Smartphones, modern-day electronic Swiss Army knives, may have become a must-have business accessory. But do users need all those blades? Does every smartphone feature – camera, browser, touchscreen, GPS, Wi-Fi, etc., etc. – really boost productivity, or are many just bells and whistles? Or worse, time wasters? It depends, we discovered, on your perspective, and probably your industry and job function. One thing is certain: until the downturn, smartphones were hot. According to ICT research-firm International Data Corp (IDC), global sales last summer were up 40% year over year, while the rest of the industry was growing at more like 10%. Competing research house Gartner reports growth in smartphone sales fell off to below 14% by 4Q08 – but sales were still growing. IDC Canada research analyst Kevin Restivo believes the ascendancy of smartphones is inevitable. “Most users, whether consumer or enterprise users, will eventually have a smartphone in their hands,” Restivo says. But that doesn’t mean you have to put the deluxe model in every employee’s hand. IT managers need to evaluate smartphones feature by feature, employee by employee, and evaluate what will deliver real benefit to whom. Social networking not always a time-waster Okay, you don’t pay much of a premium, or anything upfront, for this one, but it’s a feature vendors are pushing hard, and it illustrates the variability of analysis involved. Facebook? Twitter? Pure time-wasters, we would have said, and we’re guessing most IT managers agree. But Zeus Kerravala, senior vice president at Yankee Group, calls mobile social networking a “hidden gem.” Kerravala uses it to get quick answers on the fly. “You drop a question into your mobile community and the answer comes back in minutes.” It’s a lot faster than e-mail, he points out. He also sometimes consults respected colleagues’ Twitter utterances to get quick takes on unfolding issues or events. And he knows one large bank that deployed mobile social networking to foster collaboration among employees. Restivo says some organizations use social networking to reach out to customers. Enabling employees to respond on the go could deliver real benefits. “It’s hard to say is an absolute waste of time,” he notes. Social networking-capable smartphones may also become a necessary perk to attract and retain young talent, Restivo points out. Web browsers have other functions Apple’s iPhone raised the bar, but mobile browsers were already improving. Is this necessarily a good thing? Managers in the past worried that employees were wasting time at the office browsing for personal reasons. If they do the same while mobile, it will also cost the company. But Mike Cuddy, CIO at Toromont Industries Ltd, a construction equipment sales and rental company, clearly doesn’t agree. Cuddy is rolling out a browser-based mobile CRM application for field sales staff because that was the easiest way to make it hardware independent. Now employees will be able to get quick information in any situation. And he believes they’re more likely to do call reporting on the handheld while details are fresh. “The primary business benefit? A better informed organization, one that doesn’t need to come back to the office to get information,” Cuddy says. “We want there to be no excuse for not knowing.” He sees other mobile benefits too. Consulting live traffic cameras on a smartphone, for example, can save employees time when driving, and the company money. For Kerravala, the importance of choosing a good mobile browser “comes down to your belief in how rapidly the software market is moving to the software as a service model.” Mobile browsers range in quality from poor to good, he says. The best make mobile computing in a SaaS world much easier. Touchscreens overrated? iPhone generated massive hype around its touchscreen interface, since copied by other vendors. But according to Restivo, not even consumers surveyed by his company are citing touchscreens yet as a feature they value highly. Kerravala says people either love or hate them. He’s clearly no lover. He argues that a touchscreen interface may be good for some users, but not most. “For the Coke delivery guy, maybe it makes sense,” Kerravala says. “But for knowledge workers who need to create text, no.” There are other vertical applications, including some in health care, where touchscreen technology is already being used, such as on tablet PCs and proprietary handheld computers. But your correspondent came to the same conclusion as Kerravala about text input on virtual touchscreen keyboards – it’s slower than with a physical QWERTY keyboard, even the tiny ones on smartphones. Cuddy also doesn’t have much time for touchscreens. “I don’t see the value at this point,” he says. Kerravala adds that if vendors do deploy touchscreens, they must redesign interfaces to suit, something not all have done. Onscreen links that were easy to select on a trackball-equipped