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Mobile vs. Portable and the changing nature of the office

How today's businesses can use mobile more efficiently and help their employees become more productive.

The vision of being able to deliver any content or application to any device no matter where a worker is located has eluded IT for over a decade now. The desire to get there is great as it promises to change the way people work and raise the productivity level of employees no matter where they may be. Any inability to fulfill this “any” vision certainly shouldn’t be looked at as reflection of IT. It’s more that the technology didn’t really exist to enable a truly fluid, mobile work environment.

Most companies had to be content with having limited portability versus true mobility. What’s the difference? Let me explain. The legacy “mobile toolkit” consisted of a worker having a corporate-issued laptop with preinstalled company-issued applications. All of a worker’s files and content are also loaded onto the laptop. The worker then carries the laptop around, attaches to a hotspot or other network when not in the office, and connects over a VPN client. Is this really a mobile office? I say it’s not - it’s portable.

What happens if the worker wants to use an alternative device, such as a tablet or a smartphone? Well, then the worker needs to copy files over to a USB stick or do some sort of synchronization to get the data on the other device. What if the user loses the primary device? This has happened to all of us, and we generally wind up in a very bad position where we lose a significant amount of productivity trying to recreate everything. True mobility allows a worker to transfer the experience between devices without human-induced synchronization. That means being able to take only a smartphone on the road for a short trip, perhaps using a tablet for an over-night trip, and then taking the laptop on a week-long journey but having consistent access to the stuff we need, when we need it.

While this has been primarily a vision to date, there are several forces coming together that will enable the vision to become reality, or at least get much closer to the end state. These forces are:

  • Cloud computing. This includes both the use of public cloud services as well as organizations that wish to build their own internal "cloud-like" infrastructure. The cloud allows applications and data to be centralized and then distributed over the network. Additionally, there’s no manual synchronization required since changes are made in the network. For example, a worker could send an email from a smartphone and have it show up in sent mail on the tablet. Or a worker could miss a call at their desk but then check the voicemail later from the smartphone and see the missed call on a tablet. Cloud delivery is optimized for the mobile computing era and should be part of every organizations strategy.
  • Near ubiquitous, high-performance wireless. Historically, the wired network was always the primary network, and workers would connect over wireless in conference rooms and other shared areas. There was often a trade off to make – high-performance wired or poor performing, but more convenient wireless. Today, the rise of Wi-Fi and 4G cellular services has created a scenario in which the user experience of wireless technology is now on par with wired. Today, while not seamless, workers can connect in most places if they need to. Soon, devices will automatically switch between networks to provide the best experience, again without human intervention.
  • Mobile device evolution. The mobile device has arguably evolved more in the past five years than any other technology and has in regards to worker productivity. Mobile devices have unique capabilities, such as compasses, accelerometers, GPS capabilities and location information that traditional computing devices do not have. Over the next five years, mobile applications will be more context-aware and predictive as the applications will have a better understanding of who is using the device, in what location and for what purpose. Mobile applications should be regarded for their uniquely mobile attributes, and not considered just “mini” versions of desktop applications.
  • Evolution of Unified Communications (UC). Traditional UC solutions were designed to give workers at a desktop a unified collaborative experience. The UC solutions available from leading vendors are now designed with mobile in mind. These solutions give workers the ability to collaborate from anywhere using a traditional desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone. Over time, the industry will see more UC solutions that take advantage of the unique capabilities of mobile devices. Additionally, the industry will see a rise in the peripherals required to integrate consumer devices into corporate UC systems much easier than in the past.

This shift away from portability to true mobility will be the biggest technology change to hit organizations since the birth of the Internet. Once software developers are exposed to “what’s possible” and start building more applications with presence, location and other contextual information, the mobile device won’t just augment the workers toolkit. Rather, it will become the primary work device because it will have capabilities that are uniquely mobile.

To prepare for this shift, IT leaders should start thinking “mobile-first.” Instead of designing a traditional application and then creating a version that is mobile, consider how the application would work if the uniquely mobile capabilities could be harnessed to their full potential. This is the start of delivering a workplace that’s mobile and not portable.

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