Handling mobility

Contemporary culture’s obsession with information technology was glaringly apparent in the global reaction to the death of Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs in October 2011.

Apple enthusiasts around the world and luminaries such as US president Barack Obama, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and media mogul Rupert Murdoch paid tribute to the man who arguably did more than any other to make computing accessible to the masses.

Other computing pioneers who passed away during 2011, including Unix co-creator Dennis Ritchie and Lisp inventor John McCarthy, were remembered for their contributions to IT history. But technologies introduced under Jobs’s leadership continued to disrupt both consumer and business technology markets as he died.

The rapid adoption of smartphones, which began to accelerate in earnest on the release of Apple’s iPhone, persisted in 2011. According to Taiwanese research company Market Intelligence & Consulting Institute, smartphone shipments grew 36% to 614 million during the year.

A similar story unfolded in the tablet PC market, another segment given life by Apple’s entrance with the iPad. In the three months ending 30 September, tablet shipments rose 264.5% year-on-year, according to market watcher IDC.
Meanwhile, the market for conventional PCs slowed to a crawl, growing just over 3% in the same period, with shipments in Western Europe plummeting, according to Gartner.

Some organisations were driving these trends themselves by purchasing smartphones and tablets for their employees, while many others were faced with the challenge of staff bringing their own devices into work, and demanding that they be supported on the corporate network. This would not have been so much of an issue were it not for the fact that it was often the most senior executives who were making these demands.

This presents a considerable security challenge – mobile devices are intrinsically ‘loseable’ – as well as questions about privacy and how to present corporate systems on the devices in such as way as
to maximise productivity.

Speaking to Information Age in November 2011, IDC analyst Nicholas McQuire reported that while some organisations have taken the initiative to launch fully fledged ‘bring your own device’ policies, “the vast majority are in reaction mode”.

There are various approaches to this challenge, including using the basic device management capabilities of Microsoft’s email server software Exchange, ‘partitioning’ devices into work and personal profiles, and using dedicated mobile device management software. Supporting a ‘bring your own device’ policy raises even more issues, including how exactly devices will be paid for and how personal data should be handled.

Industry upheaval

It was not just IT departments that were feeling the impact of the smartphone and tablet revolution. In 2011, certain quarters of the mobile device market felt the full force of technology disruption.

Finnish handset-maker Nokia was once unchallenged as the leader of the mobile phone industry. But while it still dominates the overall mobile phone market, in 2011 its share of the smartphone market was overtaken by both Apple and South Korean manufacturer Samsung.

That coincided with a steady decline in revenue, down 13% to €9 billion in the most recent financial quarter. Nokia announced around 7,500 job cuts during the year, around 6% of its workforce.

The company is pinning its smartphone hopes on Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 operating system, and in October it unveiled its first product to use the system, the Lumia 800. At the time of publication it had yet to reveal how many of these devices it had sold, but some mobile industry analysts have predicted that sales could be disappointing.

But if Nokia had a difficult year, BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion’s was nigh on impossible. Its share of the smartphone market dropped from 17.4% in the second quarter of 2010 to 12.4% in the same period of 2011, according to IDC’s figures, again being eclipsed by Apple and Samsung. Revenue was also in decline – down 15% year-on-year to $4.2 billion in the third quarter of the year.

The company’s foray into the tablet market, the PlayBook, was another cause for concern. Launched in April 2011, the PlayBook shipped 500,000 units to retailers in the first quarter of sales, but shipments fell to 200,000 in the following quarter. In December, the company wrote down the value of its PlayBook inventory to the tune of $360 million, and promptly slashed its prices for the products.

It was not just poor sales that kept RIM in the headlines, however. The company attracted unwanted publicity in August when it was reported that the its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service had been the main tool of organisation for rioters in the UK.

Then, in October, customers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa lost service for multiple days following a network switch failure at one of RIM’s data centres. “I would imagine there will be some customers who, as a result of these events, might think more carefully about buying BlackBerrys,” said Ovum analyst Nick Dillon at the time.

The choppy waters of the mobile device market were also evident in IT giant Hewlett-Packard’s strategic meanderings in the sector. Having acquired Palm in 2010, primarily for its mobile operation system webOS, HP launched a tablet named the TouchPad in July 2011.

Just weeks later, as part of a staggering strategic turnaround that ultimately cost CEO Léo Apotheker his job, the company announced that it would discontinue the product line. Apotheker said at the time that “sales of the Touchpad are not meeting our expectations”.

After Apotheker was canned, however, his successor, Meg Whitman, made the webOS operating system available under an open source licence and suggested that it could return on HP tablets in 2013. Meanwhile, it will sell a Windows Mobile and Intel-based tablet for the business market called Slate 2.

These wranglings are in part a reflection of HP’s leadership issues in 2011, but they also reveal how difficult some hardware manufacturers are finding it to crack the post-Apple mobile device market.

For these vendors and IT departments alike, 2012 will see more disruption, more management headaches and perhaps some more embarrassments. However, if they do crack this particular nut, it could also be a year in which renewed innovation in end-user devices translates to new business opportunities. 

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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