How to take your business mobile

In Part One of our series on Technology For Business, we look at how you can introduce cutting-edge devices and services into your company, and work anywhere.

BusinessMobileSmartphones are here to stay: global sales of iPhones, Android and Windows Phone handsets overtook PC sales in 2012 and regular mobile phone sales a year later: the chances are you’ve got one in your pocket. You already know how to use it to kill idle time with games and music, and to communicate with loved ones, even on the other side of the planet.

What you might not realise is just how much potential power is still locked away in there to help you work better as well as play – potential that you or your company may not be taking advantage of. The tech is there to help employees take their work with them, regardless of their role or location, and if you’ve not embraced the possibilities yet, you might wish to soon. Here’s why – and how.

The rise of the smartphone office
More and more businesses are turning to flexible working, letting employees either set their own hours or work remotely. Not only is it generating more revenue for a great many businesses, it’s getting employees to work harder too. A survey by Regus Office Solutions found that seven in ten managers reported an increase in productivity after their company shifted to flexi-working, while an Ipsos MORI study found that 47% of employees said they tried to be ‘extra visible’, sending more emails and making more calls, while a further 39% said that they actually worked longer hours.

They’re not just working in home offices either, but wherever they are, be it in a cafe or on the train. But how? Email has been available on mobile for decades, but it’s only recently that we’ve seen the potential realised for true productivity on the go, whatever device you use. That’s down to a number of different factors. First, laptops are cheaper than ever – faster and thinner with better battery life (and sales are on the rise again after years of decline). There are also easier ways to get online: no longer are you left scrambling around for an Internet cafe or for an Ethernet cable in your hotel room. Wi-Fi is ubiquitous, while smartphone tethering lets you share your phone’s 3G data connection as a hotspot for tablets and laptops to piggy-back on. 4G is rolling out across the globe, with some networks already live across Africa and the Indian subcontinent, meaning this can sometimes be even quicker than using Wi-Fi.

The two major trends that have enabled this are mobile convergence and software services moving to the web. Smartphones and tablets now share the same core technology and apps, even (almost) the same screen sizes. Full desktop services are now available on Android and iOS, even Microsoft Office, negating the need for clunky remote desktop services that log you into your work computer from afar, and are about as quick and easy to use as a phonebook with the pages glued together.

Just as importantly, these mobile devices are starting to work in harmony, not just with the cloud, but with the desktop computers we’ve always relied on as well. Microsoft’s Windows 10, due to be released later this year, will power phones, tablets and PCs, while Apple’s Handoff feature in the latest version of OSX for Macintosh computers automatically moves open apps from your iPhone to your desktop when it’s in range, letting you take calls on your iMac or start typing a long email on the bus to pick up when you get home. Now you don’t even need to prepare to work remotely, you just open your device and go.

The fact that these services are often in the cloud also unshackles technology from expensive contracts with mobile providers and telcos, letting companies of any size embrace the cutting edge. What you may not realise is that to get your business set up for the future is more affordable than you thought.

The rise of BYOD
Not so long ago, work phones were only for the biggest businesses, requiring huge investments, bulk buys, long contracts and IT support. No more. Today, more and more businesses are turning to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD): the concept of letting employees connect their own smartphones to the office network to use for business.

BYOD is already mainstream: in a recent survey by Tech Pro Research, 60% of people questioned already had BYOD at their work, with 14% planning to follow in the next twelve  months,with much of that growth in the SME sector, and up from 62% total two years ago.
There are a few myths surrounding BYOD, some of which need dispelling. For instance, that it’s somehow less secure than a work BlackBerry on which you can’t install any of your own apps. That’s not necessarily the case however: one study by Cisco found that 69% of
IT decision makers think BYOD is a positive move for their organisations. Many smartphone manufacturers (Samsung, for instance) meanwhile offer sandboxing solutions that let users run two separate and secure profiles for work and play – one cannot affect the other.

