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The mobile computing problem Samsung, Apple and everyone else must solve

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An ultra thin Samsung Notebook Series 9 laptop computer, left, running Microsoft Windows 8, sits next to an Apple Macbook Air.
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An ultra thin Samsung Notebook Series 9 laptop computer, left, running Microsoft Windows 8, sits next to an Apple Macbook Air.

“Push it back about 45 degrees,” Jeff Ingram, national training and development manager for consumer electronics at Samsung tells me. We are sitting in a Toronto hotel suite, where I’m getting a sneak peek at the company’s latest notebook and tablet products. “Now push it back a little more.”

Although the first push was relatively easy, there’s a slight stiffness once the laptop, in this case the firm’s upcoming Ativ Book 9 Plus, reaches a certain angle. Moments before Ingram had shown me how you could move the screen all the way back until the screen and keyboard lay flat like a placemat, so I know it’s flexible. But that little bit of resistance is the kind of design element that explains a lot about the challenge that threatens all kinds of device manufacturers today.

“It’s in the hinge,” Ingram explains. “It’s so that if you’re pressing the screen, it’s not going to keep moving back right away.” Why is this important, you may wonder? Because in the old days, you wouldn’t push a notebook screen (unless it was frozen, and you wanted to just punch the thing).

Now, however, the technology in Windows 8 allows for almost any device to be used with a keyboard or simply by touching the display. Usually the screens are pretty responsive, but some users, especially in the early days, may be more prone to jab rather than patiently tap, which on a laptop could make the whole experience feel more awkward than awesome. The hinge gets more resistant a 45 degrees because Samsung realizes you may want a more firm position if you’re going to suddenly start treating it like a tablet.

People in this industry like to use the word “seamless” a lot, but what actually happens when consumers use mobile technology is often anything but. We get stuck somewhere with an iPad and try typing out a novel-length letter. We try to read or edit PowerPoint presentations on an older-model BlackBerry. We get used to the way you navigate across Web sites on a desktop and expect the same thing to happen on smaller and smaller screens. We’re trying to figure out how to effectively move across not just devices, but mobile experiences, and that’s what Samsung, Apple, HP and others are trying to ease on the hardware level, and Microsoft is attempting at the OS level.

Samsung showed me something else on Wednesday that speaks to this issue. The Ativ laptops will also include a little-known technology called SideSync, which allow you to connect to your mobile phone. When it’s activated, an actual image of your phone will appear on your notebook screen, so you could make calls, transfer files or just leave it running on your desktop screen, like an app. We usually think our phone use ends when we put it down and move to our laptop. Perhaps not anymore.

A great mobile experience doesn’t begin and end with the user interface of its operating system or its software programs. It’s not about how thin and light the hardware has become. Great mobile experiences come from designers who can successfully map out all the myriad journeys we will take as our needs to create and consume information change in a wide variety of contexts. It’s about what happens -- or what should happen -- as we move from one screen to another, one use to another, and how intuitively we can figure it all out for ourselves.

Samsung is just one example of a company trying to satisfy those desires before they manifest themselves, and it will need to do some serious marketing before it will dethrone the MacBook Air and other competitors. But the vendors that get these details right will be the ones that win market share, whose profits will rise and bring value to investors. And it will all happen almost as imperceptibly as a truly great mobile experience.

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