We are still at the dawn of a newer smarter more mobile future and it’s reshaping how we live and conduct business
by: Ian Grayson
While mobile devices and networks have already brought big changes to daily business life, industry experts believe the trend is only just beginning.
Since first entering mainstream usage in the 1990s, the mobile phone has rapidly evolved to become a must-have piece of technology. With more features and capabilities added with each generation, their value as a business tool is unquestionable.
The launch of Apple’s iPhone in 2007 took the trend to a new level. Essentially a pocket-sized computer that also made phone calls, the device ushered in the era of smartphones. As other handset makers adopted the form factor, usage quickly increased.
According to industry research group Gartner, global sales of smartphones passed the one billion unit mark in 2014. Sales in the final quarter of 2014 were 29.9 per cent higher than in the same quarter of the previous year.
Meanwhile usage of tablet devices also continues to grow. Initially made popular by the release in 2010 of Apple’s iPad, tablets are increasingly used as business tools as well as consumer devices.
Indeed, Gartner predicts that, by 2018, more than 50 per cent of users will use a tablet or smartphone, rather than a computer, first for all online activities.
“The use pattern that has emerged for nearly all consumers, based on device accessibility, is the smartphone first as a device that is carried when mobile, followed by the tablet that is used for longer sessions, with the PC increasingly reserved for more-complex tasks,” says Gartner research vice president Van Baker. “This behaviour will adapt to incorporate wearables as they become widely available for users.”
This trend is particularly evident in the business world where phones and tablets are becoming a primary device for many people. Where once a mobile worker would feel uncomfortable without access to a notebook PC, now many tasks can be readily completed on a tablet.
Buoyed by employee enthusiasm for mobile devices, many organisations are investing in complementary back-end technologies. Examples include mobile-friendly interfaces for core software applications such as stock control, CRM systems and financials.
By allowing employees to interact with central applications via a mobile device while away from the office, productivity can be boosted and operational costs lowered. Rather than having to wait until they return to the office to place orders or update records, many tasks can be completed by staff while on the road.
Mobility is also changing the way people communicate in the business environment. Where facilities such as conference audio and video calls were once limited to the office, these can now be conducted from almost any location.
At one end of the spectrum, services such as Skype allow video calls to be made to and from a range of mobile devices. In larger organisations, employees can use their devices to connect with conferences taking place on larger and more complex office-based equipment.
Although such technologies have been available for some time, there is still significant potential for usage to increase. This is expected to occur as organisations come to understand the benefits it can deliver to their operations.
“The value of most networking technologies tends to increase the greater the numbers of individuals connected,” says technology analyst Rob Bamforth from research company Quocirca. “Video conferencing is no exception. Moreover, increasing usage also generates more familiarity and comfort with the whole experience. Encouraging a culture of video adoption would therefore seem to benefit both the individual and the organisation.”
However the effects of mobile devices and technologies are being felt well beyond the traditional office environment. Indeed, it’s in other areas that some of the most innovative developments are taking place.
Cisco Australia and New Zealand vice president Ken Boal says mobile technology will provide significant competitive advantage in a wide range of sectors during the next few years.
“You only have to look at the banks and what they have done with mobile technology,” he says. “They have changed the way customers interact with them and shifted much of the traffic from branches to mobile devices.”
Boal says the retail sector is another area undergoing significant change. By marrying mobile devices and networks with things like purchasing history, personalised marketing can be undertaken.
“We are at the early days of mobility in retail and how it will change the customer experience,” he says. “We are starting to see interesting ways in which retailers are interacting with customers using mobile technology.”
One example, called predictive context, involves the tracking of customers as they move around a shopping centre or store. When a shopper logs onto a store Wi-Fi network, the retailer can identify them through their mobile device and consult their past purchase history.
This can give an indication of what they might be looking to buy and gives the retailer the opportunity to target them with a special individualised offer. This could be a text message pointing out a new range of stock or a discount coupon sent to their mobile device.
“Retailers will have to consider what is the right level of engagement without bombarding customers or making them feel creepy,” says Boal.”However the potential for these types of techniques is significant.”
As mobility becomes pervasive within growing numbers of organisations, many are finding the task of managing devices and infrastructure can be quite significant. Rather than needing to keep an eye on centralised systems and desk-bound devices, equipment, applications and data can now be almost anywhere.
IT infrastructure management specialist SolarWinds head geek [note: this is his correct title] Patrick Hubbard says many organisations are unaware of just how complex the management task can become.
“At the same time user expectations are very high,” he says. “Employees use their mobile devices and don’t stop to think about how they are connecting and the systems behind it all. It all just works and they expect that will be the case all the time.”
Hubbard says many staff also don’t stop to think about the security implications of mobility. “Companies used to run training sessions around security in the past, but we’ve sort of got out of the habit,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said to introducing some training so people are aware of the implications of what they are using.”
There’s little doubt that mobile devices and networks will continue to reshape the business world as their usage becomes even more pervasive. According to Optus, in 2014 Australians used around two gigabytes of data each. This is expected to rise to 10GB each during the next five years.
“If you look at households in Australia today, 38 per cent have four or more connected devices,” says Optus chairman Paul O’Sullivan. “But again, if we look forward we expect to see by 2020 that figure will increase – in fact we expect it will have doubled and Australians will have six or more devices connected to the internet.”
Head of Mobility at Optus Business, Martin Conneely, says the key business drivers for growth in mobility will remain the productivity benefits and the explicit or implicit economic benefits that flow from it.
“These can range from councils moving to applications on handsets or tablets to replace paper-based forms, to emergency services deploying applications that enable field staff to capture photos and videos of trouble spots and send them back to the office database,” he says.
“The ‘Internet of Things’ is also driving significant adoption of mobile technologies and the opportunities are only limited by the imagination.”
Conneely says he is also seeing increasing deployment of mobility solutions for security monitoring, remote healthcare monitoring, digital signage and energy management.
“A major trend in the future will be the move to a ubiquitous world of connected devices – that being connected cars, the connected home and connected living with wearables,” he says.