Mobile Device Capabilities: Updated

by Luke Wroblewski July 5, 2010

Following Apple's release of the iPhone 4, I realized my list of networked consumer device capabilities (in this case, mobile devices) was due for an update.

The World Wide Web has been built on a foundation of rather simple capabilities (page markup, styling, and scripting) determined by what Web browsers could support. Web application developers -desperate to add innovative capabilities to this environment- have pushed the limits of JavaScript, browser plug-ins, and even Web browsers themselves to enable rich activities and interactions online. But new digital product platforms are introducing exciting capabilities that leave the Web browser behind.

  • Multi-touch input from one or more simultaneous gestures
  • Precise user location detection: through a combination of WiFi, cell tower triangulation, and GPS
  • Device positioning & motion: from an accelerometer
  • User orientation: direction from a digital compass
  • Audio: input from a microphone; output to speaker
  • Video & image: capture/input from a camera
  • Push: real-time notifications “instant” to user
  • Device connections: through Bluetooth between devices
  • Proximity: device closeness to physical objects
  • Ambient Light: light/dark environment awareness
  • RFID reader: identify & track objects with broadcasted identifiers (Apple patent)
  • Haptic feedback: “feel” different surfaces on a screen (Apple patent)
  • Biometrics: retinal, fingerprint, etc. (Apple patent)
  • NEW Gyroscope: 360 degrees of motion
  • NEW Dual cameras: front & back facing

One might wonder: why do I bother cataloging the capabilities of new consumer device product platforms? It boils down to a simple mantra: know your medium. As a designer, understanding the capabilities of technology empowers you to deliver interfaces that empower people in new ways. Since the digital product design medium keeps changing, keeping up with capabilities is essential.

The quantity of sensors listed above (and available in many devices on the market today) make it pretty clear we are entering the "sensing" wave of technology. Soon, instead of designing for computing or communication, we'll be designing for sensors.