How to Convert to Mobile Business Communications

iPhone Image Gallery Your conversion to a completely mobile business lifestyle will probably begin when you buy a smartphone like this one. See more iPhone pictures.
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There was a time in the not-too-distant past when a corporate drone could escape the endless meetings, conference calls, e-mails and constant management intrusions of office life by the simple act of going home for the day. However, in today's age of smartphones and "anywhere, everywhere" connectivity, escape is futile.

Whether the idea of a mobile office excites you or depresses you, it's undeniable that mobile business communications technology -- gadgets like Blackberrys, iPhones, laptops and netbooks -- greatly improves our productivity. Armed with a fully networked handheld, there's no such thing as downtime. You can edit a PowerPoint presentation in the waiting room of the dentist's office. You can respond to e-mails in the elevator. You can team-edit a document via a conference call while lying in bed (wishing you were asleep).

If you're considering making the move to mobile business communications, you're in good company. Business users are one of the fastest growing market segments for mobile communications technology. IBM predicts the total amount of enterprise mobile users to grow at an annual rate of 21 percent in from 2008 through 2012 [source: Lotus Software]. As mobile devices become more robust and mobile networks get even faster -- we're already seeing the rise of so-called 4G networks boasting average download speeds between 3 and 6 Mbps -- there are few things a desktop PC can do that a handheld can't do [source: Sprint].

A real estate agent with a Blackberry can update online MLS listings from the road, edit a purchase offer and e-mail it to a potential buyer while managing multiple showings in her calendar. A lawyer with an iPhone call track his billable hours while transferring planes at BWI, respond to his client's voicemail message via e-mail, IM, SMS or voice, and conduct some quick research on WestLaw Wireless. A stock portfolio manager can track market fluctuations in real time, receive text alerts to price changes and calm his clients' nerves through cheery e-mails -- all without sacrificing his golf game.

Even with all of their advantages, mobile business gadgets can be intimidating. To get you started on your mobile transition, let's start with a quick primer on mobile business technology.

 

Mobile Business Communications Technology 101

Before you go shopping for your first smartphone, you should sit down and learn what all of those geeky acronyms and tech lingo mean, starting with the word "smartphone" itself. A smartphone is a handheld communications device with multimedia capabilities. Smartphones look like bulky cell phones with a small keyboard and a large screen. In addition to making phone calls, they can browse the Web, send and receive e-mails, play music and video, view pictures and even edit and create documents.

Most new smartphones are called 3G devices, which is short for third generation. The name is a reference to the increased speed or bandwidth of 3G Internet connections. 3G smartphones operate on 3G cellular telephone networks that offer broadband-quality Internet connectivity -- download speeds of up to 1.4 megabytes per second (Mbps)-- over the airwaves. This allows 3G smartphones to browse the Web and quickly download large files anywhere in the nationwide cellular network.

Most smartphones also come with WiFi connectivity. WiFi, also known as 802.11, is the wireless networking protocol found in home wireless Internet networks, coffee shops, airports, libraries, dorm rooms and many offices. Unlike 3G Internet connections, which require the purchase of an expensive data plan with a cellular carrier, WiFi Internet access is usually free and fast. The downside to WiFi is that you have to be in close range of a WiFi router to get a signal. 3G is available almost anywhere you can make a cell phone call.

An important business feature of smartphones is their ability to synchronize or "sync" data with your office network. Every time the smartphone goes online, it communicates wirelessly with the office network, pulling in new e-mails, updating calendar entries, adding contacts that you entered on your desktop computer, and downloading any security patches sent out by the IT staff. Syncing works the other way, too. If you read an e-mail on your smartphone, the e-mail will be marked as "read" when you return to your office computer. If you add a new sales contact on the road, it will be saved on the corporate network so you can access it back at the office.

All of this syncing requires some serious backend technology. Before a company can deploy fully networked smartphones to its employees, it must install a special server at the office or sign up with a hosted service. The servers allow the IT staff to control access to the network, encrypt wireless transmissions and upload software patches and fixes to all devices simultaneously.

