Proof of the coming mobile revolution

The new world: Lots of different devices, increased mobile data usage, and -- surprise! -- better and cheaper 3G networks

You know that mobile technology is becoming a big deal -- just notice how many iPhones and similar devices you see in use in your everyday life. Now there's evidence that such anecdotes aren't just isolated instances but part of a major technology shift, and that several significant turning points are occurring in mobile.

A recent Morgan Stanley study says that uptake of "smart" mobile devices like the iPhone is occurring five times as fast as the uptake of desktop Internet did -- and that the uptake of the iPhone and iPod Touch is the fastest adoption of any technology platform in history, going from 2 million users to 57 million in just two years, with strong continued growth predicted.

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That fast adoption means IT needs to think differently about managing mobile devices, and that mobile devices will be widely used for both existing and new kinds of services. It also turns out the the carriers can deliver the wireless networks needed to make this promise a reality -- at lower costs.

Mobile management in the era of user choice
The number of workers who work in the field more than half their days is already at 32 percent, according to a Business Data Services survey. By 2013 more than half of all enterprise employees will use smartphones, according to a Forrester Research survey to be released in January. Already, half of IT departments support two mobile platfiorms, and 9 percent support four or more, Forrester also found. And 42 percent of companies let their employees access e-mail, contacts, and calendar.

What these data show is that both mobile usage and mobile diversity are on the rise, so organizations that cling to the old "it's a corporate-issued BlackBerry or nothing" model are fighting a losing war.

Another war IT (and the CFO) can stop fighting is the telecom expense management war, at least when it comes to mobile devices. Rather than have burdensome processes to monitor mobile bills and usage, companies are already using an economic method instead to handle the issue more simply: Having employees pay for their mobile devices and plans, perhaps with a fixed monthly reimbursement for work use (what the telecom industry calls employee-liable devices). Forrester found this trend is particularly pronounced among lower-level employees, perhaps because their mobile access is considered an employee convenience, not a employer requirement. On the flip side, Forrester found that high-level executives' devices and plans are paid for by the company, either as a perk or a job requirement.

That shift to employee-liable devices also forces IT to deal with multiple mobile platforms, as employees who are told to pay for their devices insist on the right to choose the one they prefer. As I've noted previously in this blog, the management and access control tools available today to deal with this mobile heterogeneity are largely immature. The BlackBerry remains the easiest device to manage and secure, with Windows Mobile next, followed by the iPhone and Symbian OS devices; Android and the rest are the hardest to manage.

Typically, you need a third-party management tool to manage and secure these devices (BES for BlackBerry, Good for Enterprise for most of the others), and more and more vendors are entering the fray here, typically starting from a telecom expense management or help-desk support perspective but branching out into management and security. Sybase, Zenprise, Trust Digital, and BoxTone (which sponsored the Forrester survey) are among those branching out from their telecom expense-management and mobile help-desk support platforms to help IT manage multiple mobile platforms.

The infrastructure is lagging demand, but that should soon change
With all the frustration over AT&T's poor 3G network and AT&T's suggestion that users should do less so as not to overburden the AT&T 3G network, you might wonder if there really is a mobile future. If the networks can't handle the load, the mobile promise can't be realized.

The reason for the need to improve the 3G infrastructure is clear: Smartphone users actually use the data services. The CTIA industry trade group reports that the typical iPhone user spends 60 minutes a day using the device, versus 40 minutes for a regular cell phone user. The two groups spend the same number of minutes (28) talking and use the same amount of SMS messaging, but iPhone users spend 5.5 minutes a day on the Internet, versus 1.2 for regular cell phone users, and iPhone users spend 7.2 minutes a day using e-mail versus 1.2 minutes for cell phone users. iPhone users also spend about five times as much time playing games and listening to music on their devices as cell phone users do -- activities that can use either network resources or local resources on the device.

Another metric: The average iPhone users consume 200MB per month of data bandwidth, versus 20MB for other smartphone users. On average, 3G-enabled laptop users consume 1GB of data bandwidth per month.

These usage patterns explain why U.S. 3G networks are under strain. But Morgan Stanley's report shows 2010-11 as the period in which the networks will become capable of supporting the growing data usage by iPhones and other devices, such as the rapidly expanding Android contingent.

Morgan Stanley notes that smartphone users' peak bandwidth usage is now 90 percent in major U.S. markets -- anything over 75 percent peak demand is considered a warning sign of insufficient capacity. Morgan Stanley preduicts that by 2011, U.S. carriers will have made enough improvements in backhaul infrastructure (the backbone that connects the cell towers to the Internet and to each other), and cell phone radio sites (to handle increased local access demand) will push the peak traffic usage down to 65 percent of capacity. Data usage will grow, but the enabling infrastructure will grow faster.

And before you think this should mean higher bills, Morgan Stanley also says that carriers can make these improvements without spending extra money, as part of their existing 2G-to-3G transition plans. In fact, these improvements will cut the carriers' costs of providing mobile data in half on a per-megabit basis. Data plan prices should come down, not go up, if the carriers pass on the savings.

These various surveys show that a dynamic, heterogeneous (even if iPhone-led) mobile reality is around the corner. Get ready for it.

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