The truth about today's mobile user

An extensive survey debunks myths about who uses mobile technology and for what, while showing the outlines of the coming post-PC era

The stereotype is that the Millennial generation has pushed the use of mobile tech in business, creating the "bring your own device" phenomenon that has very quickly forced enterprises to let go of the corporate-issued-BlackBerry approach to controlling user technology. As it turns out, Baby Boomers -- today's executives and managers -- have led the charge. The median age of mobile workers is in fact 46, or eight years older than the average Facebook and Twitter user.

Millennials are very much mobile-oriented and believe in using their preferred devices for both work and personal purposes, but in that regard, they're no different than the generation before them. Mobile heterogeneity and the mixing of business and personal use is not a generational phenomemon -- it's a universal change taking place across the enterprise.

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That phenomenon is very likely to force a seismic shift in the devices we all use in business. Tablets like the iPad will displace laptops for most people, as laptops become the new desktop: a powerful computer that sits in one spot most of the time, while users take up their iPads to do routine work. More than a third (37.2 percent) of mobile workers believe that shift will happen in 2011 -- only a year or so after the iPad first shipped. And most of those -- 27.4 percent -- expect an iPad or a similar device will replace the laptop.

Two other recent surveys show the same belief, though Steve Wastie, product development VP at iPass, expects it will take longer for the transition to occur. Already, 43.5 percent of mobile workers sometimes leave their laptop in the office, relying on a mobile device instead when not on-site to do work.

These are two of the surprising conclusions in a survey [PDF] of more than 1,100 mobile workers by iPass, a firm that helps companies manage their mobile broadband usage. (iPass defines a mobile worker as someone who uses any mobile device, including laptops, to access network resources outside the corporate LAN for work purposes.) The quarterly survey is global and crosses industries, adding up to a broad snapshot of real-world usage and beliefs. The results paint a picture of mobile technology usage in business that's radically different from today's norm, with implications for software and hardware developers, IT managers, and business strategists.

Some mobile generation gaps do exist
There are some mobile generation gaps. For example, Millennials are slightly more likely to have a smartphone than a Baby Boomer (90 percent versus 80 percent), but already 84.6 percent of all mobile workers have a smartphone. On average, 69 percent of mobile workers use a smartphone for job-related duties. Here, a surprising generation gap emerges: More than 70 percent Baby Boomers use a smartphone for work, versus 59 percent for Millennials.

Another generation gap: 56.5 percent of mobile workers aged 22 to 34 were likely to leave their laptops in the office and used mobile devices for job purposes, versus 34.5 percent for workers age 55 and older. That indicates younger workers are more quickly adapting to using mobile devices as a primary work device, Wastie says.

iPhones and Androids will rule the mobile roost
The transition to mobile is happening very fast, and users expect these devices to be real computers, not mere messaging devices. That explains why, despite RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie's assertion this week that apps don't matter in mobile, users are flocking to the two most versatile, app-oriented mobile platforms: Apple's iOS (used in the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad) and Google's Android.

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