Business & the future of mobile tech

by Ben Smith on 13th June 2010

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Much discussion of the current – blistering – pace of innovation in mobile technology focuses on the consumers and services for them. However, many of the recent advances will also give huge benefits for businesses too

In my role as the ‘one in the suit’ I am occasionally asked by people who ought to know better to present or write on a mobile-related subject. The following article is a piece I recently contributed to a business publication, but I think with the might of the Really Mobile readership we could produce something even better… What would you add?

This article originally appeared in FMX magazine, June 2010. It’s also available online.

IT’S EASY TO FORGET QUITE HOW FAR MOBILE telephony has come since its commercial beginnings in Japan in 1979. Motorola’s first ‘handheld’ phone retailed for an eye-watering $4000 in 1983 and was distinctly lacking in the ‘pocket-fitting’ department. Today there are 4.6 billion mobile phone subscriptions held by 3.4 billion subscribers – in western Europe the average person owns 1.2 mobile phones.

Many people cite the internet as the revolution of the modern age, a technology that has moved from invention to truly world-changing in a lifetime. But mobile telephones can even top that. Last year (2009) was the first time that more people accessed the internet from a mobile device than a PC.

4.6 billion mobile phone subscriptions are held by 3.4 billion subscribers worldwide

Alongside our insatiable demand for mobile communications, a technology ‘arms race’ has taken place as makers have produced mobile phones that replace whole swathes of other devices, from music players, diaries and cameras to satellite navigation devices. Recently, Anssi Vanjoki, executive VP at Nokia, predicted that camera phones would replace digital cameras, and certainly casual users appear to be switching at an impressive rate.

But as exciting as these technical advances have been, it is the way this technology will impact on our lives in the future that is most interesting, particularly from the point of view of businesses.


Soon all handsets will be ‘smartphones’ – mobile handsets that are as much computer as phone. Wherever voice-calling is available, so too will be high-speed internet, and even the most basic handsets will provide web access, calendars, email and contact management. In many places this is already the norm with expensive devices such as Blackberries or iPhones.

Within 12 months all types of handsets – even those costing as little as £20 or £30 – will be able to perform these tasks to the best standards available today. As soon as this happens, businesses will quickly deploy the essential software to run their businesses to all staff so everyone can operate ‘on the go’.

Wireless coverage

80% of people consider internet access a fundamental right

A recent survey for the BBC discovered that 80 per cent of people consider internet access a fundamental right; Finland and Estonia, among other countries, have enshrined this in human rights legislation. This trend will extend to mobile phone reception. Although OFCOM reports that over 99 per cent of the UK population is covered by mobile phone signals, blackspots in buildings or campuses will be tolerated less and less. Heavy technology users may deploy their own in-building networks alongside wireless data networks as the systems to deploy WiFi become more affordable and robust.

Smaller businesses will no longer be excluded as the availability of ‘femtocells’ becomes commonplace. These ‘mini transmitters’ extend a normal mobile phone signal via a device with a broadband connection, and they work seamlessly with normal mobile phones.


One of the few technologies that is lagging behind the march of mobile device progress is batteries. The tendency in the immediate future will be for handsets to consume power faster than battery technology can satisfy. This will make power supplies and especially those providing mobile phone chargers a valuable resource.

‘Contact-less charging’ (charging devices by resting them on a special surface) won’t be sufficiently standardised within the next 18 months for wide business take-up, but every seating area and desk will need power supplies, and the recent industry standardisation on charging connectors means these can now be widely shared. Advances in ‘green’ chargers will also allow businesses to provide these plugs connected full-time while being environmentally responsible.

Complex sensors

But what is really getting mobile phone producers excited is sensors. It won’t be too long before phones are aware of their situation and react accordingly.

Handsets will detect the user’s stress levels and limit alerts or interruptions accordingly

Today there are already handsets that detect light levels, and whether they are face-up or face-down, or in a case. This trend will grow – initially to provide smarter user interfaces by sensing background noise (changing ringing volume), the identity of the user (security from a fingerprint) and stress levels (limiting alerts or interruptions based on speed and accuracy of user input).

More excitingly, building owners will be able to track people movement in high-traffic areas by monitoring wireless devices, enabling them to determine the spread of people throughout a building and the flow of their movements. Hosts can be notified of the arrival of guests as they enter a building, lone workers can be monitored to cover health and safety requirements, and utilisation of meeting room or office space could be reported to a business. Reports from all the workforce’s mobile devices may be used to measure and report air quality and temperature, supporting ‘smart buildings’ in managing environments.

Location tracking

All of an organisation’s significant assets will be tagged and wireless-enabled in the future, reporting all of the same kind of data as smartphone users. Some organisations are already pioneering this: Great Ormond Street hospital, for example, is trialling tracking of certain medical equipment through the hospital using WiFi-based location sending.

This will quickly extend beyond simple location reporting, with devices performing status reporting, responding to proximity of people or other devices and issuing alerts for consumables. Wondering where your delivery is? The parcel, not the courier, will tell you over the phone network.

Cultural change

Availability of high-definition video and voice will make audio and video conferences much less painful experiences as the greater clarity removes the benefit of being there in person. It will become commonplace to prepare and share documents electronically, so they can be synchronised with meeting calls.

It is important that technological advances are accompanied by the development of etiquette in their use

Mobile devices will reduce the need for personal notes as they record meetings (physical and remote), connecting the resulting record with details of where it took place, views of the material discussed and who participated. Customers will expect to participate in suppliers’ meetings in this way, and it will no longer seem rude to initiate a commercial relationship by phone.

Within five years, I expect it to be the norm that all staff are constantly connected with their organisations. It is, however, important that technological advance is accompanied by the development of etiquette and good practice to ensure this is not as oppressive as it may sound.

Credit: Many statistics in this article are drawn from Tomi Ahonen‘s excellent Almanac 2010: Mobile Telecoms Industry Annual Review. At £9.49 it’s excellent value and I highly recommend it.

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