Smartphones or laptops for mobile workers?

Smartphones are essentially computers, capable of accessing the core corporate resources mobile workers need on the go, but laptops are still best for heavy lifting. So which platform is best for mobile workers?

The Experts
Thomas Henderson
Thomas Henderson

Principal Researcher at ExtremeLabs, says the limitations of smartphones are too great for them to ever displace the laptop as the workhorse of choice for mobile workers. View debate

Pejman Roshan
Pejman Roshan

senior director of mobility for ShoreTel, says mobile workers are primarily consumers of content, not generators, and smartphones support all the tools they need. View debate

Thomas Henderson

The fingers have it (not the thumbs)

I first carried a "portable" computer to COMDEX in 1982, the Osborne I, which I wrote a book about. In retrospect, it was insane to carry a box the size of a sewing machine to a computer conference. And while smartphones today have more computing horsepower than that old Osborne, there is a line between portable and useful and smartphones don't cut it when real work is at hand.

Smartphones are, by their nature, communication devices with limited computing functionality grafted on. Laptops/notebooks/netbooks, on the other hand, can be turned into full-featured smartphones, giving you the best of both worlds. While smartphones have their place and may in fact be adequate for some roaming knowledge workers, their ergonomic and, to a lesser extent, communications limitations are too great for them to ever be adequate replacements for notebooks.

For one, consider the onerous deployment and fleet logistics. There are three basic operating system choices for notebooks, Windows, MacOS or a Linux variant. We already know the devil-of-the-details regarding how to keep these payloads provisioned, largely malware free and up to date. The patch and fix drill, how to remotely kill them, and how to ensure they adhere to usage policies have been largely perfected through a variety of management apps.

Smartphones, by contrast, run one of six possible operating systems -- Apple iOS, Symbian, Windows Mobile, Android, Blackberry OS and HP/Palm webOS -- all of which have variants. While there are heterogeneous smartphone fleet management, administrative and provisioning applications coming onto the scene and some are becoming mature, they are comparatively primitive compared to the network and total-systems-management apps available today for laptops.

What's more, while smartphones can easily access Web apps, the availability of mobile Web apps that work with each of the six operating systems (or even a common browser like Opera) are more difficult to find.

But when it comes to use of these devices, obviously the biggest advantage of notebooks is screen and keyboard real estate. Requiring mobile workers to use their thumbs to write pages of information or fill in forms may actually be torture covered by the Warsaw Pact. Any type of work that requires more than a little key-based input is simply overwhelming on smartphones. And consider the misfortune of using, say, a spreadsheet when a phone call comes in. It's true that notebooks don't wake up and answer phone calls, but smartphones don't multitask (although we'll see that ability sooner rather than later as demand for parallel functionality continues — and it will drive your thumbs crazy).

Other key comparisons:

* Battery life. Obviously notebook (or even netbook) battery life can't measure up to what smartphones deliver. The latter can often work for days without a charge cycle, while some notebooks suck power from their batteries with a big straw. That said, modern notebooks often boast five plus hours of juice, which is adequate for most situations. And you can always get a second battery. 

* Net options. Smartphones are always connected, or at least they are supposed to be. The reality is that data coverage is spotty and downloads in a bad cell can take forever. 4G doesn't really deliver the 100Mbps that the 4G ISO standards describe, either. If roaming network support is critical you can outfit your notebook with a data card and achieve all the WAN data support you can get with your phone. When it comes to connectivity in coffee shops, airports and what-not, most smartphones now support Wi-Fi, but mostly using 802.11b/g, not at 802.11n speeds, so notebooks have the hotspot advantage. 

* Jacks. The jacks on a smartphone are limited and a function of the phone itself. On a good day you might get data transfer across a USB cable or via Bluetooth wireless. The rest is sneakernet using SD flash cards (where available on a smartphone), and it isn't pretty. That makes backing up smartphone user data and applications a bit more difficult, but not impossible. By contrast, even the cheapest netbooks have USB connection and gigabit Ethernet.

* Protecting data. Schemes for protecting organizational data on smartphones are sketchy at best, whereas the data protection schemes for Windows, MacOS and (depending on the hacking skills of the operator) Linux are pretty well-known.

