Think you're glued to your smartphone now? Get ready for even more productivity on-the-go.
"With the explosion of devices and platforms, we're seeing a reinvention of business applications and what you can do with mobile computing power," says Ebrahim Keshavarz, vice president of small business product management for AT&T.
Moreover, the downturn has turned up the volume on productivity. "In an economy where people are trying to optimize their spend and get a better return on investment, they want to get their people out of the office and out facing customers. There's a huge push around mobility."
If your own mobility strategy is ready for an upgrade, here's what you need to know about mobility platforms and what's on the horizon:
Mobile carriers used to bring out their new phone models in time for the holiday shopping season. Now, they seem to push out snazzy new models every month or two. The major smartphone platforms are iPhone, Android, Blackberry and Windows Mobile. While Apple's iPhone is only available now through AT&T, you can sample any of the other flavors at the major carriers. They're loaded with features, but it's the applications that run on smartphones that make them such powerful business tools.
There are thousands and thousands of mobile applications available via the carriers' app stores -- in fact, the selection can be bewildering. Apple offers more than 200,000 by far the most. But Google's Android Market is growing rapidly.
There are an estimated 83,000 Android apps now available, with thousands hitting the app store each month, according to AndroLib, a directory of applications. Blackberry's store holds some 9,500, while the Windows Mobile catalog has approximately 1,200.
But what will you really use? Email remains the killer app for business, along with messaging and mapping. Free or inexpensive turn-by-turn navigation services running on internet-connected phones can be invaluable time-savers for business folks who travel or call on other businesses. They'll also help you find a coffee shop to take a break, or a dry cleaner to clean the coffee stains off your lap.
There are apps that let you take a photo of business receipts to extract the information and add it to your expense report, and Intuit's GoPayment lets you accept credit card payments anywhere you have your phone.
Talk to your mobile carrier about phones, plans and applications. Most have small business centers with staff that can help you make sense of their hardware and services bundles. Come prepared with a list of apps you use now and some you'd like to add.
"The degree of integration with your business applications varies, so decide how important that is to you," says Michael Gartenberg, a partner with research firm Altimeter Group. For example, if your business runs on Google services, it's a snap to port them to an Android phone. On the other platforms, it's doable but may be a bit trickier, and you may not have all the features you need.
Tablets and pads
Tablet computers have been around for years, but Apple's iPad made them suddenly hot, thanks to its super-skinny design and gestural interface. While the iPad has the wow factor, it may not run the business applications you need. You'll soon have plenty more designs to choose from that run the Windows OS.
"A tablet can save you the cost of a laptop, serving as the primary mobile device, if you're not a heavy business user or if you're only out of the office for a couple of hours," says Gartenberg."
Most tablets can connect to the internet via the cellular network or WiFi. You can take advantage of the many free hotspots in urban areas, and use the pricier cellular broadband connection in a pinch.
Your car could soon be your biggest mobile device, allowing you to access some or even all the applications running on your smartphone -- just not while you're driving. Ford has gotten raves for its SYNC service, unveiled at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show. The in-car system connects via Bluetooth to your smartphone; in addition to hands-free calling and driving directions, it lets you listen to text messages.
While there's some backlash brewing against letting drivers access mobile applications in the car, the industry is rushing to internet-enable cars. In the short term, this means using the smartphone for connectivity and as the platform running the applications. Nokia has introduced Terminal Mode, a standard interface between phones and the car's screen, while improved speech recognition technologies will make it easier for drivers to use applications with eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.
In-car systems are in the works that will limit application use while the car is in gear, or display them only to someone in the passenger seat or rear seat.
Think about this productivity scenario: You're traveling with your colleague back from a business meeting. In the passenger seat, he's working on your company's hosted CRM application, entering details and new contact info while they're fresh -- and making use of the car's large touch screen instead of the tiny phone screen and keyboard.
Now, that's mobility!
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Susan Kuchinskas is the author of Going Mobile: A Guide to Building the Real-Time Enterprise with Mobile Applications That Work. As a founding editor for M-Business from 200 to 2002, she tracked the early development of the mobile internet. She's a correspondent for Telematics Update and reports on technology and business for a variety of publications.