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Mobile workers push for smartphones

Road warriors may prefer smartphones over laptops and PDAs, but equipping your entire mobile workforce with this nifty tool may not be such a great idea.

Business users say they prefer smartphones over laptops and personal digital assistants (PDAs) when they're on the road. But while CIOs should be looking at smartphones as an alternative mobile device, experts warn about putting too much stock in the tool's appeal to road warriors.

According to a new study of 228 smartphones users by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based In-Stat, 64% said the devices are "essential" for their work. Another 32% said smartphones were "helpful" for their work. Laptop users were slightly less bullish, with 63% of 758 users describing laptops as essential and 27% describing them as helpful.

PDA users were less enthusiastic about their devices. Among 421 PDA users, only 34% described them as "essential" and 55% called them "helpful."

"Don't assume that the laptop is the only option," said Bill Hughes, an analyst at In-Stat. "With smartphones, if there were any questions about the viability of them as a platform in the past, these should no longer be considered a real limitation."

Hughes said businesses have assumed that laptops with wireless technology are the best devices for mobile workers, "but this data and lots of industry experience shows that the smartphone is also a superior solution. It's smaller, much lighter, and, depending on the applications used, it has all the capabilities you need and it costs less."

Daniel Taylor, managing director of the Wakefield, Mass.-based consortium The Mobile Enterprise Alliance Inc., said smartphones -- wireless phones with special computer-enabled features such as email and the Internet -- are gaining traction among managers and business professionals. But they may not be the best choice for some mobile workers, such as field service workers, who use mobile devices for specialized applications.

Taylor said smartphones are "like a Swiss Army knife. They can do anything." But he said IT departments don't want specialized employees like field service workers to have smartphones when a "ruggedized" PDA might be the best choice. He said the objective of any mobile device is to improve productivity. However, the power of smartphones might actually inhibit productivity in some cases.

"[IT departments] don't want [field service] users installing games and other applications," Taylor said. "A Nokia 95 Communicator is the granddaddy of smartphones. It does a lot. It has a lot of capabilities. But is that the right device to hand someone who is working in a sewer, who spends their day working on heavy machinery? The answer is, probably not."

"The reason for deploying mobile technology is that productivity improves. In field services, productivity is measured by the number of people seen per day, the number of work tickets resolved. Anytime a person in the field is doing something that doesn't improve their productivity, then it becomes hard to justify the investment. The last thing you need is a field service working installing software while sitting in a truck that's not moving."

However, Taylor agreed that very few obstacles remain for widespread adoption of smartphones among traveling business managers, mobile professionals and knowledge workers.

Hughes said the devices pose a problem for workers who input large amounts of information. A user who writes long reports on the road will still want a laptop, but users who are reading reports on the road are another story.

When In-Stat asked 784 users of mobile technology what improvements were needed in order for smartphones to be more useful in business, 59% were seeking a better keyboard. Forty-nine percent said they wanted applications that worked the same as PC-based applications, and 47% said they wanted devices that could automatically synchronize with PCs.

However, Hughes said these barriers to wider usage aren't as big an obstacle as they may seem.

"I see no truly logical barriers to smartphones," he said. "The screens are smaller and the keyboards aren't as efficient, but with many applications that aren't input-intensive that isn't an issue. And the lighter weight more than makes up for that."

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