The words “portable” and “mobile” have been used interchangeably for years to talk about how easy it is to move a computer from one workspace to another. Correctly, dictionaries now describe “portable” as something that can be moved, while “mobile” is moved freely or easily. As a result, the word “mobile” has increasingly dominated as an adjective to describe a plethora of goods: There are mobile homes (weighing 12 to 14 tons) and portable potties. There are mobile cranes and portable generators. While each of these are much larger than most of the mobile devices that we think about like cellphones, they still have meaning when considered in reference to something stationary. A mobile home is smaller than a house. A portable generator is smaller than a fixed power plant.
That being said, a lot of ambiguity still remains in the proper use of these terms – especially when it comes to distinguishing between “portable” and “mobile” computing and communications technologies.
We all remember the jokes about a device that is portable: As long as the power cord is long enough to keep it plugged in, it technically can be moved. That means that nearly every type of device that has a battery is considered portable today. But, that does not mean that every device with a battery is “mobile.” There is still a meaningful distinction between these two terms, and a continuum along the mobility scale – especially when it comes to computing devices.