Are Tablets Mobile?

We officially have more mobile devices available than it's easy to count. Just look at Android - you already have a hundred different phones to choose from!

In 2010, we got a new type of device, the tablet - mainly meaning the iPad. It's not quite a notebook computer, and not quite a smartphone or PDA. So is the iPad a mobile device?

Two Definitions

So far, most analysis and journalism tends to assume that yes, tablets like the iPad are indeed mobile devices. Even Google Analytics currently counts the iPad in the "mobile devices" category when segmenting visitors. So the verdict seems to be that tablets are mobile devices much like smartphones.

I disagree.

In important ways, tablets are more like laptop and even desktop computers than they are like the iPhone. While they are arguably more mobile than any notebook computer, lumping the iPad and the iPhone into the same mobile bucket is just flawed.

Desktop and Mobile Websites

Imagine a company has set up two renditions of its website: one optimized for desktop and laptop computers, and another designed especially for smartphones. Which version do you show someone who visits on their iPad?

We've found that almost every time, the desktop version is more appropriate. Otherwise you have this tiny mobile site in the middle of a vast canvas of the screen! It just looks a little silly.

The desktop site can usually be refined to work better on tablet devices. But if the choice is between a mobile-phone and desktop website, the latter is almost always better to show on the iPad.

What's On Your Mind?

Believe it or not, the difference in screen size is not the most important part. People use smartphones and tablets in very different ways.

Mobile is essentially a new mass media. One important difference with other media is that mobile is the first "always carried" mass media in human history. Because a mobile phone is about as easy to carry on your person as your keys or wallet, people typically take their phone with them almost everywhere they go.

Not so with tablets. They're just bigger: encumbering in a way beyond even the fattest smartphone. Even the biggest tablet fans don't have them on their person at all times.

This is a bigger deal than you might think. A lot of the opportunity in the mobile channel comes from leveraging the mindset a person has when using a mobile device.

Imagine you're sitting at a workstation in your office, or maybe using your laptop in a coffee shop. That situation is very different from when you are walking down the street, and pull out your phone for a quick web search. Or if you are out driving with friends - hopefully as a passenger! - and pull up the Yelp app to find a place to eat.

Your likely goals, available time, and even attention span are all going to be very different. This is REALLY what makes mobile special - what makes the mobile web different from the "regular" internet.

We're All Connected

One other thing. Remember that many tablets only have a wifi connection - either because that's what the device supports, or its owner doesn't want to pay the monthly fees for an extra data subscription. If the tablet is not near an available hotspot, it can't go online at all. In contrast, most smartphones have an "always on" connection to the worldwide internet.

Tablets are more mobile than a laptop. But there's a world of difference between tablets and smartphones. As both mobile phones and tablets become more important in the coming years, be sure to keep this in mind.