let alone if you can use it as a mobile phone too. Even just being able to buy one device instead of three will be economical.

Alas, this means you’ll probably need to continue designing your UI to work as an app, website, touch and mouse interface, all at the same time. Sorry. But still, offering your users a customised experience is no bad thing.


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Main image by William Iven