Taking your work with you has never been simpler – or cheaper. Your mobile phone or tablet PC can not only keep you in touch with your office; it can access the data that’s stored on your office computer, for instant reference and updating, wherever you happen to be. And such technology is no longer the exclusive province of large-scale enterprises, as a growing number of smaller businesses are discovering the benefits of being connected while on the move. In this feature we’ll look at mobile telephony and computing developments, and the exciting new devices that will one day surpass the desktop PC as the preferred way of doing business online. We’ll also report on how the changing demands of businesses are affecting the companies that keep you connected.
Mobility is the future
The demand for mobile computing power is staggering. IMS Research estimated that at the end of August there were five billion internet-connected devices, the figures driven upwards by the ‘second wave’ of connectivity, which includes mobile phones, netbooks and tablet PCs. Mobile hardware maker Ericsson says mobile data use has almost tripled in the past 12 months. "The business model for mobile broadband is becoming one of increasing profitability and competitive differentiation through superior quality of service. Mobile broadband is transforming the way we communicate and prosper as a society,” said Hakan Eriksson, president and chief technology officer of Ericsson Silicon Valley.
The versatility and portability of our web connections have led to a blurring of the lines between ‘work’ and ‘home’. Steve Simms, CEO of wi-fi supplier Tomizone, calls it "The Third Place” – a space for both work and play, provided by that connected device. "Your inbox,” he says, "is everything.” Combined with the burgeoning variety of cloud-based applications and storage facilities, which require no office infrastructure, these new solutions bring unprecedented flexibility.
For businesses, the buzz word is ‘convergence’ – your telephony and internet needs being supplied through a single device. But cost-conscious SMEs are not necessarily looking for an all-wireless solution. The most popular option today is a mixture of fixedline and mobile services. For the office, broadband through copper wire is still the best option for heavy usage, as data costs over a 2G or 3G connection can mount up quickly. The smartphone and tablet can connect via the web to the office to get data needed if you’re out meeting with a client and can feed the updated information back. They can also be used to check email; and don’t forget that many tablets with a headset and a ‘soft phone’ application can take phone calls too. This is the kind of convergence that is feasible for a small business.
Another tool now affordable for SMEs is unified communications. Comworth is now marketing Zultys, a VoIP system that combines voice calling, presence, instant messaging, faxing and more into a solution that can be tailored to the business’s needs. It also works on the iPhone and the BlackBerry. For people constantly on the road, it means they can manage incoming calls through a single phone number. It also manages voicemails, and can keep track of whether people are available or unavailable. If you need to work away from the office, all you need is a wireless broadband connection and you have everything you need in front of you. Combine this with a good landlineto- mobile phone plan, and Zultys does the rest. Significant cost savings are promised.
VoIP or hosted phone solutions mean that in theory a business can ditch that PABX system – but again, this is not a solution for everyone. PABX still offers some functions that hosted solutions don’t – indicating who’s on a call and who’s free, for instance. They’re still arguably the best system for businesses that have a significant number of staff sitting in an office, although hosted solutions are catching up. The modern PABX can support IP telephony, however, meaning a business can reduce its monthly line costs and have a system that also connects seamlessly with mobile phones. Businesses with most of their staff on the road are likely to invest more in mobile connections, and the latest mobile phones can perform many of the functions of a PABX, such as transferring calls.
The key benefit of all this converged technology is convenience: being able to do anything you want on whatever device suits you. You could use your smartphone to access data at your desk, but why would you? It’s for when you’re out and about, to get what you need at that time and place. A tablet PC has similar limitations in terms of screen and keyboard size. But once you get used to having the right tool for the situation, you’ll relish the freedom technology can deliver. What’s more, with so many communications products available ‘in the cloud’ (sourced online rather than as local hardware or software), you’ll often be able to get them as a service for a fixed monthly fee, or pay only for what you use. The best approach is to calculate your total communications costs, then talk to the telcos about your needs. Their business today is about selling solutions, not products. But of course, it’s the products that everyone is talking about and showing off. Let’s have a browse through what’s hot.
Mobile phones that connect to the internet are booming. Research from IDC revealed that manufacturers shipped 620 million handsets in the first six months of this year, largely on the back of lower prices and increased awareness about smartphone capabilities. Some analysts are tipping that within two years, phones will outsell PCs 4-1.
The smartphone of choice remains the Apple iPhone (see review, page 17). While primarily seen as a cool consumer product, business users can generally download any application they want from iTunes. But the iPhone has some rivals, and they’re getting better. Head of the pack is the Android, the open source operating system for mobile phones developed by Google. Manufacturers like LG, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and Samsung are producing them. They have the same touchscreen controls but are often cheaper, and don’t have the same lockdown for applications that iPhone detractors say is a disadvantage. The open source platform means communications companies can liaise with developers and develop applications that work with their particular products. This allows the device to be tailored more closely to the user’s needs. Android phones also have access to loads of free Google Apps. Android phones have been outselling iPhones in some recent marketing surveys, although Apple disputes the figures.
Coming a distant third, but still trying hard, is the BlackBerry. It starts off at something of a disadvantage due to its looks; having a physical QWERTY keyboard makes it chunkier and the screen smaller. In the ‘cool factor’ test against the iPhone, there’s no contest – unless you’re prepared to splash out on the touchscreen BlackBerry Storm. UK tech website Silicon.com did a head-to-head test between the iPhone 4 and the BlackBerry Bold for business users and voted the iPhone the winner hands-down. Users found the BlackBerry’s functions slower, and its Enterprise Server tricky to set up and use. The iPhone also had far more apps available and was generally more user-friendly. However, for businesses wanting to equip staff with smartphones, the BlackBerry could still get the edge if cost is a crucial factor. See here for the full test.
