How the mobile revolution really played out

Although smartphones and tablets are now everywhere, the manner in which they're used doesn't match all initial expectations

How the mobile revolution really played out

Life before the iPhone was very different. We had Palm Treos, Hewlett-Packard iPaqs, and of course BlackBerrys that enthralled executive management with the ability to read and send email from their phones, as well as handle basic information management such as display user contacts and even their appointments. Remember: This was the era of the personal digital assistant (PDA), like the PalmPilot and Psion Organizer, in which several technology providers bet (unsuccessfully) on email appliances.

When the iPhone debuted in spring 2007 -- to strong hostility from likes of PC pundit John Dvorak and InfoWorld's own Tom Yager but to strong praise from the New York Times' David Pogue -- it had a very different perspective: of the phone as a connected computer.

The  iPhone's different approach set off intense debates among smart observers as to how the mobile revolution -- which not everyone agreed was coming -- would play out. It turns out that in their detailed predictions, everyone was right and everyone wrong about at least some aspects. 

Some of the bigger predictions affected the industry -- and still do. Even those that have turned out differently than expected still color how we approach mobility, sometimes in ways we should overcome.

For the record, the predictions and analyses I cite in this story are from people I respect and whose opinions actually mattered. I'm not bothering with the silly predictions from so many others.

The ownership battle was won by users

One is the fight over ownership. Before the iPhone, it was inconceivable that IT would let an employee other than maybe the CEO use a personal device to connect to work systems. In 2007, Farpoint analyst Craig Mathias predicted that by 2008 company-issued devices would be the norm, for all the security and management reasons we still focus on today. His view was widely shared for years, with a few exceptions such as myself and Gartner.

Even as BYOD gained steam, several leading analysts thought the trend would reverse itself quickly once companies came to their senses, perhaps helped by a major security incident. The reality is that what we now call BYOD (a term that gained traction in 2010) is the norm and there've been no disasters. Even there, Sepharim Group analyst Bob Egan disputes that there is an actual BYOD trend.

Whether officially embraced or part of the shadows, BYOD is a real phenomenon, and the meaningful conversations left to have involve tactics like reimbursement and IT access to user resources.

Yes, IT can carve out a space on mobile devices to protect corporate assets (a good thing), but the device, its apps, and its contents are increasingly by default the user's. Apple has said as much in its post-iOS 9 plans, and the container approach adopted by both Google and Samsung has already made that shift in Android Lollipop. But IT is basically a guest on your device, not the other way around.

Mobile devices haven't had as much impact outside communications

An early criticism of smartphones were that they had little corporate value beyond email -- what the BlackBerry had already done for years. They did lots of things users liked, but not essential ones for businesses.

Some analysts, including myself and book author Nathan Clevenger, foresaw intense app development at last for the iPad, and our predictions were bolstered by proclamation from all sorts of companies in 2010 and 2011 about their mobile app plans. We therefore also thought that iPads would displace laptops for large swaths of business users, especially those who didn't work at a desk.

But the skeptics were largely right: For most people's work, a smartphone is a more convenient email tool. Yes, its browser is handier for business purposes than originally expected, especially as screens have grown larger, but it's hard to find broad usage of mobile apps in business today.

Even on tablets, business app usage is fairly low. Microsoft Office works well on iPads and Android tablets, but try to find a corporate app beyond that suite in wide use. You won't, though many good ones are available. Instead, iPads are used mainly for email, Web work, and a wide range of personal uses like banking, video watching, and gaming -- the things you do on a smartphone.

It's true there are compelling apps for specific business uses, mostly for the larger-screen iPad. And Jeff Haynie, CEO of mobile app platform provider Appcelerator, says that's where most of the action actually is for mobile apps: converting paper processes such as in retail and logistics, or creating new capabilities for field workers using mobile-specific context like location and cameras. Less common, he says, is making an existing digital process a bit more mobile-friendly, such as for expense reporting. Web apps tend to handle that need.

For example, In hospitals, iPads that connect to health records systems are slowly displacing paper charts and computers on carts. In the music industry, the iPad is displacing music stands -- and it is used extensively to record and practice music. There are great smartphone and tablet apps for IT, such as for network sniffers and for developers. There are good specialty apps, such as for police officers, building inspectors, and utility companies.

But they're nowhere as widely deployed as I would have thought we'd see seven years after the App Store's debut in 2008 and five years after the iPad's debut in 2010. And signs indicate that businesses are no longer that interested in tablets.

Besides the historic conservatism of IT organizations, which has made it hard for many to contemplate something other than a PC doing computing, the fact that mobile devices have become thought of personal devices (the BYOD notion) may also have undercut businesses' motivation to develop or buy corporate mobile apps. You do that for your own equipment, not your employees', after all.

That's probably why Apple has been trying to recast the iPad as a business device, with its IBM partnership, Cisco alliance (or whatever it really is), laptoplike enhancement in iOS 9, and the forthcoming iPad Pro.

Mobile security fears were very much overstated

Mobility-induced risks were also top of mind in 2007 -- as they remain today. Almost every mobile gathering feels obligated to wring hands over mobile security, and fear-inducing articles remain the norm at nearly every technology site. Vendors gleefully feed into the fear, hoping to gain sales.

Yet IT has not done all yet security and management control that every analyst in 2007 produced that IT would actually do. In fact, deployment of proven mobile management tools is less than 20 percent of companies today. Clearly, the purported threat isn't enough to spend money on.

The fears of mobile security and management were legitimate in theory in the early days. But led by Apple, the new breed of mobile device quickly closed the holes that exist. Today, even Android can be made secure.

It's long been clear that mobile devices are not a significant actual threat. If you look at the public data-breach database, for example, you'll see extremely few breaches relating to smartphones or tablets. But you'll see thousands related to (unencrypted) thumb drives, recordable CDs and DVDs, and laptops. (Yet laptop security is not a de rigeur item at IT conferences, is it? Go figure.) That pattern has been true for at least five years.

There's a simple reason: Businesspeople don't lose their devices very often, and if they use an iOS device (the standard for corporate use), their devices are encrypted automatically if passwords are enabled, which a simple Exchange policy can require. Another simple Exchange policy can refuse access to corporate systems if a device -- say, one running Android -- doesn't have encryption enabled. In other words, it's very simple to comply with breach-disclosure laws.

We know how to secure mobile devices, and the technology is widely available. IT needs to move on -- maybe start thinking about how to take advantage of mobile devices, not straitjacket them, and help the rest of the mobile revolution actually happen.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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