BYOD is economical too, saving a company’s department time and money. An online survey  by Software Advice of US employees working in businesses with BYOD policies found that fewer than 30 per cent opened help desk tickets for their own devices. And of course, employees love using the phone that they’ve chosen, instead of being given one and told to ‘like it or lump it’. The same survey found 83% of professionals were more skilled with their personal devices than with company-issued devices, saying they ran into problems far less often with their own devices than unfamiliar company issue ones.

Better still, because many core software solutions that businesses rely on are now in the cloud, running these networks is cheap too. Google Apps for Work, for instance, provides Gmail and Google Drive software for your employees, along with terabytes of online storage, starting at around US$5 per month per user, while Microsoft’s much-loved Yammer private social network for companies costs as little as US$3 per month.

Overcoming the practicalities
Of course, it’s all very well getting employees to bring their own phones, or to work from home with their own laptops, but there are other considerations you have to bear in mind  when trying to take your business mobile.

How, for instance, will your customers reach you? How will your employees stay in touch with each other when they’re no longer in the same meeting room? Thankfully, the rapidly increasing speed of broadband and wireless networks, along with few clever solutions from mobile network providers, can bypass these issues.

For instance, it’s possible to have your company’s local (and to customers, trustworthy) landline number routed to mobiles so that, with services like Vodafone’s One Net Express, you need never miss an opportunity.

Video conferencing – once the bane of every manager in a large corporation – has come on in leaps and bounds too, with broadband and wireless speeds fast enough to support meetings with multiple participants that would have cost thousands of dollars in travel not so long ago.

And Skype, now owned by Microsoft, is being woven more tightly into Windows than ever, and is available on every smartphone, tablet and desktop. Now there’s no excuse for not getting that report done on the plane – unless of course you happen to be reading this.

Phone, phablet, tablet, laptop

We break down what you can do with every device on the go – and what you can’t

All modern smartphones let you get your email delivered on the go, open Word documents, even access your work computer using Remote Desktop software, as well as share their mobile data connection with your tablet or laptop. But touchscreen phones still aren’t great for sending anything longer than short replies due to their on-screen keyboards and short battery lives. Their small screens make editing spreadsheets and documents tricky, especially if you rely on annotating documents with Track Changes. The last thing you want to do is try and edit a PowerPoint presentation on a 4-inch display!

The larger displays (five to seven inches) of ‘phablet’ smartphones make browsing the web much easier, and that extra size also provides superior battery life as well – often two days of use instead of one. Some phablets, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4, also support running two apps side by side, so that you can have your email open while leafing through a report.

10-inch tablets running iOS or Android can’t always run all the Mac or Windows apps you’re used to (Windows tablets can), but their battery life and standby time far outstrip equivalently sized laptops. Their screens are large enough to work at for long periods, and almost all can be paired with a keyboard so that you can type, but you’ll need a firm surface to work at – unlike a smartphone. Microsoft’s Surface Slate comes with a cover case with a built- in keyboard, while many similar accessories exist for the iPad.

Forget the creaking, 17-inch Dell laptop you used to have to lug around. Work laptops are much faster, cheaper and portable these days, with all-day battery life. Some also include data capability so you can get online away from Wi-Fi, though you can always use a smartphone to connect too. Don’t discount Chromebooks running Google’s Chrome OS operating system instead of Windows either: not only are they cheap, but because everything is kept in the cloud, they’re highly secure and let you work anywhere without worrying about which hard drive that report is on.

Is BlackBerry still relevant?
Once upon a time, the BlackBerry was the ultimate status symbol, a convergence device that let you email on the go with blinding speed. Nowadays the company is struggling to stay relevant. It missed the app explosion. Sales are falling as BYOD means employees bring their own devices to work, and it becomes harder for businesses to justify the high costs of a BlackBerry Enterprise Server license (the tech that pushes all your work emails to you). Only if you want the physical keyboard on your phone should you still consider one: the latest BlackBerry Classic is still great for two thumb typing, but at US$450 is not the most affordable way to stay in touch.