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Mobile Devices Are Not Computers

Last month a disaster of EPIC PROPORTIONS occurred: My husband broke his cell phone. Although still capable of making calls, it was coming apart in the middle, with the screen precariously dangling from the dialing pad. “But how is that possible?” you might ask. “The iPhone has no middle joint! Nor does my Android powered phone!”

This is possible because my husband owns a flip-phone. A dumb-phone. An internet-capable-but-never-used-for-anything-other-than-calls-and-brief-texts-and-Tetris.

Purchased in 2008 for its global calling capabilities, my husband loves this phone. It is simple and ugly and makes calls. When it broke he tried to hide it from me, but I quickly noticed the cracks and the awkward way he was holding it when making calls (no one ever needs two hands to hold a cell phone). “We’re going to the store tomorrow,” I insisted. “We have an upgrade to use, and you’re using it.” He grudgingly agreed to my plan after I said we’d pick up some Starbucks along the way, but despite the calming effect of his latte, things quickly went south.

“What are you looking for in a phone today?” the friendly and helpful phone store salesperson began. The look of disgust on my husband’s face was easy for me (and luckily no one else) to recognize. He told me what he wanted to say once we were in the car, but I could read it in his face then: ” I want a phone that makes calls, like phones are supposed to do.” Despite his frustration he politely walked around the store with her, listening to her sales pitch, then at the first opportunity ran the hell out of there.

I was baffled. Why wouldn’t he want to upgrade his phone? It’s a new toy! And it did fun stuff! Only after I heard his explanation did I begin to understand his frustration. My husband is not anti-gadget. Between the two of us we have multiple iPods, an iPod touch, an iPad, and too many Apple computers. His beef lies with the smartphone alone, or rather, with the expectations attached to smartphones.

His words (more or less): “Everyone gets these smartphones and expects them to do all the stuff that their computers do. So they spent their time squinting at this tiny screen, sending emails with a bunch of spelling and grammar mistakes, pretending like their 3G or 4G or whatever connection is faster than their home or office network even when they lose service. They’re showing off all they can do with the smartphone like they do it all the time EXCEPT THEY DON’T. They still use their computers and I don’t understand how this little phone is supposed to replace my 27 inch iMac. Plus the data plans are ridiculous. I don’t need to pay a ton of money every month to know that someone just posted on their Facebook wall.”

He’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s the jist of his argument, and I have to say, it’s somewhat compelling.

At the Handheld Librarian virtual conference I attended two weeks ago, Amy Vecchione of Boise State University and Tobie Garrick of Boise Public Library gave a great presentation on using mobile devices to provide reference services in their respective libraries. They were very pro-mobile devices, but at one point in their presentation they put up a slide that I was waiting to see all day. In a picture was the point: Mobile devices are NOT computers. They are a completely different animal. In some cases they are better than computers and in others computers are the winner. When we think about mobile devices we need to think of them as their own separate entities with their own strengths, weaknesses and purposes, NOT as mini-computers. This is, I think, my husband’s major beef with smartphone enthusiasts and my own hesitation towards the growing push push push towards mobile devices.

I want to jump on the mobile enthusiast bandwagon. I loved my iPod Touch when I first got it and I think my iPad is the coolest new gadget I’ve had in a while, but I don’t think either one replaces my computer. When I want to do research or write an article, or even write a long blog post like this one, I prefer to use my computer. I want to edit photos, video, and webpages on a big screen. I want to use my iPad to play Words with Friends or watch a movie on Netflix when I’m at the airport. I want to use my iPod touch to listen to music, jot down a grocery list, or check my calendar.

I think that all forward-thinking libraries should have a “mobile presence” but I don’t think it will look the same for every library. I wonder sometimes about the functionality of mobile-friendly research databases and how anyone could do any kind of substantial research on an iPhone. I see them being used more by students doing very casual searching, or by a researcher having a conversation with another researcher and needing to quickly look up the author of a paper s/he just read. I guess I just have a hard time seeing someone pouring over pages of research on an iPhone.

The January 2011 issue of College & Research Libraries had an interesting article on a series of focus groups conducted by two librarians at Kent State University on students’ interest in mobile library services. Although the students responded positively to the idea of using their mobile devices to access research databases, I thought that their comments about when, how and why they would access databases this way were telling. Most students expressed an interest in quick searching, the need to look something up in class, or the ability to get started on research when they are in a situation where they need to kill time. Few indicated that they would do serious research on their phones.  In fact the researchers indicated that “regardless of which section of the University Libraries’ Web site [was] being discussed in the focus group, participants identified the ability to contact a librarian as being of prime importance” (Seeholzer & Salem  p.17).

This is why I am just not ready to sing the death of personal computers. I see mobile technologies as an enhancement, not a replacement to computer use. They seem to be more about person-to-person connection and more useful as a means of enhancing relationships. I don’t think they are quite ready to take on the functionality of computers. I suspect that eventually tablet devices will have the same power and capabilities that my computer has, but for the time being, my computer still has a very central role in my professional and personal life.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, yes, my husband did eventually get a new phone. It was a free, provider-brand dumb phone, but to him it was the best phone in the world.


  1. Miranda Bennett

    I’ve been thinking about this in broader terms for a while, because I often wonder how people make decisions about what tool to use for a particular task. What is surprising (although I’m as guilty of it as anyone) is how quickly we forget that old-timey technologies like the telephone (the kind you have on your desk if budget cuts haven’t stolen it away) actually can serve a useful purpose. A few moments of reflection about what you’re trying to accomplish with a given gadget can make a real difference in how you use it (or even whether you choose to acquire it in the first place).

    PS “…but to him it was the best phone in the world” has got to be the concluding line of your soon-to-be-bestselling children’s book.

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