The most popular mobile communications server technology is Microsoft Exchange. Since many large corporate IT departments use Microsoft Exchange, it's important that your smartphone is compatible with it. Another popular mobile communications server is Lotus Domino/Notes. Many smartphones are compatible with both Exchange and Domino/Notes. Blackberry has its own technology called the Blackberry Enterprise Server. For iPhones and Android (Google) devices, there's a server called Good for Enterprise.

Now let's take a look at the plusses and minuses of each kind of mobile business communications device.

Choosing a Mobile Business Communications Device

If you want to access the Internet on a lighter, more portable device than a laptop, you might want to consider getting yourself a netbook.
If you want to access the Internet on a lighter, more portable device than a laptop, you might want to consider getting yourself a netbook.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

If you want to convert from an office-bound worker to a mobile business machine, the easiest transition is with a laptop computer. They're familiar, they can double as an office computer and a (relatively) portable device and you don't have to sync data as much, because much of it is right on your hard drive. Laptops come with WiFi connectivity and can access 3G cellular networks with special built-in 3G modems or plug-in receivers.

For a lighter, more briefcase-friendly device, you might consider a netbook computer. Netbooks are small, inexpensive, lightweight laptops with Internet connectivity and enough power to run the most common office software.

To really make the leap into mobile business communications, however, you may want to consider a smartphone for its versatility and portability. It can serve as your computer, your secretary and your office network, all in your pocket. There are hundreds of business-minded smartphones on the market, but most run on five core operating system technologies: Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Symbian, iPhone and Android.

Blackberry is the industry leader for business smartphones. It's preferred by power users and corporate IT departments for its security, reliability, call quality and messaging capabilities [source: Hiner]. Blackberrys run on their own server, which makes it easy for IT departments to administer armies of Blackberrys across large corporations. Blackberrys come in many flavors, some geared for global business travelers, others for a richer multimedia experience (video, photos and presentations).

Windows Mobile (recently renamed Windows phone) is Microsoft's smartphone technology. Windows Mobile runs on a wide variety of phones and styles. An advantage of Windows Mobile is that it allows users to run native versions of popular Microsoft Office software like Word, Excel and PowerPoint. It also seamlessly integrates with Microsoft Exchange Server.

Symbian is Nokia's operating system (OS) and is the most widely used mobile operating system on the planet [source: Bradley]. It has a reputation for being less feature-rich and user-friendly than upstarts like iPhone and Android, but some of the top-rated business smartphones run Symbian, including the Nokia E72 [source: Cha].

The iPhone is wildly popular with consumers, but less so with IT departments. That might be changing, though. The latest release of the iPhone 3G supports Microsoft Exchange and includes stricter security protocols like VPN support and remote wiping. And with its ever-expanding developer base, the next killer business app might be right around the corner [source: King].

Android, Google's entry into the smartphone arena, only runs on a handful of devices, but is gaining a following. Like the early iPhones, Android is trouble for IT departments because it doesn't sync easily with Exchange or Blackberry servers [source: Coursey]. But with robust productivity apps backed by the Google brain trust, it's a good choice for smaller businesses [source: Bradley].

Even the fanciest smartphone is useless without a fast, reliable mobile network. In the next section, we'll compare the major U.S. 3G carriers.

Choosing a 3G Network

There are four major 3G cellular carriers in the United States -- Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile -- and if you watch American television, you know that they're engaged in an all-out advertising war. As the ads like to remind you, your smartphone is only as good as your network. But it's nearly impossible to dig through all of the marketing hype to figure out which network has the best coverage and the fastest download speeds.

In the spirit of consumer reporting, both Wired.com and PC World conducted surveys and network tests recently to gauge the relative speed and reliability of the major 3G networks. The PC World research is the most scientifically rigorous, relying on software to record the connection speeds and network reliability at 283 testing locations within 13 large U.S. cities. The PC World tests only include Verizon, Sprint and AT&T, since T-Mobile had not yet offered 3G service as of April 2009.

