Smart Phones and Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Is your smartphone good for business use?

April 24, 2010

I love smartphones. Not because I think they’re the greatest business accelerators since the invention of the telephone itself. They’re far from that. It’s because no other form of biz-tech allows me so much opportunity to be so curmudgeonly about something so popular.

To me, smartphones are a great example of the ubiquitous 80-20 rule: 80 percent of our productivity is due to only 20 percent of our technologies, and the rest is embellishment. Rarely has a piece of equipment sold so quickly for so little demonstrable ROI.

And sell it has. According to comScore (comscore.com), a well-known tracking firm, as of January a hefty 234 million Americans had some kind of mobile plan, out of 309 million total souls in this country. Of those, nearly 43 million had smartphones.

While a long way from being a majority, that’s an 18-percent increase over October’s figures, and consumer-observation firm Nielsen (Nielsen.com) expects smartphones to catch up and take the lead by the end of 2011. I’m not convinced of that, but given the trend line, anything is possible.

Another report from Forrester Research (forrester.com) found that fully 17 percent of adults used smartphones by November of last year. Among doctors, traditionally some of the last consumers to embrace computer gadgetry, 64 percent now own smartphones, and that number is expected to climb to 81 percent by 2012, according to Manhattan Research (manhattanresearch.com).

I should pause and point out that, despite the hype, the word “smartphone” doesn’t even have a universal definition. Wikipedia offers perhaps the most unintentionally ironic clarification: “a miniature computer that has phone capability.” For most of us, a phone that has some advanced features like Internet connectivity likely qualifies as a smartphone. If it can get you on Facebook, it’s a smartphone.

It also appears that, for many of us, the smartphone is becoming indispensable. Ringcentral.com (blog.central.com) unscientifically surveyed 400 smartphone business users, who said their smartphone was as important in their lives as having intimate relationships, both at 40 percent. Having morning coffee trailed behind at 17 percent. Just having a smartphone can imperil many intimate relationships. A recent survey by Retrevo (retrevo.com) claims that 7 percent of respondents admitted to checking their phones during sex.

So what do these hordes of users indulge in (aside from making phone calls, presumably)? According to CrowdScience (crowdscience.com), another online research firm, the single biggest use for a smartphone is accessing the Net. Right after that came picture-taking, followed closely by e-mail. Then much further behind came playing music and other functions. It doesn’t mention texting, which may come under the heading of Internet access. E-commerce firms report that Web pages going to smartphones are increasing every month, and although the screens are too small to make buying convenient, some consumers are even purchasing through smartphones.

Ironically, according to J.D. Power and Associates (jdpower.com), call quality has declined as bandwidth is sucked up by all that texting, picture-sharing and Web play, so the one thing you want a phone to do—make and receive calls—is fast becoming its least-effective function.

One last bit from the CrowdSource survey strikes me: 71 percent used their smartphones for both business and personal purposes, 26 percent used them for personal communication only, and only 3 percent used the smartphone exclusively for business.

Which tells me smartphones are mostly toys.

Sure, you can pick up e-mail remotely on a smartphone, and remote e-mail access may be important if you visit your office only to clean the cobwebs and pick up snail mail, but otherwise most e-mail can wait until you slide back in front of a monitor.

Even if you need to be e-mail-tethered while you’re out, the BlackBerry has long made its bones with little more than calendaring, e-mail and voice, and it’s indicative to me that it’s still out in front in the smartphone races even under the intense pressure from Apple’s iPhone. No, I think a great many of us businessfolk may well be carrying smartphones more for the hipster factor than because we’re making any money from them. Surveys indicate that the biggest uptake is with males 25-44, so it may well be cool rather than ROI that’s the attraction.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m contemptuous of tools combined with toys. If you can make sales calls driving a Boxster, why not enjoy the drive? Business is all too often overbrimming with dullness, so having a toy that doubles as business gear can relieve some of the tedium and make you feel more connected out in the field. I suggest, however, that you not succumb to the urge to answer those text messages in the middle of sales calls.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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