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This article provides a critical comparative analysis of mobile versus personal computer (PC)-based forms of Internet access. Drawing from an interdisciplinary body of literature, it illustrates a wide range of ways in which mobile Internet access offers lower levels of functionality and content availability; operates on less open and flexible platforms; and contributes to diminished levels of user engagement, content creation, and information seeking. At a time when a growing proportion of the online population is “mobile only,” these disparities have created what is termed here a mobile Internet underclass. The implications of this argument for digital divide policymaking and, more broadly, for the evolutionary trajectory of the Internet and the dynamics of Internet usage are discussed.

Part of the problem is that many news organizations, seeing this new generation of devices, made a bad bet. They decided that tablets, not smartphones, were the place to invest. Magazines, in particular, spent many millions building interactive iPad apps that promised to transfer the magazine-reading experience to a flat piece of glass about the same size. These apps were often lovely. They were also often slow to download, clunky to use, and papered over with only the thinnest layer of interactivity. Publishers thought tablets would be a chance to retake control of the publishing channel. Anyone can publish on the web, they thought, but not everyone can create an experience like this; it’ll be a recreation of the old evening newspaper, a lean-back read that they’re uniquely able to provide. That tablet boom never came. Most of those fancy magazine apps sunk into disuse, never attracting the kind of subscription numbers publishers hoped. Sales of the iPad, the most popular tablet and the one most publishers targeted, fell this spring, year-over-year. Cheaper Android tablets keep selling, but there’s little evidence people are paying for news on them en masse. Research from Ball State University found that, among college students, the percentage owning a tablet actually declined between 2012 and 2014.

In a short period of time, the meaning of “mobile” at Google has shifted dramatically to “handset” from “tablet handset”. We expect the definition of “mobile” to continue to evolve as more and more “smart” devices gain traction in the market. For example, a few years from now, we and other companies could be serving ads and other content on refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats, glasses, and watches, to name just a few possibilities.