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Smartphones still have lessons to learn

To say that the mobile communications industry has made staggering progress over the course of the last 20 years could hardly be called an overstatement. Mobile phones, which once weighed upwards of 5 pounds and possessed only ephemeral battery life, have evolved into the sleek, seemingly ever-available devices that we know today.

And they're not stopping there. The next generation of mobile devices, called smartphones, promises to combine the calling power and convenience of a cell phone with the applications and functionality of a laptop. spoke recently with Michael Disabato, an analyst with Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group and author of a research report titled Smartphones: What's in your pocket?, about the rise of the smartphone, its implications for the enterprise market and some of the roadblocks, both technical and manmade, standing in its way.

Michael Disabato
Mike Disabato

 So what makes a smartphone so smart? How is it different from a plain, old mobile phone?
From my perspective, a smartphone's got a real operating system in it where you can load applications that are developed by and for an enterprise, not necessarily shoved down at you by the carrier.

So, with that said, if it's not running a flavor of Symbian, Windows Mobile, Palm OS, Research In Motion or probably Linux, I wouldn't classify it as a smartphone. Of course, that will probably get me into tons of trouble with some of the phone manufacturers. So what functions are essential to an effective smartphone?
First off, people get all hot-to-trot about smartphones and they forget one real important thing: It's a phone. People buy these things because first off they want to make phone calls with it. So voice [functionality] is a real important thing that still needs to work right.

The second feature, of course, is the ability to function with the big PIM [personal information manager] applications (address book/contact list, calendar, to-do list), although some people don't care about taking notes on these things anymore.

The third is multimedia functions. These are starting to draw a lot of interest from different enterprises. The first reaction when the camera phone came out was to ban the things. Slowly, we're seeing these things coming along and gaining some acceptance after the first initial backlash because of privacy and security issues. In your report, you say, "The transition from a voice-only mobile device to an integrated communications platform is taking place." Where in that evolutionary lifecycle are we now?
We haven't crossed that chasm [into maturity] yet. We still only have a lot of early adopters out there, but we have more early adopters than we had before. Part of that is due to the popularity of the BlackBerry and the fact that RIM finally got the voice part of the BlackBerry working really well. So now there are a lot folks out there using smartphones to get voice [communications] and e-mail. It's more of an appliance that does those things really, really well.

This whole business of, 'Can you hear me now?' has to stop.
Michael Disabato,

 Smartphones have the potential to change the way people work, namely by allowing greater mobility. So what are the implications for corporate IT departments charged with managing and troubleshooting these devices?
IT departments either need to figure out a way to ban them … good luck … or they have to embrace the idea that these things are going to arrive and figure out how best to use them. They need to set up a policy where the company owns and manages the device or has the right to install some management software on an employee's personal device. Otherwise, they have to block them from connecting to the network. Speaking of the network, a smartphone laden with corporate data and access to an enterprise network is obviously a potential goldmine for would-be thieves. What can be done to secure these devices?
The smaller the device gets the more personal the device gets and the harder time you're going to have implementing controls on it. IT departments have to do a risk analysis and balance the security risks with the usability of these things and put some policies in place. There are 10 or 20 manufacturers out there that are making software add-ons for these devices that will encrypt the databases. Some of them will actually do device management as well. The thing I love about RIM, for example, is that once you tell it the device is lost or stolen or is not part of the network anymore, it just wipes it out. Besides security issues, are there any major factors hindering the adoption of smartphones?
The cost. They're expensive -- the Treo is $600 if you buy it without a plan. That's a lot of money for somebody to plunk down on a device that you know from the start is going to be obsolete in 18 months.

Also, if companies like Verizon Wireless decide to put these things inside a walled-garden, then they start to limit the usefulness of them and people will stop using them because they're not doing all the things that they thought they could. I'm picking on Verizon because they've basically disabled all of the Bluetooth file-transfer capabilities on their phones so that any time you want to add a song, a ring tone or a game, you have to use the Verizon network.

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 You also mention in your report that many of the phones out there today have some serious design problems. What do you mean by that?
There are inconsistencies in menus; there are arcane menus that you have to go too far to find the one feature that you need; some of the features that you would logically think would be in a phone are missing from some phones. So I don't think any one company has got it right yet. Why is that?
With all due respect to the really smart guys and gals in the backroom that are engineering these devices, they're putting all sorts of functions in here just because they can do it, and marketing is going out and asking the wrong questions to find out if people are interested in them.

If you say to someone, "Would you rather have a device that does three things or a device that does six things?" People will say they want the six things, even though they may never use half of them. Why? Because you can give it to them for the same price and there's a perceived increase in value. In your report you refer to smartphones as the "new PCs" or "personal communicators." So will smartphones ever replace our current PCs, our desktops and laptops?
They won't take the place of a desktop or laptop for one big reason: the screen size. We're used to typing on full-sized keyboards and the vast majority of us need full-sized keyboards to do our jobs. Still, you believe that smartphones will eventually "disappear," in the sense that they will become so integral to our lives that we won't even notice them, like a refrigerator or a VCR. So when will smartphones truly disappear?
The first thing that has to happen to make them disappear is mobile coverage has to get much better. This whole business of, 'Can you hear me now?' has to stop. As much as I think that's really cute and Verizon did a great job of leveraging that for marketing, the fact that we still have to ask that question when we're on the phone is symptomatic of one of the frustrations that people have: inconsistent coverage.

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