Opinion: The lure of mobile is immediacy

"We can expect the smartphone to become the primary communication and computing device"

Around the world, the rapidly expanding use of smartphones and tablets is turning into a transformational trend - for enterprises and consumers alike.

On the plus side, the rush to mobile is driving adoption of BYOD (bring your own device) policies, mobile-only communications, unified communications and powerful cloud-based services. But 2012 is also likely to be the year when mobile gets away from large enterprises. IT shops desperately need mobile management, internal app libraries and well-thought-out mobile security systems.

The mobile industry makes mobile management for enterprises difficult by bedeviling consumers with rampant device proliferation, frequent operating system upgrades, contract lock-ins and nearly nonexistent customer service. Enterprises have little choice but to let much of that mess through the door as they agree to BYOD policies.

"BYO is a principle that most organisations will adopt, and [they] must prepare for this change," said Gartner analyst Nick Jones. CIOs must prepare BYOD programs "sooner than they realize," he said. Of course, when you allow three or four mobile platforms and a never-ending stream of smartphone and tablet models, your management and security concerns multiply significantly. And the tide of smartphones keeps rising. Gartner predicts that sales of smartphones to end users will hit 645 million in 2012, up from 461 million in 2011.

What's driving adoption on such a large scale? For one thing, communication habits are evolving from batch mode to near real-time. And mobile is immediate. It's about communication right now. People carry smartphones everywhere and use them for everything. They often prefer their phones to larger devices that idle nearby. It's immediacy that's making smartphones dominant.

I think we can expect the smartphone to become the primary communication and computing device. Smartphone customers demand much higher service levels than cellphone subscribers. The successful mobile vendors are likely to be the customer-focused ones. And companies that focus on customers might want to consider these points:

Two-year contracts are not what customers want, and monthly charges are out of whack. My guesstimate is that the typical monthly charge for a smartphone with data and texting is $100 in the U.S., which leaves a lot of people out in the cold.

Handset makers should build one or two great smartphones a year instead of a boatload of confusing choices. Take a cue from Apple and stand up to the carriers that want phones built to their specs (wireless radios aside). Many smartphone manufacturers act almost like OEM providers to the carriers. Smartphones are also far too expensive. Manufacturers and carriers drive up the retail prices. It can cost more to replace a lost smartphone than it does to buy an iPad.

Platform providers should think through the contexts of the user experience very carefully. Tiny touch screens need well-conceived user interfaces. Virtual keyboards need to be more usable than they are. Extensive usability testing and user-focused development are the keys to success. And -- Apple, take note -- my-way-or-the-highway user experiences are not the future. There should be room for user preference and customization.

When you look at the fact that Microsoft, Apple and Google are competing head-to-head to build the best mobile operating systems, it's clear that mobile is a phenomenon. I'd call it the next big thing, but it's already here.

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor-in-chief. You can contact him at sfinnie@computerworld.com and follow him on Twitter (@ScotFinnie).

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