Definition

mobile computing (nomadic computing)

Mobile computing is the set of IT technologies, products, services, and operational strategies and procedures that enable end users to gain access to computation, information, and related resources and capabilities while mobile. Mobile most commonly refers to access in motion and is therefore unrestricted to a given geographic location.

Mobile may also, however, refer to access in a fixed location via equipment that users can relocate as required, but is stationary while in operation. This mode of operation is often called nomadic computing.

The applications of mobile computing today have become ubiquitous and pervasive in business, consumer, industrial, entertainment and many specialized vertical-market activities. Desktop, or nonmobile, computers allow for a higher degree of hardware configurability or higher computational performance, but a mobile computing device is the vehicle of choice for almost every end user today. The key advantage of mobile computing is convenience, allowing users anytime, anywhere access to information and computational resources.

How mobile computing works 

In general, contemporary mobile computing involves a mobile computing workstation of some form, commonly referred to as a mobile device, and a wireless network connection based on Wi-Fi (wireless LAN) or cellular (wireless WAN) technology. Local data storage on the mobile device is typically provisioned, as well, with access to local data in some cases substituting for the network connection.

Nomadic computing may utilize a wired network connection and AC electrical power, neither of which is appropriate for fully mobile operations. Access to network resources is essential to contemporary mobile computing, given the shared and collaborative nature of computing overall today and the prevalence of cloud-based resources, and it is rare to find a mobile device without integral battery power.

Mobile devices include notebook PCs, which are functionally equivalent to desktop PCs; tablets; mobile phones, or smartphones; and a variety of products aimed at vertical and specialized applications, such as those used in medical applications, surveillance and security, and telemetry and control. In general, users select the device that is most appropriate to the applications they require, with notebooks better suited to content creation and tablets often preferred for content consumption. Smartphones represent a compromise in terms of screen size and other user interface elements, such as small, screen-based keyboards, but also function as pocket-size computers and communicators.

Mobile technologies

Most vendors of microprocessor integrated circuits offer mobile versions of their products, featuring lower power consumption, smaller physical size and, consequentially, often lower performance than their desktop counterparts. Such is not an issue for most mobile applications, and the broad range -- including physical size and price -- of mobile devices available today can address most application demands.

Wireless communications are well-established, and today's Wi-Fi and 4G networks can offer throughput adequate for essentially every application. With the recent reintroduction of unlimited cellular data service plans, most users find their monthly data expense bounded and manageable, with good availability, reliability and throughput.

Color graphics displays are universal on mobile computing devices today, with smartphones, tablets and some notebooks featuring touch as their primary human-computer interaction model. As displays are a major consumer of battery power, much product engineering today is devoted to improving the performance of this vital element, including more efficient backlighting for LCD screens and OLED displays.

Mobile data storage is rapidly advancing to all-solid-state designs based on flash memory technology. Costs of flash continue to decline, along with improvements in access speeds and physical storage density. Today, cloud-based storage is used primarily for backup, bulk storage and file sharing, but may take on a role as primary storage as wireless services become more pervasive, reliable, fast and cost-effective. Some local storage will likely always be desirable, but cloud-based storage will likely result in lower device cost, longer battery life and lower device weight.

History of mobile computing 

Early mainframe-centric computing was sometimes provisioned with remote access over modem-based, or dial-up, landline connections, typically at 300 to 1,200 bits per second. Subscriber devices, in this case, were terminals only, usually Teletypes or their CRT-based equivalents. Mobile terminals appeared during this era, and although they were much larger, heavier and more expensive than today's mobile computers, and network speeds remained slow, mobile -- at the time, nomadic-only -- computing quickly gained popularity.

The development of initial mobile computers in the late 1970s centered on sewing machine-size PCs -- e.g., the Osborne 1 and the Compaq Portable -- based on early operating systems, such as CP/M and MS-DOS. Featuring floppy disks, small monochrome CRT displays and, when available, plug-in (RJ-11) modems of up to 2,400 bps, these nomadic devices still required AC power.

Similarly, early laptop computers -- most notably the first, the GRiD Systems Compass Computer 1101 -- also required AC power and were large, heavy and expensive. Early laptops quickly gained popularity, especially with the refinement to the smaller notebook form factor and the inclusion of add-on and eventually internal Wi-Fi links, reliable battery power, contemporary operating systems -- Microsoft Windows, macOS and Linux -- improved displays and reduced prices.

Modern smartphones evolved from personal digital assistants (PDAs), which first appeared in the early 1990s, an outgrowth of personal organizer devices designed to store and retrieve information needed for personal productivity, such as calendars and phone directories. Taking advantage of improvements in the hardware components noted above, the development of appropriate operating systems culminated in today's Android and iOS operating systems, and the addition of cellular voice, data and Wi-Fi led to the smartphones available today. BlackBerry introduced the first smartphone, and the launch of the Apple iPhone in 2007 opened the floodgates of end-user demand.

The tablet PC, featuring touch- and pen-based interfaces, can trace its roots to the early 1980s, and it was initially popular in industrial and commercial applications. Apple's initial iPad (2010) introduced many consumers to this form factor, and both iOS and Android models remain popular today. Cotemporary tablets are essentially smartphones in large form factors, most importantly offering larger displays. Many tablet models do not include integral cellular communications, but do connect to Wi-Fi.

The mobile computing architecture of today is increasingly cloud-centric, with web- and cloud-based access essential in many applications. Key cloud-based services include software distribution, device management, data storage and sharing, and access to shared applications.

This was last updated in June 2017

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