Some people use it to play music. Others marvel at the photo-browsing interface, and some of its users just want to look cool. I don’t care about any of those things when I look at the iPhone. What I see is the breakout of the next major enterprise computing platform.
Not the humble cell phone, you say? It’s too small, too weak, too underpowered for serious productivity? If history matters, new computing platforms have always emerged from the low-end of the marketplace. The Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) minicomputer supplanted the IBM mainframe, then Sun’s Unix Workstations replaced DEC, and the PC replaced Sun. Now, the phone is going to surpass the PC.
There’s no denying that cell phones have already played a huge role in boosting business productivity. We take for granted the tremendous shift that has taken place, from leaving a message with a secretary to being able to reach virtually anybody at any time, barring the occasional nap or airplane ride. But running business applications on these devices has been limited by bandwidth, screen size and particularly by “weak” browsers that don’t support things (like Java) that are required to run rich, browser-based applications. The iPhone has raised the bar and will finally deliver on what the mobility advocates have been pushing since the first cell towers went up.
Two personal experiences opened my eyes to the inevitability of the cell phone as the next major computing device. The first was when we decided to bring our NetSuite application to the Japanese market. We found that to enter that market, a user interface that supported mobile phones was not an option — it was mandatory. No phone-based user interface, no sales in Japan. So in markets far more advanced than the US in terms of their use of mobile computing devices, the phone is already being doing much more than sending calls, texting and emailing.
The second eye-opener was the day after Apple launched the iPhone. That Saturday morning, I logged on to the NetSuite user group and saw our users raving that NetSuite worked perfectly on the iPhone. While the iPhone was targeted as a consumer device, it was clear from the posts of these serious business people that it heralded a major transition for business as well. Apple may not have planned it, but by shipping with a complete Safari browser, they opened up an entirely new market because rich web-based business applications can now run on your phone.
That doesn’t mean everything you do in an office today translates immediately to a phone. Just as there are still mainframes, mini-computers and workstations in use, the phone won’t eliminate the PC. But more and more work will get done on your phone. And the same transition we saw from keyboard-only mainframe applications to point-and-click mouse-driven interfaces is happening again, this time with designs that keep the needs of mobile users in mind. It is going to force software companies to think carefully about how they use that precious screen real-estate on the phone.
If you still aren’t convinced, just wait, and the decision will be made for you by your best and brightest new hires. Never lose sight of what the college students of today are accustomed to. Living — not just communicating — on a small, handheld device is simply second-nature. They are so tied to these devices that their dedication, and the applications already being created for the latest vanguard of smart phones, is going to transform business five to ten years down the road.