Determined not to be left out of this race, Microsoft will be launching its new mobile platform, Windows Phone 7, in time for Christmas – meaning you should be able to buy phones running the system by then (both touchscreen and keyboard models are envisaged, and prototypes have been made by Samsung and LG). The devices are expected to offer at least 256MB of RAM and 8GB of internal Flash storage.
Phone 7’s functions are arranged around a set of five core ‘hubs’ that control various tools and applications, eg: Office Hub will contain the likes of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but can also connect you to the SharePoint online server. Its compatibility with servers running Microsoft Exchange, as well as Microsoft’s cloud services like SkyDrive, will be a key selling point (SkyDrive offers 25GB of free online storage). Third-party applications will be available for download through Windows Marketplace. See Microsoft's site here and here for more.
The market demand for tablet PCs remains unclear because they are newcomers. Much will depend on users’ desire for something lighter than the notebook for lugging around (see HP’s case for the netbook on page 38), and whether the evolution of the tablet from the rather cumbersome keyboard with reversible touchscreen to the slim, lightweight touch-only version makes it more attractive. But the arrival of the Apple iPad suggests a revolution has begun.
Just as the iPhone is the smartphone that other manufacturers are imitating, so the iPad is the bellwether for mobile computing (see review, page 18). If you haven’t played with one yet, you’ve probably seen a friend or colleague showing theirs off. It looks great, and you can get all sorts of cool and useful apps for it (see page 34). But doubts persist about whether it truly functions as a business tool. Experts we spoke to cited connectivity issues ("Will it connect to my business server?”), the lack of USB support and removable storage, and the perennial complaint about being locked into Apple’s ecosystem. However, the sheer desirability of the iPad, coupled with its dual capacity to suit work and play, mean competitors face a struggle to challenge its likely market domination.
Nonetheless, other manufacturers are giving it their best shot, especially for business customers. Coming in the new year from Cisco is the Cius, an Android tablet with HD video and audio able to connect via wi-fi, cellular and Bluetooth, and designed to use cloud-based applications via a secure virtual desktop client. While its likely price of around $US1000 will make it more attractive initially to enterprise customers, it’s expected to set a standard for business-specific devices. See a video demonstration here. Also due out early next year is the HP Slate. Little is known about it so far, with rumours that it’ll either run on Windows 7 or a Palm operating system and will be quite cheap.
But the device that’s expected to take on the iPad seriously is the Galaxy Tab from Samsung. Details were sketchy at time of writing, but it uses the Android operating system, has a 7” screen, and appears to use the Swype text inputting method, which allows a user to enter a word by sliding a finger or stylus from letter to letter, lifting only between words. It’ll connect through cellular, wi-fi and Bluetooth, and also has built-in GPS. Vodafone says it will be bringing the Galaxy here, price to be confirmed. For more Android tablets, click here.
As mentioned earlier, telecommunications companies are focused today on selling solutions, not products. Businesses want to be connected according to their needs and budget. Orcon, which has already made waves since launching as an ISP, is now entering the mobile market and aiming directly at small businesses by offering mobile contracts without fixed terms. This gives them greater flexibility, especially if their business is seasonal. Orcon is pitching its mobile plans towards smaller users by offering 500MB of data at $19.95 a month. It also offers a range of fixed-line services and virtual hosting solutions.
Social media is steadily penetrating the SME space, particularly as a marketing tool, and Telecom says smartphones are increasingly being used with applications for such tasks as logging jobs and tracking finances. "We are also seeing more SMEs using web-based cloud services,” a spokesperson said.
Coupled with the likely boom in tablet PCs, the next 12-18 months is expected to produce increased demand for bandwidth. Steve Simms of Tomizone predicts existing 3G networks will be under pressure, and wi-fi networks like his will inevitably pick up more business. They’re faster and cheaper, he points out, and with lots of people walking around, not only doing business on their phones or PCs, but downloading videos and networking furiously, users will quickly get frustrated if their service doesn’t deliver. "The iPad and the iPhone have basically given the telcos a slap in the head, saying ‘people deserve data, you guys need to get with it’,” he says.
A Vodafone spokesperson dismisses the notion that 3G networks won’t keep pace. Vodafone has been working with Vector to build fibre backhaul around its cell sites, and says this will give increased capacity.
As for the future, boosting data speeds is high on the priorities of cellular network providers. Telecom is already offering the wireless broadband standard called HSPA+ or Evolved High-Speed Packet Access, which is capable of speeds up to 21Mbps, compared to the current maximum of around 7.2Mbps. Vodafone is trialling the new standard, but won’t deploy till it’s satisfied that it’s stable.
There’s also a lot of talk about 4G, but no one is expecting that anytime soon. For a start, digital television will have to be switched on to free up bandwidth, and that’s unlikely to happen till around 2015.
For now, it’s a buyer’s market for connectivity, to go with all these exciting and versatile new devices. As an example of how connection has changed, there’s Conversant, a virtual phone system that claims to "make big phone bills and expensive PABX boxes a thing of the past”. If you haven’t updated your communications for a while, maybe it’s time you checked out what’s on offer.