Monday, 23 February 2009

Smartphones: the plethora of platforms

Smartphones are rather like desktop PCs were 25 years ago. There are lots of competing devices with different OSes - it's exciting or a nightmare depending on your point of view. Gartner's managed diversity strategy provides a useful framework to think about support.

If I'm an individual or an enterprise, how do I choose which platform to adopt? My preference is for the iPhone - it's what I've chosen for personal use, and I think it has business benefits too. Each of the platforms however have different strengths and weaknesses. Several people have recently asked me for advice, so hopefully this summary on the blog will be of use to more.

Blackberry: the standard for corporate messaging. We'd have to invest significantly to add Blackberry Enterprise Server to our infrastructure if we wanted to deploy Blackberries. The blackberry data contracts are also at expensive at £15/month, difficult to justify at a time when we are trying to cut costs. The infrastructure costs mean we'd either have to deploy Blackberries in a big way or not at all.

Symbian: Symbian is now owned by Nokia, who are almost the only firm left making Symbian phones. Symbian runs efficiently on low-end hardware. It's a general purpose smartphone OS but I think Symbian's developing niche will be at the cheaper end of the smartphone market, for people who want a phone with only occasional extras. The Nokia E63 could be a good, cheap phone for business users wanting phone+email. The keyboard makes it a decent Blackberry clone from the hardware point of view. Unfortunately for us the IMAP mail client is lacking - for example it will only store sent mail on the device, not on the server.

Windows Mobile: lots of devices in different form factors, from a huge range of manufacturers. Very open platform for third-party applications. I think of Windows Mobile as a 'general purpose computer' - it will do anything. This makes it a great choice if you really want a laptop replacement (but in that case how about a netbook instead?). Unfortunately the Windows Mobile interface is pretty horrible to use. The best Windows Mobile devices are from HTC, who have developed an easier touch interface on top of Windows Mobile. If you want a Windows Mobile get something like the HTC Touch Pro.

Apple iPhone: revolutionary when first released, the sleek hardware, large screen and touch interface make the iPhone a cut above other options. It is lightweight, slim, and easy to carry around in your pocket, so won't be left in the desk drawer. The user interface and other design factors are crucial to the appeal - you can't underestimate how important this is to the average, non-techy user. It makes the device something people will actually use and benefit from.

The on screen keyboard is a barrier for some:it takes time to get used to but can be quite fast when you've learnt. The email client is fantastic, and the web browser way better than any other smartphone. There are various enterprise tools you would expect (eg remote wipe) but not all would work in our environment. It can do calendaring with our Oracle Calendar, but through a third-party sync app which isn't ideal. This is an example of a more general failing: Apple have a limited SDK for third-party apps, perhaps as an oversight, or perhaps to retain their iron control on the platform. Unfortunately all this comes at a price: the iPhone corporate data contract (£15/month again) is more expensive than other options. A shame that the smartphone designed for the masses is affordable only to a few?

Google Android (so far just the G1 from T-Mobile): One to watch. In theory Android should give the iPhone a run for its money providing easy to use web-centric devices. So far manufacturers have been slow to release models - I don't expect a large range until 2010. Android platform not mature, missing too many features, especially those that enterprises want. Android is likely to remain consumer-centric for some time.

Palm Pre: interesting but still unproven and not here yet. When released it will still take time to reach maturity and feature parity with other platforms.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Digital nomads and multiple identites on the move

"Urban nomads have started appearing only in the past few years. Like their antecedents in the desert, they are defined not by what they carry but by what they leave behind, knowing that the environment will provide it. Thus, Bedouins do not carry their own water, because they know where the oases are. Modern nomads carry almost no paper because they access their documents on their laptop computers, mobile phones or online. Increasingly, they don't even bring laptops. Many engineers at Google, the leading internet company and a magnet for nomads, travel with only a BlackBerry, iPhone or other “smart phone”. If ever the need arises for a large keyboard and some earnest typing, they sit down in front of the nearest available computer anywhere in the world, open its web browser and access all their documents online."
From Nomads at last, The Economist April 10th 2008

Is the Nomad a good model for our academic and academic-related staff working on the move? I'm sure it describes some - but how many? Paul Saffo describes four categories of mobile worker, Nomads, Cyber-trekkers, Hermit Crabs & Astronauts - defined by how disciplined they are about what they leave behind. Personally I'm not a digital nomad - but I'm sold on the concept and working on getting there.

Having access to information on the move is very useful. But travelling light is more important. People won't put up with bulky, heavy, awkward gadgets. If your smartphone is larger than some critical size it will spend more time sitting in your desk drawer than in your pocket, and then it is of no use to anyone. Every student has a laptop, but most sit on the desk at home and only occasionally are brought in to the campus.

My starting point on mobile IT is that devices must be genuinely mobile. Even better would be for the devices to disappear into the environment. Use the keyboards and screens of whatever room you are in, and access your data in the portal or in the cloud.

Lets say you find the perfect device. The next problem is that you don't want to lug around two phones, or two laptops, and two sets of chargers (one of each for work and the other for personal use). To escape that fate you instead have to wrestle with managing your work and personal identities on the same equipment. This is tricky:
  • Email identities are the easiest to separate. You can have two email addresses, and read them either in different places or in one virtual inbox (but you'd better remember to choose the right From address).
  • Calendar is trickier - to stop yourself getting double-booked you need a view of both personal and work appointments in one place. Putting your personal appointments into your corporate calendar isn't a good solution (how do you get your data out when you change jobs?).
  • Even more difficult is your phone number. You don't want to keep two phones in your pocket, unless you have very baggy trousers! So do you use your work phone for personal purposes? Apart from the cost, there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles with financial and tax regulations. Use your personal phone for work purposes? You won't want to pocket the bill, unless you've got a large bundle of minutes each month. Even worse, it means your employer has your phone number when you're on holiday. If somehow you do combine both into one device, you won't give up either your work or personal number - all those people to notify!
We don't have good, cheap, multi-network solutions for redirecting phone calls. Grand Central looks like the best multi-platform service. Sadly Google appear to have put the service on ice since taking it over (and there is certainly no sign of it outside of the US). One colleague points me towards Advanced Call Manager "It's brilliant" - but only for devices with Symbian OS. Doubtless there are others - all suggestions very welcome...

Further reading:

Dr Carsten Sørensen, LSE
Paul Saffo on Cyber-Nomads: a functional taxonomy of mobile users
Sociology of the mobile phone