“Mobile” doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Once upon a time and not so very long ago, “mobile” meant digital experiences for on-the-go phones. Now we use the word for experiences that are neither on-the-go, nor for phones. Mobile isn’t especially mobile anymore: it’s on the couch, or in bed, or stalled out at a three-hour layover. And even the crisp equation mobile=phone started to break down with the arrival of tablets of all shapes and sizes.

More and more, when we refer to mobile, what we really mean is “non-traditional computing devices and environments,” a stodgy mouthful that really boils down to not the desktop. Our usage overloads poor mobile to include gizmos like phones, tablets, game consoles, e-readers, even TVs. Let’s give mobile a break. I propose a new catch-all term for our myriad non-desktop screens: desknots.

Desknots are connected devices that present alternative contexts and form factors for non-desktop computing. (The word “desknot” was suggested by Terence Tuhinanshu, many thanks!) But um, who cares, right? Why split hairs over what we call this stuff? Me, I think it’s useful to have a broad term to refer to this entire sweeping class of new personal gadgetry. As our industry slowly gets the hang of responsive design and progressive enhancement, it’s handy to have a term for all the screen contexts we’ve ignored (or that never even existed) over the last two decades of web and software design.

That’s what we’ve adapted the term “mobile” to mean over the last few years. In the beginning, that made sense. Mobile phones were the only other mainstream target for personal software and web interfaces. You had your desktop version and, if you were forward looking, your mobile version. As other mobile-ish platforms came along, we folded those in, too. Kindles, iPads, 7” tablets, all called mobile. As similar interfaces expand to near-future devices for TVs, refrigerators, car dashboards, household windows, bathroom mirrors, and so on, “mobile” will become even more inappropriate and confusing as a term. I’d love to see the meaning of “mobile” reclaimed by devices that are actually mobile (rather than merely portable).

Let’s call the rest of ’em desknots.

A transitional notion

A term like desknot is necessary only because the desktop still holds such a primary place in the mainstream understanding of computing. There’s a damaging assumption that the desktop represents the “real” web, and all these other platforms should just get lite versions of our websites and software, if anything at all. As more and more connected devices arrive in all shapes and sizes, though, it seems clear that our computing experience will be a continuous spectrum of gadgets, our information flowing among them as our context changes throughout the day.

Over time, we’ll understand desknots as having equal standing with the desktop. The desktop will be just one platform among many, on the same footing as the rest. When that happens, I suspect we won’t need a term like desknot, and we can focus instead on the specific characteristics of each platform.

Desknots aren’t (necessarily) mobile. Desknots aren’t (necessarily) wireless. Desknots aren’t (necessarily) personal. Every category of desknot has contexts, form factor, use cases, and usability considerations that are very different from the desktop. It’s useful to have a term that suggests: “hey, it’s not just about the desktop. Remember to do the design thinking for this whole collection of alternative devices.” Those devices began with mobile, but they don’t end there. Our mindset—and our language—has to embrace this sprawling landscape.

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