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COPING WITH FAILURE

How to Standardize on a Mobile Device

Should your business equip employees with ultra light PCs, mobile Internet access devices, or smartphones with mobile component add-ons?
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Summer 2008 marks the first anniversary of the iPhone, complete with the release of version 2.0. The iPhone has to be one of the most hyped-up product releases in a generation. Apple fans can tick off the new features by heart. But if you want to stump the band, ask this question: is it a smart phone?

'I have never been so flamed, so badly as when I said the iPhone wasn't a smartphone,' says Bill Hughes, a principal analyst from In-Stat, who says the first version was really more of a feature phone. He's reserving judgment on version 2.0.

The truth is most mobile devices in the United States are so-called feature devices. In a recent In-Stat survey conducted and authored by Hughes, cell phones remain the most popular mobile devices that Americans own and carry around on a regular basis. Smartphones rank below digital cameras. Other high productivity mobile devices, like the mobile Internet device (MID) rank somewhere between AM/FM radios and two-way radios. More people still carry a pager, rather than a MID, according to the survey.

The big companies that manufacture and sell carriage plans for this next generation of higher functioning mobile devices are betting the farm this will all change in the next couple of years. So which mobile technologies should business owners plan on adopting for their remote or traveling workers? Hughes separates this next class of mobile devices into four categories, with the advantages and disadvantages therein:

Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPCs) are basically little laptops. They're what used to be referred to as sub-notebooks. UMPCs can do anything a laptop can do. It runs on the same operating systems with the same applications. It's just smaller, weighing less than two pounds with a maximum seven-inch screen. The whole sub-notebook trend never really took off, but players like Microsoft, HP, Samsung and Sony are hoping for different results this time. UMPCs are currently popular in Asia. U.S offerings range in price from $800 to $1,000.

Advantages: For road warriors tired of lugging around a full-size notebook through airports, the advantages are pretty obvious. UMPCs come with a QWERTY keyboard. Still UMPC makers this time around are not selling them as a laptop replacement. 'Ultra Mobile PCs are being marketed as more of a companion device. It mirrors what's on your laptop,' says Hughes.

Disadvantages: Though very productive for getting work done in tight places (like the window seat in coach), it's not an all-in-one device dooming users to carrying multiple devices. A thousand dollars is a lot of money for a secondary device. Battery life is an issue, as well. 'Smaller unit, smaller battery,' points out Hughes.

Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) typically weigh under a pound and also include a QWERTY keypad. They are designed for the singular use of Wi-Fi access to the Internet. The iPod touch is one of the most popular examples of a MID in the U.S. market. The average cost of a MID runs between $400 to $700.

Advantages: Most of what the average worker needs is increasingly Web-based: e-mail, core applications, logging into the company network, even voice over internet protocol (VoIP). This could be a simple solution for most employees.

Disadvantages: MIDs are Wi-Fi devices only. It's much easier to find cellular coverage than a hotspot while traveling. 'There's a lot of free Wi-Fi out there, but you have to find it,' says Hughes.  Battery life is limited, as well.

Smartphones are probably best described as a combination PDA and cell phone. They also allow third party applications to be downloaded to the device. Additionally, they store and sync up contact databases and calendars. By far, out of this class of mobile devices, smart phones have made the most headway in the U.S. market. It's hard to put a definitive price range on smart phones. They typically sell at a discounted rate as low $100, perhaps up to $400, bundled with a two year contract.

Advantages: Users can access the Web through their cellular connection. It's an all-in-one device. Among the four options laid out, it's clearly the most popular choice to date. In-Stat claims 25 to 30 percent of all business users in the United States now have a smartphone.

Disadvantages: While great for on the fly communications and light work, the average worker is begging for hand cramps and other ergonomic angst if they take on heavy computing tasks. With more employees spending more of their time out of the office than in the office, this clearly isn't a silver bullet solution. Battery life is also a major complaint, although better than UMPCs.

Smartphones with a mobile companion could be the best of all worlds, according to Hughes. 'Traditionally, you start a new job and you're issued a desk, a desk phone, and a desktop PC. Five years from now, I can see that, instead, you're issued a smart phone and a docking station. When you travel, you pull out your mobile companion to do your work,' says Hughes. A mobile companion is about the same size as a UMPC and costs about $500.

Advantages: The mobile companion offers all the ergonomic features that a smart phone lacks. It's a fully functioning QWERTY keyboard and a bigger screen all of which syncs up with your smart phone. Even with the cost of the smart phone, it's still a cheaper option than a UMPC and the user is not married to a harder to find Wi-Fi connection. Plus, users can maximize battery life by ping- ponging between the two devices; recharging one while using the other.

Disadvantages: Mobile companions are virtually unheard of in the U.S. market and there are very few offerings available. Using larger keyboards and screens as peripherals for PDAs is nothing new among American mobile users. They are likely to confuse those offerings with mobile companions, as they become available.

It's not the devices that are limited

All four of these options are currently available in the United States, but with the exception of the smartphone almost non-existent among mobile users. 'Any of these four options could be a good option, making mobile employees more fully productive. But, are companies committed to making them more productive?' asks Hughes.

To understand what is holding up widespread adoption, business owners and mobile users need to recognize it's time to update their attitudes about mobile use. 'I haven't seen smart phones as a replacement for laptops. Best productivity is going to come from giving the user the most comfortable device for them,' says Josh Kaplan, president of Rescuecom, a nationwide IT support firm.

Kaplan's attitudes are typical and not incorrect, to be fair, in this current market. Here are some of the other popular user trends among mobile workers that may be holding up this next wave of mobile devices:

  • One in three American workers carries more than one cell phone. American workers like to segregate their cellular use between two devices -- one for home and one for work. According to In-Stat, 51 percent say it's because they don't want to mix work and personal calls. The second most popular reason is that they have two jobs.
  • One in five American workers carries more than one portable computing device. Almost half, surveyed by In-Stat, say they want one that is small and easy to whip out to use anywhere; the other for more heavy duty computing that requires good ergonomics.
  • Americans aren't that dissatisfied with what they have. According to that same In-stat survey, 36 percent actually say they're satisfied with what they have. The biggest complaint (23 percent) is keeping their devices charged, which is relatively a minor inconvenience. When asked, respondents listed more complicated issues like syncing devices, managing multiple service plans, and the weight of carrying around multiple solutions doesn't even rank in the double digits.
  • Nearly half of all business users choose none of the above. Forty-five percent of all business users don't carry a mobile data device of any kind. Some four out of 10 respondents say they see it as a luxury, while another one in three prefers their desktop ergonomics.



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