Thinking Of Mobile As A Different Form Factor Is A Big Mistake

In the last few months, we've heard a lot of retail IT veterans casually reference mobile devices as just another form factor. Although technically—and from a dictionary perspective—that's absolutely true, it's actually a dangerous and ill-advised way to think. It's like a retail CIO in the mid-1990s thinking that the Web was just the next-generation of GEnie, Prodigy and Compuserve.

The fact is, there isn't a retail IT leader today who doesn't understand—on multiple levels—the explosive potential of mobile. When looking at geolocation, payment, barcode-scanning, video-integrated everything, it's clear that retail today hasn't begun to experience truly mobile-only projects. The industry is still replicating offline functionality, with occasional glimpses of what is to come.

Even though IT execs understand the immense mobile potential, by even thinking of it as just another form factor, it limits creativity and feeds into the dangerous comfort-zone inclination. Retail execs—and note that I didn't say "leaders" this time—always want to stay in the comfort zone of doing what they did before, with a few mild tweaks. That's human nature.

Just like the Web—and the Internet before—mobile's potential is light years beyond anything else. The proper approach is to set aside all prior experiences and look at mobile anew. This is the time for offsite meetings where mobile possibilities are explored, and the wackier the ideas, the better.

That's what Microsoft did with the Web, and the company did it just before it was too late.

This column was prompted by a conversation this week with a very senior payments exec, who said that mobile is going to leapfrog other technologies. But he used the term form factor because he's been in the payments business for years and has managed the transition from many form factors to newer ones.

Mobile is different. Almost everyone understands that. But even thinking of it as the latest form factor is a comfortable—but dangerous—way to strategize.