Smartphones promise to further empower the mobile worker

The strategy of ‘enabling mobile and flexible working’ is the rock star of the Effective IT Survey, having consistently been ranked among the commonly adopted and most effective strategies since the survey’s inception. This continued in 2010, with 77.9% of respondents having adopted the strategy, and 89.3% of those rating it as either ‘effective’ or ‘very effective’.

By including questions on the return on investment delivered by the various strategies, this year’s survey found for the first time a slight chink in this particular strategy’s armour: it ranked only ninth out of 31 in terms of the proportion of adopters that said it had delivered the expected ROI.

Still, it is clear that unloosing the geographical constraints on work is one of the most powerful contributions that IT has made to business. Clearly, the cutting edge of such technology now resides with the growing sophistication of so-called ‘smartphones’. The rising prominence of these devices was underlined by Gartner research in the summer, which revealed that smartphone sales for the first two quarters of 2009 reached 40 million, a 27% increase over the same period in 2008.

And while those figures confirmed the market dominance of Nokia and BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM), which registered 45% and 18.7% market share respectively, Gartner also highlighted the ascent of Apple’s iPhone, which at the halfway point in the year had surged into third place with a 13.3% slice of the market.

Sharifah Amirah, UK principal IT analyst at research consultancy Frost & Sullivan, asserts that Apple’s device is yet to reach full steam in regard to enterprise adoption. “We will clearly see further growth in the use of the iPhone in the business space,” she says, highlighting her organisation’s own recent investigation, which revealed that respondents ranked Apple in a distant first place when it comes to brand perception.

Business adoption of the iPhone and the similar devices now flooding the market brings with it the ‘App Store’ model of software distribution, arguably pioneered by software-as-a-service CRM provider but certainly popularised by Apple, whereby a central repository of independently developed applications, some free and some priced, allows users to add functionality to their devices.  Already, business and enterprise software vendors are using the iPhone platform as a route to market, including ERP supplier SAP, which in August 2009 launched an iPhone version of its BusinessOne application with a $449.99 price tag.

Competition on the way

Alternatives to the iPhone platform are emerging. Research by technology market watcher ABI Research published in December suggested that application delivery channels from other vendors and network service providers will begin to chip away at the dominance of Apple’s App Store from 2010. The research predicted that application downloads will rise to around five billion a year in 2014, with a significant number of these on rival platforms, such as Google’s open source Android.

Indian IT services supplier Infosys has launched a white label application store, Flypp, which allows mobile telecoms carriers to build their own App Store equivalents, and recently revealed that it had won Indian telco Aircel as a customer.

Catching up with the iPhone will be difficult though, with Apple announcing in January 2010 that three billion applications were downloaded from its App Store during the preceding 18 months.It remains to be seen how much enthusiasm there will be in the enterprise space for business-grade mobile applications in 2010. Amirah suggests the development of business applications on the iPhone and similar is a long-term game. “Email remains by far the primary application on smartphones – that and things like weather checks and navigation services,” she says.
“I don’t see there being a groundbreaking transformation in smartphone applications for business or personal use in 2010.” Instead, she forecasts that 2013 and beyond is a more realistic timescale.

Barriers to more widespread business adoption include the unsophisticated payment systems used to procure such applications, in which it is not always clear to whom funds are being transferred when purchasing applications, says Amirah. “I would not be willing to do this for [an application] more significant in value,” she says. She believes that online payments giant PayPal could soon become a major player in this arena.

The security of smartphones – or lack thereof – is also a growing concern. However, Amirah says that business smartphone adoption is not yet mature enough for this to be an emergency situation for corporate IT departments. “Until we get to the stage where the smartphone becomes a replacement for the laptop, it is unlikely that people will have sensitive data on their phone,” she believes. But with some executives already leaving their laptops at home in favour of handhelds, this scenario is surely on the horizon.

Fourth Generation networks

A third factor is network bandwidth. While the roll-out of 3G networks has triggered widespread uptake of mobile email and web browsing, the limitations of that networking technology constrains more sophisticated applications. However, a number of trials of so-called 4G networks in late 2009 gave some indication of future capabilities of mobile networks, if not a solid time frame for when the services will go commercial.

In December, mobile telco O2 enlisted Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer Huawei to install Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology – an esoterically named mobile network system – in six masts in the Berkshire town of Slough for a consumer pilot. Huawei’s vice president for Western Europe, Tim Watkins, said that LTE would be capable of handling “20 times as much data and allow much more bandwidth-hungry applications”, such as high-definition videoconferencing, and also offer improved connection reliability.

One result of the proliferation of 4G could be a sharp rise in the number of businesses using VoIP for mobile voice services, according to Gartner, which predicted in May that over 50% of such traffic would be carried through 4G channels by 2019. Tole Hart, research director at Gartner, said at the time, “Once the basic market conditions are in place, transition to mobile portal VoIP should be fairly rapid because of the inherent convenience and end-user cost savings.” Hart predicted that 30% of mobile voice traffic would take place through third-party channels within ten years, with Google and Yahoo being among those to offer wireless VoIP as part of their communications packages.

Businesses may not be about to close down their offices in favour of an all-mobile workforce, but the continued convergence of the Internet, mobile telephony and application software promises to deliver yet more flexibility in 2010 and beyond; and the ‘mobile and flexible’ working strategy could hold on to the top spot for years to come.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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