John Parkinson: Real Mobility is Still a Few Years Away

By John Parkinson  |  Posted 06-05-2006

John Parkinson: Real Mobility is Still a Few Years Away

For most of the last four years, I've been waiting for "mobility" to really change the way I work. In many small ways it already has. I can almost always get a broadband Internet connection when I'm traveling – either Wi-Fi in an increasing number of public and semi-public places or wired in hotels and clients' offices. My GSM cellular service works fairly well in most of the U.S. (although it does require roaming in some areas) and roams extremely well (albeit expensively) almost everywhere else (except Japan, of course, and NTT DoCoMo has finally agreed to fix that little problem as well). I can get fairly decent data service on my cell phone in about 25% of the places I travel to—rather more if I just want e-mail via Blackberry service, which is all I actually use, because I don't surf the web on my phone enough to care. My cars (and the cars I rent in the U.S. and increasingly in Europe and Asia) have GPS-based navigation system, so it's relatively easy to find my way to places I have never been before.

All this is fairly but not outrageously expensive. If I want to upgrade the data service to one of the wide area wireless plans from a cellular carrier, I can get decent bandwidth (even on GSM) at a steep price (at least compared to my Wi-Fi subscription). I am regularly confused by the range of options that are available, but the prices don't seem to have risen much over the past few years and the service quality has slowly increased.

The devices have gotten better as well. I've lived with (and liked) a Sony-Ericsson P910i for the past two years and carried a Dell Latitude D410 for the past year and a half. I don't carry a PDA—the P910 does everything I need in that regard. I've just switched the phone to a Nokia E61 (I got tired of waiting for the P990—which was only going to be Triband anyway and looked like it was going to cost nearly $1,000). The E61 not only offers Quadband GSM (850 MHz is getting much more common as the other bands fill up, so adding it is increasingly important, especially in Asia); you also get WCDMA 2100 (for fast 3G data service where available) as well, plus Wi-Fi capability; plus Blackberry (and other push e-mail) service support; plus USB 2.0; plus Bluetooth; plus mini SD card storage in 64Mb increments. It's a really nice package for less than $500 if you shop around. The synchronization software could be better, but what I really like about Nokia phones is the simplicity of the power and data connectors. I am so tired of the Sony's completely non-standard connector approach, which requires me to buy special cables for everything.

The software platforms are also improving steadily. Symbian Release 9 and Windows Mobile Release 5.0 are both excellent software environments with powerful development support tools. So far they have mostly avoided the glitches and security vulnerabilities that plague PCs, and each has a thriving developer ecosystem adding features and content to the core platform. I have a dozen or so nice additions that I bought for the Sony that transferred straight over to the E61 with no problem.

Next Page: I still haven't seen the huge leap in "mobility" that I've been expecting…

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Problems Persist
Despite this steady progress, I still haven't seen the huge leap in "mobility" that I've been expecting, and the market has been predicting. I see several reasons for this, none of which is likely to change any time soon. Let's start with the biggest problem of all: assurance of a working device and a reliable service connection. Periodically, I keep a log of dropped calls and handoffs (so do the carriers, although they don't seem to publish the data very often) and the picture isn't pretty. Looking back over several years of intermittent record keeping, I don't see much of an improvement, and in some of the places I travel to regularly, things have actually gotten worse. It's one of the truisms of life that no one comes to depend on things that can't be depended on, especially if you have an alternative. Until the carriers fix this expectation of unreliable service, users won't make it an essential part of their working lives.

A second and related problem is battery life. If I use my phone regularly as a phone, the battery lasts about three days, and less if I talk a lot. If I use it as a data device, battery life drops dramatically, to as little as four hours in some cases. As soon as I have to recharge the phone more than one a day, I am in trouble. So is anyone who can't be sure that they can get to a source of electricity. I have to start remembering to charge the phone in the car, carry spare batteries and so on. Too much hassle. Easier to do without.

Third, phones and many other mobile devices are fragile. Drop one a few times and see what happens. Get them wet or sweaty or dirty. Try to use one next to industrial equipment. As consumer electronics devices they are a great value. To get them ruggedized for commercial use makes them expensive.

Fourth, little has been done to make it easy for mobile users to access corporate (or public) data sources. There is slow progress here, and the device makers are trying to solve the problem from their end too. But it's just too frustrating to get to what you need most of the time. So we don't. Instead, we call someone (if we can get a connection) and ask them to e-mail us the information. Or send an SMS or an IM . . .

And finally, corporate IT doesn't want to have to deal with mobile devices that people lose or have stolen or just forget to take with them to important events. Something like a million laptops go missing or fail catastrophically every year, worldwide, and I don't think anyone counts how many cell phones go AWOL. Judging by the premiums on "cell phone safety" insurance products, it's a lot. The more critical the data and access privileges are on these devices, the more vulnerabilities are created. It's not that you can't defend against these additional issues. It's just more work for an already cost-constrained IT organization. So they'd rather not.

So I'm still waiting for the mobility breakthrough I was promised sometime around 2000. Maybe by 2010?