Mobiles: a working evolution

IDC expects the Australian mobile workforce to grow from around 650,000 in 2001 to more than three million in 2006. Mobile phones and mobile devices are essential for mobile workers, enabling them to remain in continuous contact with customers and suppliers.

For almost two decades, the continuing growth of mobile workers in Australia has been supported by a series of technology advances. From the introduction of affordable and portable PCs in the 1980s to the latest in virtual private networks (VPNs) today, mobile workers have been engaged by the availability of resources that make it possible for them to be as productive away from the office as they are at the company site. The four stages of mobile worker growth, including the one we are entering, are directly associated with technology advances. The dates of these stages overlap and different companies and even industries are often at different stages of mobile worker development. In general, though, the pace of technology adoption has been accelerating, with each new technology round paving the way for the next.

Stage 1: PC centric, 1985-1997: The PC-centric stage in mobile working follows closely on the heels of PC usage in companies in general. The availability of personal computing to workers outside the office did not have an immediate impact on the number of mobile workers. Sales staff, auditors, and others who routinely called on clients and worked away from the office began to use personal computers at roughly the same pace as other staff. Unlike their corporate stay-at-home colleagues, though, mobile workers with notebook PCs began to operate as independent islands of productivity. Corporate home workers and telecommuters began to be formally recognised by employers. What had been an employee-driven movement received blessing and support from a growing number of companies.

Stage 2: Mobile phone centric, 1993-2000: The explosion of mobile communications, in particular mobile phones, began to change the way that corporate data collectors, mobile professionals, and other mobile workers operated. Effective and reliable communications with workers who were away from the office improved productivity significantly. As “any time, anywhere” mobile phone service became a reality, sales, support and other mobile workers could be more easily managed and supported. The resulting change in customer expectations made effective mobile communications essential. This, in turn, established the foundation for the next stage of development.

Stage 3: Internet and smart handheld centric, 1998-present: The growth of the Internet and smart handheld devices is at the heart of the third and current stage of mobile worker development. Mobile Internet connectivity provides for remote data access that supplements the remote voice communications made possible through mobile phones. Smart handheld devices, including function-specific smart handheld communication terminals, expand mobile resources to a wider array of mobile data collectors and other untethered workers.

Stage 4: Wireless network and VPN centric, 2002 and beyond: The natural next step of mobile worker technology almost looks like a step back philosophically, a return to centralised resources. Rather than operate as remote islands of productivity, tomorrow’s mobile workers will have relatively effortless and immediate access to a full array of corporate resources.

Mobile high-speed networks combined with the security of VPNs will begin to eliminate many of the distinctions between mobile and non-mobile workers. This would be especially true for knowledge workers who don’t necessarily have to work in a specific location; for them, mobile working could become the rule rather than the exception. However, given the lack of resources within many Australian SMEs this will not take place at least in this sector of the market for some time to come.

As SMEs, in particular larger medium businesses, consider the extension of existing applications to their mobile workers, the applications initially considered include corporate e-mail, corporate directories, and calendars. Increasingly, customer contact information, inventory data, pricing information, and other core data stemming from a variety of back-end systems, including CRM, databases, and mainframes, is being accessed in order to perform tasks while outside the office.

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