According to PC World's results, Verizon boasts the best overall reliability and speed of the bunch. Verizon 3G connections provided uninterrupted service 89.8 percent of the time with an average download speed of 951 kbps across the country. The fastest individual location was New Orleans at 1425 kbps [source: Sullivan].

Sprint had slightly higher reliability -- 90.5 percent -- but showed an average overall download speed of 808 kilobits per second (kbps). Out west, however, Sprint beat out the competition for speed in cities like Portland, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle [source: Sullivan]. AT&T had competitive speed numbers -- averaging 812 kbps overall -- but dismal reliability ratings, establishing an uninterrupted connection only 68 percent of the time [source: Sullivan].

Wired conducted a survey by which individual smartphone users could measure the speed of their network connection and report back their findings. Over 15,000 users from all four 3G carriers posted their results. Again, Verizon took the prize with users reporting average download speeds of 1,940 kbps. T-Mobile came in second with 1,793 kbps. Third was Sprint with 1,598 and AT&T was dead last with 901 kbps [source: Chen].

If you live far out in a rural area, your network choice might be limited by coverage. And if you simply must have the iPhone, you're stuck with AT&T, since Apple has an exclusive contract with the cellular provider. Blackberry models are available on just about every big and small 3G network, including the big four: AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile. The same applies to Windows Mobile devices. Android phones, although much more limited in model selection, are now carried by each of the four major players as well.

OK, now that we have the carrier question squared away, let's move on to the mobile business software applications that will make you more productive away from the office.

Mobile Business Applications

Most smartphones come with basic applications like e-mail and text messaging, but you can find apps to perform just about any possible function.
Most smartphones come with basic applications like e-mail and text messaging, but you can find apps to perform just about any possible function.
Dean Fosdick/AP Images

Software applications, or apps, are the nuts and bolts of mobile business communications. Apps are the smartphone programs you use daily to compose e-mail, update your calendar, edit documents and collaborate with colleagues. Most smartphones come loaded with the basic messaging apps like e-mail, SMS (text messaging), calendars and contact lists, but you can download thousands of other apps to customize your mobile business experience.

To successfully conduct business in and out of the office, it's important to have a shared suite of productivity tools. Windows Mobile is such a popular smartphone operating system because it runs native versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Other phones must rely on third-party apps that let users view and edit Microsoft Office documents. Two of the most popular are DataViz's Documents-to-Go and QuickOffice.

IT departments can also customize smartphones to run "line of business" applications through the network, like workflow management, logistics and shipping management, health records and other industry-specific software.

With the right applications, smartphones can be powerful organizers. One of the most popular calendar and contact apps is Pocket Informant. Pocket Informant outperforms built-in calendar apps for its ability to clearly organize complex schedules [source: Dunn]. You can also view all the appointments, e-mails and notes for each contact in your address book. ReQall is a new app that lets busy road-warriors create calendar entries and to-do lists using simple voice commands [source: Pogue]. For managing a complex network of business contacts, few online services beat LinkedIn, which offers a native app for the iPhone and soon for the Blackberry.

Online collaboration and videoconferencing tools are a boon to companies with a national or global presence. There are a host of powerful apps that extend the tools of online collaboration to the smartphone. Cisco's WebEx Meeting Center for the Blackberry and iPhone lets you join an online conference as a presenter or participant. You can share documents, view PowerPoint presentations and IM with other participants while teleconferencing through your smartphone. iShare is another iPhone app that gives you access to your company's Microsoft SharePoint server to collaborate on documents and update workflows. Encamp for iPhone is the smartphone's app for accessing Basecamp project management workflows and shared documents.

More and more business apps are being created every day. To explore the possibilities, visit the iPhone App Store, the Blackberry App World and app sites like PocketGear and Handango.

For lots more information on mobile communications technology, look at the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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