Flexibility soothsayers promise the corporate world that eventually we will be able to work anywhere, any time, and thereby greatly improve productivity. But as with fixed networks, to do anything more interesting with a mobile device requires faster and more reliable service. Despite the fact that pocket-sized devices that take pictures, shoot video and access internet and email have been available for years, it has hardly been worth the bother - beyond voice, email and text - until now. Speeds are just becoming available that allow the phone to be used to its full potential.
In fact, say the experts, mobile network speeds in Australia are ahead of the devices, and right now are faster for a greater proportion of the population than in most other developed countries.
Following Telstra Corporation's release of quicker mobile modems last month, theoretical speeds of about 21 megabits per second, which are approaching fixed-line speeds, are now possible.
As always, cost will be the issue, not only to acquire new handsets that can deal with rapid networks, but also because video and other large files require a lot more bytes to be downloaded and sent, and that will test present network capacity and affordability.
Which leads to the tougher question of when it will be cost-effective to use the faster networks. And that will depend on what value they add through better productivity and customer service, and therefore improved competitiveness.
For instance, network providers are now touting the use of video-conferencing as a substitute for airline travel. In the present cost-cutting environment - and as a greener alternative - it might make sense.
Also, several network providers, such as Telstra (as well as, most famously, CNN during its United States presidential election coverage) have been demonstrating telepresence, a product that uses cameras to transmit an image that creates the effect of a hologram.
As fixed networks take that next step up, mobiles are quickly being adapted to produce video calling, or streaming, using phone cameras.
Melbourne-based Utility Services, which provides maintenance and repairs to water and electricity companies, is now putting video streaming to use.
For several years it has equipped its workforce with laptops and GPS to track employees and allocate work to the closest and best-qualified employee, who then updates the progress of the work via the same system.
The company's trial of on-the-job video streaming via mobile phones allows images to be sent to a website that has password access and can be viewed online by anyone who needs to see it, such as clients or other experts.
"The video streaming is done on a Nokia mobile phone and it is no more difficult than clicking on an icon and downloading the software," Utility Services' manager of technology and innovation, Glenn Pyman, explains. "I could be in Perth and you could be in Sydney, and I could be streaming video to you in real-time."
What they download is software from Australian company Momentum Technologies Group, which makes the connection to the website and improves the image, which can still be jerky, even with the present speeds.
Utility Services has been trying out the technology only since January, using eight mobile phones, therefore Pyman can't yet give evidence of financial benefit or productivity improvements. But should the company take up the technology, he believes customer service improvements will be the biggest advantage.
He says outside experts can be consulted or clients can view the problem in their infrastructure directly. "It allows more efficient management and equipment to be deployed in a timely fashion, rather than three or four people phoning up and saying, 'I think you need this or that'.
"Management would be able to see it, or the operations manager in the control centre would be deploying different contractors or staff and making decisions and taking advice from whoever is on site."
Pyman says the company will eventually introduce software that automatically stores the video files with a job number, which will be searchable and therefore useful for auditing requirements and any disputes.
In line with Moore's law - which has successfully predicted a doubling in computer capacity every two years since the mid-1960s - as well as assuming network speeds will only get faster, we can confidently say mobile devices will become more and more powerful.
IDC telecommunications market analyst Mark Novosel says that in a decade, mobile devices will have at least as much memory and processing power as that of desktop computers.
But a key limitation on hand-held mobile devices is usability, Gartner research director Robin Simpson says. They fit in your pocket, but the screen is too small to bother reading anything on it of any length.
They can't get too much bigger, however, or they'll be too much trouble to carry around, and certainly not as much fun as a phone.
But as mobile technology reaches the speed and reliability of fixed networks, it will allow hand-held units to become thin clients.
That is, they may merely become devices with a fast modem that use their speed to let the bulk of the processing power and data remain centralised. This reduces the cost of upgrading devices.
Security also drives the thin-client argument. A mobile device is not locked in a building, and can be slipped from a pocket or forgotten.
The theft of a phone owned by outgoing Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo at the Mobile World Congress last month in Barcelona, and loaded with a top-secret Windows mobile operating system, highlighted the problem.
Most data accessed using a thin-client mobile device is kept in secure data centres and companies just disconnect the device from the network or disable password access if it goes missing.
David Moffatt, a former Telstra chief financial officer, and now group managing director of consumer marketing and channels, says keeping "more smarts" in the network is important because it "means a lower capital cost for deployment, greater security and greater capacity to deploy new services faster".
It is a concept network providers are keen on. Moffatt says companies can rent the network they use from providers like Telstra.
"You create a variable cost model through the integration of services," he says, as companies would also rent spare capacity in data centres owned by others, or hire out their own. It could also mean a CFO, for example, may not have to spend money to build the company's own data centre.
"What we will see is the emergence, as we did in the financial world, of brokers, marketers, repackagers of these services, who will talk to the people who have [data centres] and work out ways to deliver them reliably for enterprises that don't want to build their own," Moffatt says.
However, buying network capacity from others will pose new risks for CFOs. "When you go to a shared model, although people are very good at managing firewalls and ensuring redundancy, it means that you're managing multiple relationships," he says. "You have counterparty risk, just as you do in foreign exchange transactions."
Several companies are also working on the ultimate in thin - e-paper - which, as anyone who has seen the movie Minority Report will know, would allow people to read electronic newspapers. It would also give access to any other service available over the internet. via something you can fold up small enough to put in your pocket.
Once again, for all of this, very fast access speeds and a high degree of reliability everywhere will be essential, and these are rarely guaranteed, particularly on mobile networks.
Novosel and Simpson say an even bigger limiting factor is battery capacity. "While some progress is being made in terms of making smaller and denser cells, the demand for power is still increasing far more rapidly than battery capacity," Novosel says. Moffatt says mobile networks also will ultimately always have greater problems with reliability and security compared with fixed lines. "A bank is not going to use a mobile network to back up its network, for instance."
Simpson says that once internet access is available at acceptable speeds on mobile devices, however, a lot of things become possible given that business application is now being driven by what consumers latch onto.
Some phones now have camera and video quality that's good enough to easily replace most digital cameras and camcorders. This will allow people to record their daily lives, and make notes on things that interest them on the spot.
BlackBerrys are beginning to be replaced by iPhones, or clones of these, which are finding their way into the hands of executives. They [iPhones] use much more bandwidth, so IT departments will try to limit their growth, but Simpson says they open up all sorts of possibilities for business networking.
He says allied with online social networking, many new phones will come out with location sensing in the device itself that can pick up ID tags broadcasting product types. For instance, Google Latitude downloaded to a mobile already lets people view the status of their friends, colleagues or business partners and where they are.
As well as providing a much closer interaction with work friends and colleagues, there are obviously a lot of advertising and marketing opportunities.
"With the increase in power and sensors, the phone will provide an awful lot more of this contextual information," Simpson explains. "The phone knows where we are, whether we're running or walking slowly, whether it is night or day, how hard or how fast our heart is beating."
What all of this capability will do for business is anyone's guess.
But Moffatt says any chief financial officer who can understand how the technology can be applied to improve productivity will have an advantage over those who don't.
"The CFO is critical to both top-line and bottom-line growth and [one] who can understand how technology is applied to productivity and to improve the customer experience is a CFO for the future age," he says.
- Mobile networks are getting close to fixed-line speeds.
- Real-time video streaming is possible.
- Speed may allow devices to get cheaper and more secure.
- Full internet access will allow mobile networking.
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