The Apple AppStore has over 100,000 iPhone applications. Verizon’s Droid is a a few months old and Google just launched the Nexus One. Microsoft has Windows Mobile and the Palm has the hot new Palm Pre. The current king of Mobile Business is the Blackberry (RIM), but it is losing ground fast. Apple, Microsoft, Google, Palm, Verizon & RIM all going after the same market and that makes for great headlines.
Articles are starting to appear talking about the mobile replacing desktop as a work environment. For the most part, this is bunk; A symptom of someone looking for a headline, but not thinking. When I see an interesting article about a controversial topic, I like to first look at the last 2-3 headlines by that author. If last week they were talking about global warming, the week before about cyber-crime and this week about mobile technology replacing the desktop; I classify them as “reporter”. Reporter does not equal expert. While reporters are absolutely essential to get a pulse on minor variations on trends, I prefer to seek the experts to get a deep understanding of a new technology. Even better is to immerse yourself and get first-hand experience. Most of the buzz today is reporter, not expert created.
To better understand if/when/why mobile will or will not replace the desktop, definitions are in order: Desktop refers to the hardware, be it PC, Mac, Linux, either desktop or laptop. This desktop can be running any form of software including installed, Client-Server, SaaS and browser based. Mobile is the generally understood concept of a smart-phone like a Blackberry or iPhone.
Mobile vs. Desktop
So will “mobile” business application replace the “desktop”? Yes and No. The first Hurtle for Mobile to replace Desktop is CPU & Memory. Over the next decade, mobile form factor devices will have the processor and memory of today’s desktops. So throw out processing power as a differentiator. Mobile will catch up. In fact, most applications today, especially SaaS applications only take up a small amount of CPU and memory on the desktop.
What else constitutes a desktop environment? Input and output devices. This is the big one. I personally have both Mac and PC setups, each with a bunch of big monitors. Besides the large monitors, I use full size keyboards, and a laser mouse.
My Mac & PC workstations
Big ideas need big work spaces. When I first realized that my iPhone was actually a mobile computer, I tested the limits. Doing basic operations like reading email works fine. What about spreadsheets I thought?
Designing a spreadsheet on a mobile device is possible, but very, very inefficient. I tried it and it’s infuriating. However, using an already designed spreadsheet on mobile device is realistic. Reading email; easy. Writing email; possible, but not as easy as using a full size keyboard.
This is where I had my epiphany that would steer the mobile strategy for Broadlook.
Mobile Technology is an extension of and not a replacement for PC-based business applications.
Why? Desktop business applications have evolved over the years to take advantage of everything possible. Case in point, at Broadlook, we switched to the Microsoft Dynamics CRM. The default setup did not fit our selling model, so we modified Dynamics to fit our business process. Dynamics is a Platform as a Service (PaaS) environment; a base of CRM functionality which each business can build on. Our modifications to Dynamics CRM included data points that most companies don’t have access to (unless they are Broadlook customers). Simply put, the average screen was too small to get all the data on it that we needed. We could have created a system where everything was accessible in a drill-down fashion (click, click, click). However, this included too many clicks to be efficient. I can’t stand having to click 3-4 times to get to data that should be there. The answer: bigger monitors. Standard at Broadlook, we now have 24 inch monitors with 1920×1200 resolution. The things that most people have to click 2-3 extra times to get to their CRM, we have on the first screen. Simple things like having all the contact info points in the initial search grid.
Broadlook’s Leads Screen in MS Dynamics CRM on a 24 inch monitor. All info points are available so a sales rep can take action from the first screen. A typical implementation of SalesForce.com or MS CRM would require you to click 2-3 times to get at all the information on this screen.
As a side note. These monitors are about $250. Picking up 50 of these monitors was many many more times cheaper than wasting the time of a sales rep in click-click hell. In addition developing with the large monitors in mind is much more forgiving than having limited screen real estate and making a design decision that makes 1/2 the people happy and 1/2 ticked off.
How would this business process, which depends on “big hardware” translate to a 4 inch mobile screen?
No way, no how. This is why we won’t see CRM for mobile replacing CRM on the desktop/laptop. I’ve seen a few mobile “stand-alone” CRM’s on both the sales and recruiting sides. They are a joke. An absolute productivity waste. What works with mobile CRM is when it is used to enhance the desktop experience. Salesforce has done a good job of it, as have several others. If your mobile can access your CRM, you can look up a contact, review notes, or line up a few calls for when you are on the road or after hours. Mobile CRM as a value add to your CRM is an absolute must-have.
What about applications like social networking? LinkedIN is a good example. LinkedIN for iPhone is great, I’m looking forward to when LinkedIN or Facebook adds a practical proximity alert to your social network. That would be something that the desktop or even laptop would not be practical for. This leads me into the areas that mobile will dominate and why.
For those existing business applications that have evolved on the desktop, mobile will add additional value. However, for the new frontiers, areas that were birthed in mobile, those will be the areas where mobile can stand alone. It is the same concept which allowed desktop applications to evolve. You develop to the potential of the environment. CPU, memory, screen size, input devices, always on (yes/no), network connectivity, battery life. All of these are the factors that effect Darwinism on both the desktop and mobile device.
Today, most of the successful mobile applications are consumer-based. As of this writing, none of the top 25 apps in the iPhone AppStore were business apps. Blackberry pundits: only 2 of the top 25 for Blackberry were business apps.
So where does this leave us?
- For business applications that evolved on larger form factor systems such as CRM and Spreadsheets, mobile will be a value-add, but not a replacement. If someone is promising CRM on your mobile to replace your desktop, run like hell or carry a 12 year old with tiny fingers to type for you everywhere you go.
- New and currently undiscovered business applications that are born and evolve on the mobile will rule the mobile.
2010 is going to be a fantastic year for mobile! I am excited and personally committed to developing on mobile.
Caveats: (1) When mobile becomes a conduit to work with outside peripherals such as an wall screens and video goggles, then mobile could replace the desktop, however, what is really being accomplished here is emulating the functions of a full form factor desktop & monitor. (2) Seamless voice recognition can get around the problems with small form factor keyboards. I have not seen voice recognition that is worth it’s salt. I tell my car “Radio Off” and it says “Please say the name of the street you want to navigate to”.