BlackBerry, for example, are too small for the touch interface on RIM’s new Storm model, he says. Wi-Fi has perks for global travellers Apple was by no means the first to build Wi-Fi into a smartphone, but the success of the iPhone makes it clear broadband wireless connectivity will be table stakes going forward. And not just for smartphones. ABI Research expects shipments of Wi-Fi-enabled cellular handsets to double in volume by the end of 2010, compared to January 2008, and it says the growth curve will continue through 2013. Kerravala calls Wi-Fi in smartphones “huge.” The main benefit? Reduced-cost voice calling using VoIP. “If you do a lot of international travel, you can call over Wi-Fi and that makes calls free,” he says. “Some companies are significantly cutting costs of international calling this way.” But not every Wi-Fi enabled smartphone makes it easy to place VoIP calls. And mobile operators may eventually offer customers a more convenient low-cost solution, using short-range indoor cellular base stations, called femtocells, and back-hauling traffic over landlines. Most commentators say that reducing costs for mobile data connectivity – a secondary benefit for Kerravala – is more important than using smartphones for VoIP. Cuddy, however, questions whether built-in Wi-Fi does anything at all for typical road warriors and field employees. “I don’t think it has a significant or material productivity benefit,” he says. In many situations where it would be useful to have a higher-speed, cheaper data connection, Wi-Fi is not available, expensive, unreliable or, most problematic for Cuddy, difficult to set-up and use. He concedes possible cost savings and the obvious benefit of higher-speed connectivity, especially in campus settings. “There are definitely scenarios where you can imagine Wi-Fi on a smartphone having a benefit,” he says. “But only in an environment with a very simple mechanism for connecting so you can do it with no complications.” GPS: cars versus smartphones GPS-equipped smartphones, which started appearing a few years ago, are among the hottest models on the market today. While overall handset shipments will likely drop by 4% to 5% in 2009, according to ABI, shipments of GPS phones will grow by 6.4% over 2008. Is that because there is real utility in adding GPS? Certainly any road warrior could benefit from accurate driving instructions. It reduces travel time – potentially increasing employee productivity – and saves gas. For some job functions, such as oil patch geologists and limousine drivers, it could be crucial. But is there necessarily a value in having GPS on a smartphone? Kerravala says no. A purpose-built GPS device is easier to mount in a vehicle, he points out, and has a better screen and interface for turn-by-turn mapping applications. Prices for stand-alone products have also come down far enough that it may be cheaper to issue employees with two devices. Cuddy disagrees. He’s interested in other GPS enabled applications besides turn-by-turn mapping – include tracking and logging mileage to ensure accurate expense claims and tax reporting, which would be easier to do on a smartphone. In the future, he says, GPS-enabled smartphones could also enable location-based applications. For example, it would be useful for field employees in his company to be able to quickly see all of a rental customer’s equipment that is nearby. “For that, you not only need the co-ordinates of the machines, but also GPS on the smartphone,” Cuddy says. It’s not difficult to think of other job functions where location-based applications would be useful. Smartphones as modems, cameras, etc. We’ve looked at some of the hottest smartphone features, but there are others that can deliver productivity gain – or drain. Kerravala would like to see smartphones with state-of-the-art speech recognition and text-to-speech. It would allow users on the run to conduct business without stopping to focus on typing or viewing the screen. The technology is available on some models. “Speech recognition is a lot better today,” he notes. “But it’s had such a bad history, a lot people aren’t willing to give it another shot.” Cuddy mentions two he looks for: the ability to use the smartphone as a modem to connect a laptop, and the camera. Virtually every smartphone has a camera, of course, but not all are created equal. If you have a real business application – on-site repairmen sending pictures of broken equipment back to head office, for example – make sure the product you deploy has a decent camera, not a toy. Some smartphones can double as modems, but not all, and not all those that can are easy to set up. Here’s the point. The mix and quality of features varies from smartphone to smartphone. Users needs vary too. So, ensuring you get the best value for money and the best tool for the job requires some time and some thought. With careful analysis, every enterprise can find its optimal device mix.