It's my belief that mobile workers are probably chained to organizational and Web resources by a combination of notebook and mobile phone technologies. I'll agree that smartphones are way cool as personal tools. GPS devices, even notebook tethering is of great utility. Using smartphones to make and receive calls is great. But the ergonomic differences are real: we're more efficient with bigger screens, real keyboards, and greater data communications options. And we know how to deal with securing and policing notebooks.

I recently went to a big box store and lifted the new Macbook Air in one hand and a Droid 2 in the other. The differences are narrowing. OK, I admit I would look silly holding the MBA up to my ear to make a call.

Henderson is principal researcher at ExtremeLabs. He can be reached at kitchen-sink@extremelabs.com.

Pejman Roshan

Smartphones do it all

Today's smartphones pack about as much punch as a high-end laptop from 2005, yet unlike the laptop, the smartphone is revolutionizing the way we live.

By 2015, as many as 90% of U.S. consumers will carry smartphones, according to industry analysts. And with good reason -- smartphones are making us more productive. We can use them to send e-mail, navigate, update calendars, even shop and play games. Oh, and we can do that whether we're by the water cooler at work or waiting in the dentist's office, visiting a customer or getting ready for bed.

Everything about our lives — from our business contact list to our Facebook page to our entire music and video library now fits on a handy device that can literally be carried around in a pocket.

For the mobile workforce, the smartphone is delivering untold freedoms and placing full control of the work environment at their fingertips, rather than cutting off the blood supply to their laps.

New capabilities also mean the smartphone is rapidly becoming an extension of the PBX. Real-time access to valuable business information, either by Wi-Fi or the cellular network, is making road warriors smarter, more responsive, more flexible and better on-the-fly decision makers.

Legions of sales people, who are often the most well-travelled road warriors, can access customer information, check the status of orders, and so on, tasks that used to be limited to computers. And smartphones can even facilitate access to PC desktops for more complex tasks, if necessary.

With the smartphone, there's no need to drive to the nearest hotspot, take out the laptop, wait for it to boot, fumble through passwords and user ids, and finally review the latest e-mail exchange with a prospective business partner before a meeting. All that information is just one tap away on a smartphone and instantly available for consumption and use.

More importantly, those tools that were once exclusive add ons for costly laptops, such as cameras and voice recorders, and useful applications such as traffic alerts and even airline check in, are now standard offerings on smartphones. 

And they're available by the boatload for quick and easy installation, and in many cases they're free.

While it's true that certain content creation functions, such as creating presentations and editing design files, are still best done on a laptop, the underlying technologies available to smartphones are rapidly changing.

Already tablets offer the usability of a laptop with the functionality and convenience of a smartphone. Furthermore, the innovation arising from the opportunities created by smartphone technology is leading to a slew of affordable accessories, such as keyboards that can emulate laptop capabilities, powerful voice recognition software, and even portable plug-in scanner devices.

However, there are two major cultural shifts that ensure the ascendency of the smartphone. Firstly, today's mobile workers are primarily consumers of content, not generators. While they are on the road, their main focus is access calendar information, contacts, social networks, corporate applications, and so on.

In the event that they do need to tweak a presentation or change the wording of a file, the proliferation of hotel business-center services, retail office services, business lounges and even Internet cafes, easily support the need for quick content creation. In fact, by pulling up a browser or application on their smartphone, they can locate the nearest business services location while on the go.

The other important shift is the preference to use soundbytes to communicate. Social media, such as Twitter, started to train us to communicate using 140 characters or less, and in general, people like it. Even e-mail exchanges are becoming shorter, more concise and use more abbreviations, making them digestible and easy to type out and send with just two thumbs.

Again, the combination of instant access to anyone in your address book or your network, and the ability to engage in a quick exchange while on the go, is making people more productive, companies more versatile and whole groups more collaborative.

As smartphones inevitably get smarter, the emergence of virtual desktop tools will take important business processes out of the laps of mobile workers and put them into their hands. Securely and reliably.

When given the choice, workers will gravitate toward what is comfortable, easy, quick and most practical. They will seek the freedom to communicate anywhere, anytime, on any device and across any network. Wait a minute … isn't that called a smartphone?

Pejman can be reached at proshan@shoretel.com. ShoreTel provides brilliantly simple unified communications solutions, including fully integrated voice, video, data and mobile communications, based on its award-winning IP phone system.

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