While convergence and unification have been key themes in networking, media and messaging, we’ve always seen quite the opposite in mobile devices – diversity, not convergence, is in fact what drives this element of mobile IT. And that’s to be expected: As the line between business and personal technology has blurred, personal mobile devices have taken on a decidedly consumer spin in terms of design, features and marketing. Sure, your BlackBerry is great for email, but it’s also a dandy media player and personal organizer. And so are almost all of the other smartphone-class mobile devices being sold everywhere in the world today – we’re practically to the domain of the automobile, where, despite the inherently complex technology, it’s styling that carries the most weight in the buying decision.
But whereas one is normally limited in the number of cars one can own, just consider the broad range of mobile devices that you might regularly travel with: a notebook, a smartphone and perhaps one other cell phone (especially if your employer provides one just for business use), an iPod or other media player, a digital camera (most phones have cameras, to be sure, but they’re usually not very good), and maybe even a GPS device if you, like me, travel a lot and frequently, um, find yourself temporarily lost. One’s mobile arsenal needs to be, like the proverbial Boy Scout, always prepared. Aren’t those guys also known for their heavy backpacks?
How many personal mobile devices do you need?
Thus there’s a natural tendency to want to reduce to the absolute minimum the number of things to buy, carry, organize and manage, ideally via one convenient, do-it-all unit – what I call the single-device imperative. But, after almost 30 years of working on and with mobile products, I’m convinced that getting everything into one box is simply impossible. While it seems we should at this point have the technology to do so, too many competing factors dictate that essentially all mobile devices, especially those designed for computing and communications, will involve a degree of compromise that ultimately mandates the multi-device solutions we all deal with today.
And that’s what I call the single-device paradox: At least two -- and perhaps, as above, more -- personal mobile devices will always be required. The key challenge here is in the size of display screens and keyboards. Making these reasonable (think: desktop experience) means the device is no longer as portable as we might prefer. A good assumption, then, is that the minimal set any of us will carry for the next few years reduces down to a notebook for typical computing tasks and a smartphone for everything else – and, even with that, we still have a huge range of choices:
On the PC side, once one decides on the operating environment (which is today usually limited to Windows 7, Mac OS or Linux, with each of these having advantages and disadvantages), the next step is to decide on a form factor, which pretty much revolves around screen size. More screen context is always desirable, with 1280 x 800 resolution about the smallest for anything approaching a desktop experience. Most netbooks today are limited to 1024 x 600 or so, however -- but, boy, are they small, light and convenient. I regularly use a Linux-based netbook while traveling, but it truly is a compromise. If you don’t mind more size, weight and cost, however, notebooks with screens from 11 to 17 inches are available. Note, though, that there’s no longer much difference between “consumer” and “business” notebooks; they are all pretty much the same, subject to the limitations of the OS provided. And while tablet/touch-screen PCs have never really caught on, I expect they’ll become more popular as time goes on, as we’ve become used to touch-screens on handsets, and many users are now comfortable with this type of interface.
Choosing mobile phone devices
On the mobile device (smartphone) side, one generally starts with the platform here as well, with the BlackBerry OS, Windows Mobile, and the iPhone’s MacOS popular choices. But Linux is coming up fast on the outside, thanks primarily to Google’s Android effort, which is now blossoming and is worth a look in enterprise settings. Beyond that, the choice again boils down to form factor, with PDA (virtual or real keyboard, the former offering a lot more screen context) and slider (the keyboard slides out from behind the screen) styles being the most popular. Note that screen and keyboard are inherently severely restricted in highly portable devices, but the convenience and appeal of today’s robust application platforms (90,000+ apps on the iPhone alone), desktop-class browsers, and built-in communications is undeniable. And I do expect that ancillary functions like media playing, cameras and GPS will continue to improve in handsets, in most cases obviating the need for a huge mobile arsenal. Don’t forget about tethering, using your handset as a “modem” for your notebook. You can dramatically cut wireless costs and eliminate the need for yet another USB dongle or expensive internal adapter.
Sadly, though, one size does not fit all, and mobile device diversity will continue to be the order of the day for many days to come. Enterprises can minimize the complexity by selecting a standard platform and then approving just a small range of devices supporting it. But I think that mobile device management (MDM) and advances in usage-accounting software will eventually result in a completely counterintuitive trend, what many call personal liability. Simply put, this means that enterprise subscriber units of the future are likely to be truly personal and not supplied by the enterprise, with a little MDM software on each device ensuring security, integrity, and accurate usage and expense tracking. Add in good user agreements, security policies, and acceptable-use policies, and we have all we need for the next generation of mobility. No matter what, though, mobile device diversity will be with us for a very long time – to the delight of users and, ultimately, even the enterprise, in terms of both enhanced manageability and lower costs.
About the author: Craig J. Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass. The company works with manufacturers, network operators, enterprises, and the financial community in technology assessment and analysis, strategy development, product specification and design, product marketing, program management, education and training, and the integration of emerging technologies into new and existing business operations, across a broad range of markets and applications. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies and has published numerous technical and overview articles on a variety of topics.