The much-heralded "post-PC era" might be dawning in the consumer technology market, as sales of smartphones and tablet computers rise and purchases of desktop PCs and laptops fall. And some of that early-morning light is creeping into the corporate sector, where the ranks of tablet-toting execs, smartphone-wielding sales reps and other mobile users are mushrooming.
Indeed, the numbers tell a story of rapid growth for mobile devices and applications in the workplace. According to online surveys conducted by Boston-based Yankee Group last June, the percentage of U.S. workers saying they use smartphones on the job had surged from 37% in June 2011 to 60%; meanwhile, 51% of surveyed organizations said they were increasing their budgets for mobile business apps, up from 28% a year earlier. And some large companies and government agencies are buying mobile devices by the thousands. For example, London-based banking group Barclays PLC confirmed in November that it was purchasing 8,500 Apple iPads for use by branch-office workers.
Enterprise stores traffic in mobile apps for business users
As mobile devices continue to infiltrate organizations, the concept of an enterprise app store is starting to emerge as a way to make growing corporate portfolios of mobile business applications readily accessible to end users while still giving IT managers control over the download process.
The enterprise stores would be similar in nature to public app stores like Apple's and the ones for Android devices: Users typically would access them through Web portals and be able to download both homegrown and commercial apps directly to their mobile devices, saving IT from having to push the apps out to individual devices. But they're also meant to provide a way to securely manage the distribution of mobile business apps by enabling IT to track what users are downloading and govern that based on usage rights.
"Most companies are still in the early stages because they don't yet have that many mobile apps," said Christian Kane, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Nevertheless, Kane said an app store should be part of a long-term enterprise mobility strategy because it lets IT deliver apps more efficiently and gives business users self-service capabilities.
"Today, if there's a new device, IT has to push down all the apps a person might need," he said. "There needs to be something where employees, based on who they are in the company and on their directory credentials, have app recommendations so they can get them at their leisure. They don't want to be calling IT or searching for things."
But the reality is that an enterprise mobile strategy only goes so far. Mobile devices are a good fit for certain users and uses -- among them, corporate executives looking to view documents in meetings, salespeople who need easy access to customer data while on the road, and delivery drivers and field service workers processing work orders at customer sites. In most cases, though, they aren't seen as a viable replacement for PCs on a wholesale or even substantial basis -- now or for as far as the eye can see.
At Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City and its Cobalt Talon analytics services subsidiary, for example, a variety of executives, business managers and sales workers have access to a growing portfolio of mobile applications, including financial and medical-costs dashboards and sales and marketing analytics apps. Darren Taylor, president of Cobalt Talon and previously vice president of enterprise analytics and data management at Blue KC, estimates that the people using the apps do about 25% of their work on mobile devices; he expects that figure to rise significantly, perhaps to 50% within two years.
But for other workers at the two companies, PCs and conventional applications still reign, Taylor said -- and he doesn't expect that to change. "When you're talking about bodies in an organization, there are a lot of people where the mobile device is not going to replace what they're doing [on PCs] any time soon," he said. In the health care industry, Taylor cited claims processing as an example of a transactional application that isn't destined to be done on mobile platforms: "For people who have a target of processing 100 claims a day, they're still going to do that by pounding away on a traditional desktop."
Handiwork hard on mobile devices
Laurence Hart, chief information officer at the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM), was even blunter about the prospects for going fully mobile on business applications. AIIM, a professional organization in Silver Spring, Md., has put iPads in the hands of all of its 40-plus employees; worker-owned smartphones are also widely used for business purposes. But to Hart, analyzing data and creating and editing documents on mobile devices is a tall order for users. "Any organization that's trying to go all-mobile is really setting a lot of users up for frustration," he said. "Have you tried to cut and paste with your fingers on a tablet?"
Chris Marsh, an analyst at Yankee Group, which is now a division of The 451 Group, agreed that the limited screen real estate and small, touch-based keyboards on mobile devices aren't conducive to content creation and data entry tasks requiring heavy amounts of typing. Yankee Group's surveys show that users still prefer laptops, even for applications such as social networking. As a result, Marsh said he expects the majority of business work to continue being done on PCs.
Novation LLC, which manages the purchasing of health care supplies for hospitals and other medical organizations, has mobile business intelligence, human resources and marketing apps in use and is developing more. But most of them aren't heavy-duty applications, according to Hari Subramanian, director of mobile applications at the Irving, Texas, company.
"What we see as the biggest bang for the buck is when people are on the road or really busy and there are small tasks that need to be done, but there are bottlenecks in the way" of accomplishing them on PCs, he said. For example, Novation has expedited the processing of expense reports and vacation requests by allowing execs to issue approvals from their mobile devices. Another app that's in development will enable traveling sales reps to download updated marketing and collateral materials to their mobile devices for use in customer presentations.
As more mobile business apps become available, with higher levels of functionality, more users likely will gravitate to mobile devices as their preferred platform, said Guillermo Ramas, vice president of commercial products, information and data services at Novation. Some, depending on their roles and the type of work they do, might even go fully mobile over the next few years, he predicted.
Conspicuous mobile data consumption?
"It really boils down to the question of who is an information provider and who is an information consumer," Ramas said. "The C-level suite, upper management, even salespeople -- they're going to be all-mobile. But the guys doing data crunching -- not so much." For them, he added, mobile applications will remain a complement to PC-based systems.
Christian Kane, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said full-on mobility eventually could become feasible for more workers as devices continue to evolve, with expected improvements on tablets such as larger screen sizes, integrated keyboards and more powerful processors.
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But there's a long way to go to catch up with PCs on workplace usage: according to a Forrester report published last April, 82% of more than 9,900 surveyed business users said they used a desktop PC for an hour or more on a typical workday. The figure for laptops was 49%; for smartphones and tablets, it was just 24% and 9%, respectively.
And Kane expects PCs to continue holding their own in the workplace, even as mobile hardware and software become more capable. He thinks the most likely long-term scenario is for ongoing co-existence between PCs and mobile devices, depending on user roles and what systems they need to access. "What we're seeing is a break from this one-size-fits-all model where everyone gets a laptop with the same stuff installed on it," he said. "What you'll see is something much more tailored to the employee."
At the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority in Boston, mobile apps are fast becoming a staple to help workers meet the needs of its clientele more efficiently. For example, electricians and plumbers can access work orders on mobile devices from the floor of a trade show, and event managers can schedule conference center resources while out of their offices. "Anything we can do to disconnect employees from their desktop and allow them to freely roam the building to do what they need to do is what we're after," said Steven Snyder, the agency's chief information officer. "We want them to be able to spend more time in front of the client."
But the mobile apps aren't a replacement for traditional systems, Snyder added. The capabilities they provide are also accessible from Web-based applications running on laptops and desktop PCs. And that, he said, is how it's likely to stay well into the future.
Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for more than 25 years for a variety of publications and websites, including SearchBusinessAnalytics.com, SearchDataManagement.com and other TechTarget sites. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jonathan Gourlay, site and news editor for SearchContentManagement.com, contributed to this report.
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