by Alex Switzer
The rise of the laptop computer has allowed modern mobile workers to break free from their desktop computers and still work wherever they go. Now workers on the move are starting to realise they can find even more flexibility – and plenty of computing punch – from new generation smartphones. Whether or not this is just a passing fad or a growing trend away from conventional computers by mobile workers is now a subject of considerable debate.
Smartphones are highly technical devices that combine telephone functionality with limited computer capabilities. They are essentially computers small enough to fit in a pocket.
Almost all major consumer electronic manufacturers have now entered the battle to succeed in the smartphone market. This in turn has created a growing range of high-end smartphones and unprecedented consumer choice. The iPhone 3G is Apple's latest and highly popular version of the smartphone. Other leading brands include BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Palm.
These smartphones run on operating system (OS) software that allows them to share information from a computer or other interfaces. Such operating systems make it possible for users to access their computer files, graphics, history, memory and more from their mobile phones.
Mobility is one of the key issues framing technology developments today. It has developed from a side requirement to a central aspect of the consumer electronics industry.
There’s often an assumption that when it comes to computers, smaller is better. This does not always hold true in reality, as smaller devices often prioritise design over features and performance. The real virtue of smaller devices is found in the mobility they allow.
Mobile devices allow workers to communicate and collaborate in environments that were previously not available. Steven Anderson, information technology consultant from Imagine Consulting, a technology solutions advisory business, has seen the benefits: “Mobility allows us to expand our ideas about the workspace, and about the possibilities for being productive,” he says. “That’s why workers are going mobile. They free us from the traditional workspace, allowing progress on work projects to continue even when we don’t have access to our main computer.”
There’s no doubt that smartphones have hit the mainstream, but will they ever be a genuine laptop replacement technology for mobile workers?
The pros and cons of larger devices are well understood: laptops have numerous hardware features and applications, as well as more processing power and storage space. Their semi-permanent locations mean that when plugged in they can operate almost indefinitely. On the other hand, laptops can be cumbersome to transport and there’s also the requirement for battery power and wireless internet access points. While it is now possible to use a 3G card to connect a laptop to a mobile network for internet access, this option is relatively expensive and not always reliable.
Smartphones have to make do with less, but they do have a number of advantages. They can be taken anywhere at any time, they’re compact and feature packed, and they can help you stay in contact when you are out of the office. Despite their size, they can still do many things that desktops and laptops do.
Most smartphones have come far in recent years, however, the Apple iPhone is the first device to capture the imagination the mobile worker as a genuine laptop replacement device. The iPhone is undoubtedly impressive from a design perspective, but its software allows the device to really come into its own.
While general software for entertainment and personal organisation is standard, software with a business focus is constantly growing in its App Store, where new features can be downloaded. Companies are also able to write their own application specific to the needs of employees on the move.
The lasting legacy of the iPhone is a topic of much conjecture within the information technology community. Countless internet pages are dedicated to discussions revolving the topic. More traditional pundits view the device as a glamour gadget with no place in a business environment.
Contrary to this view, leading technology blogger John Gruber recently stated: “The iPhone was the first phone that brought what we used to think of as desktop quality software to a handheld platform. Software where you just say, ‘Wow, that’s a great user experience’, not merely ‘Wow, that’s a great user experience for a handheld’.”
While the endless list of features found in today’s smartphones are impressive, when used in a business environment it’s important to remember two less exciting features – usability and reliability.
A recent survey – New Trends for Mobile Technology and e-Commerce – conducted by information technology research firm Gartner found that while smartphone adoption is driving mobile phone use, the overwhelming majority of consumers wish it were easier to use their mobile devices, especially when it came internet browsing. The survey of 275 US professionals using smartphones showed that despite increased adoption, nearly 80 percent of respondents said slow and expensive download speeds and difficulty navigating the web – including on the iPhone and BlackBerry devices – are major problems with their mobile devices.
According to Nicolas Smith, a research analyst for Gartner Asia-Pacific, the problems come as increased content fuels improvements in mobile device technology. “The results of the survey indicate there are still significant improvements to be to be made to today’s mobile devices before they will deliver truly usable mobile content to today’s mobile devices,” Smith says. “At present mobile content has a different consumption and interaction model to the desktop or laptop, where it’s not so much about browsing and more about glancing media.”
Findings such as these support the attitude that mobile smartphones should not be seen as a replacement for conventional computers, but rather act as a useful supplement to a mobile worker’s existing environment.
The tendency to compare the mobile platforms (such as laptop versus smartphones) against each other can be misleading. Recognising that different mobile workers have different requirements, more developers and industry experts are beginning to embrace the idea that one size does not fit all when it comes to making a smartphone a core business device. Individual circumstances should determine how suitable the features and capabilities of a smartphone are for a particular business user.
It all really comes down to what tasks are required when working on the move. For those who regularly type notes and articles, edit designs and photos, or work on presentations a smartphone is not a suitable replacement. If, on the other hand, the main on-the-road requirements revolve around managing email, working with figures from a work intranet and being entertained, a smartphone could provide the perfect replacement – and one less bag to carry!
As intelligent and sophisticated as smartphones are there aren’t too many mobile professionals who should be throwing their laptop to the scrapheap just yet. Smartphones are great tools for business, the home office and for entertainment.
Revolutionary innovations such as the iPhone sufficiently imitate and in some areas surpass the performance of a laptop or desktop, but working eight hours a day on 3.5 inch screen is not a realistic option.
At present, the smartphone’s main purpose is to maximise flexibility at work and to complement, rather than compete with conventional computers.
Published on: Friday, July 17, 2009