by Kurt Marko
Recent events, climaxed by the biggest iPhone update in years, have caused me to ponder the use of mobile devices, whether smarthphones or tablets, in business where these indispensable consumer items (e.g. more people carry a smartphone than wear a watch) are still supplementary and subordinate to PCs in the workplace. The question is why. Why have smartphones – indeed, the mobile device market is utterly dominated by phones, more so than ever with the rise of large-screen phablets – become the preferred and often exclusive information and communication platform for younger people yet often remain accessories at work?
Smartphones have evolved into the do everything Swiss Army information appliance most people are never leave home without, yet they remain glorified PDAs for most business users. Why the dichotomy? Are mobile devices and their all-important apps inherently optimized for lightweight, ephemeral consumer needs and thus unsuitable for the heavy lifting of memo writing, spreadsheet analyzing and database mining of business? Or is this a case of the mobile business ecosystem following the early money and large market into consumer-oriented features and applications with business needs relegated to a second wave of mobile development? I think both hypotheses are true, but the net is that adapting work styles, processes and software to mobile devices presents an enormous business opportunity.
Back to those recent influential events. The first was a lengthy conversation, which led to this column on mobile UIs, with a software executive about the importance of mobile app design. Aside from discussing the finer points of software design, I was struck by how my interlocutor, Jeetu Patel and head of EMC’s Syncplicity product line, had gone all in with mobile as a work platform. As I wrote,
Indeed, Patel, who travels the globe as an ambassador for Syncplicity has made mobile devices the center of his tool chest, typically only carrying an iPhone, iPad and some video connectors in his bag as he makes presentations and demonstrates the product. The man clearly puts his money where his mouth is.
I thought, if this executive can work for weeks on end with little more than what most people carry to the local Starbucks, why doesn’t every C-level work out of a satchel?
My epiphany, which provided the first clues to answering the ‘why not mobile’ question, came during Tim Cook’s post-iPhone launch interviews. In a conversation with Charlie Rose, the host broached Apple’s seemingly incongruous agreement with IBM and Cook makes the case for smartphone business-ification:
Cook: IBM is a great one to talk about because I think it will give you an insight into how we look at things [now]. We look at these products and the iPads that aren’t here and we think we can change the way people work. We’ve changed the consumers’ lives. We’ve changed the way students learn and teachers teach. But when you get to the working environment, the change that we’ve made to us isn’t significant enough. And so we begin to ask ourselves why. Why haven’t we done more? And the real answer is in the applications. There’s not enough apps that have been written for very deep verticals like what the airline pilot does. What the bank teller does. Down at the level of the job. [emphasis added]
Executives Don’t Need a Glorified Typewriter
Juxtaposing Patel’s experience as a mobile-only business executive with Cook’s apology for the largely superficial use of mobile devices within enterprises suggests a couple conclusions:
- Business users are creatures of habit reluctant to deviate from time-tested processes using the Microsoft Office suite, document formats and email system.
- The mobile app ecosystem has still largely ignored business needs.
- Business execs need the courage to actually try the available business-focused apps and adjust work habits to exploit mobile advantages of ubiquity, convenience, application simplicity.
In an era of smartphones with PC-class performance, ever-present high-speed wireless networks and rich backend cloud services, there’s no reason why business execs must remain tethered to the evolutionary descendent of typewriters.
Executives and Mobile Professionals Are the Ideal User Group
More so than other job categories, business execs are the logical group to make mobile centric by turning smartphones and tablets into their primary work platform. According to Patel the fit is due both to what they do and don’t. First, business execs are often on the road, so it’s a great benefit being able to carry one’s work environment in your pocket. Second, he says business leaders (and I would argue, other mobile jobs like sales and marketing professionals) typically edit more than they create, meaning small screen mobile devices and apps designed to access existing content rather than create from scratch work well enough; that is as long as they can read and manipulatedocuments in existing repositories and document formats. The inference being that cloud storage is a huge mobile business enabler. For road warriors, the smartphone’s instant on paired with simple app designs that focus on common tasks are a big win.
Patel contends that the advent of enterprise-class file sharing services like Syncplicity, and I would add Accellion, Box for Business andCitrix Share File to the shortlist, have essentially eliminated most impediments to business execs making a smartphone their primary device. Despite the initial ridicule and unflattering “phablet” moniker, the advent of large screen products like the Samsung Note, Galaxy S and now iPhone 6/6+ have also made the prospect of going cold turkey on the PC much easier.
Based on the Patel’s experience, Cook’s statements and my own use, here’s some advice for leaving the laptop at home on your next trip:
- Pick apps carefully and work well for the tasks you do most often. Of course email and messaging are a given with every phone, but if you regularly use other document formats whether for presentations, collaborative editing and review, make sure you have apps that can easily access and modify them. Aside from the aforementioned file sharing apps, you’ll need a productivity suite like iWork, Office Mobile, Google Apps, Readdle Documents or others.
- Embrace the cloud as your new home directory. Whether you’re a consumer using Dropbox and Google Drive or a business using a hybrid system like Citrix or Syncplicity, working mobile means keeping your information on remote systems; local storage (at least in this context) is dead.
- Despite the larger screens and predictive typing apps like Flesky, SwiftKey or the built-in features of iOS8, touch screen phablets and tablets still aren’t the most efficient way to enter text. For those needing to occasionally type longer passages while mobile, it’s best to carry a compact Bluetooth keyboard. For maximal portability I use and recommend a folding model like one of these from Matias.
- If you need to project presentations to a conference room screen, don’t rely on wireless techniques like AirPlay or Chromecast. Instead, carry an assortment of video dongles that connect from your phone – typically micro USB for Android, Lightning for iPhone – to standard VGA and HDMI video outputs.
- For executives: monitor the Apple-IBM engagement and other enterprise software vendors mobilizing their products and look for any resulting apps that address tasks relevant to your business.
Patel gives the best closing advice for business people going mobile, “try it for a week. Once you’ve got yourself all set up, you may never go back.” There is life, indeed life more abundantly, after the PC. It just requires a little preparation.