Small-business owners were the earliest of early adopters for mobile service. From the outset of mobile technology, the entrepreneurial-minded were savvy enough (and busy enough) to see the benefit of a phone without a wire--even the original, expensive, bulky ones that cost thousands of dollars. Those who got it understood from the beginning that mobility made small business bigger.
The evolution of technology and services has made mobile not only more appealing and more affordable for small business--mobile is now also an indispensable tool. Video-capable smartphones with computer-like processing power change the way businesses interact with their customers. Innovative applications free desktop-bound daily business processes. And mobile broadband technology options challenge expectations for where and how phones can be used, rendering physical office locations optional.
How will the continuing evolution of small-business mobility further change how small businesses operate? Will emerging applications transform how you conduct your business? Will your phone really act like a computer? Will you ever need to go to the office again?
Who better to answer those questions than three mobile visionaries: the leader of one of the nation's largest mobile-service providers, a long-time industry executive and investor and the head of mobile endeavors for a global Internet juggernaut.
We sit down with each of them to get their take on how mobile services, devices and apps are changing the way small business does business. (Here's a hint: video.)
Dan Hesse, CEO, Sprint Nextel
You've seen Dan Hesse--strolling down a city street, walking the concourse at Grand Central Terminal and sitting in the back of a cab. These scenes are from Sprint TV commercials, but Hesse's casual, low-key delivery in discussing unlimited-use plans and mobile broadband is meant to appeal directly to the everyday business user and make you feel as if you could continue the conversation with him after the commercial ends. (Hesse even includes his e-mail address in one.) We talk to him about where business service rates are going (down), where video app usage is headed (up) and why you're stuck with those ghastly early-termination fees.
When you look at the economy coming out of the recession, the small-business market will pick up sooner than the consumer segment.
We are seeing some evolution to the mobile office. Daily active wireless usage among small businesses is growing. We see more hoteling and sharing of offices or cubicles but that also creates more teamwork challenges.
You will see more wireless access of centralized office resources, and you will see less and less reliance on a physical office by many business users. But that office will not go away anytime soon.
Rates will continue to come down for business users, particularly when you talk about data and rate per gigabyte. In service plans, there will be an increase in simplicity and predictability and more sharing of plans among business users.
A lot of things are done today in the cloud. In the long-range future, you'll see a combination of fairly loaded phones, and also some applications residing in the cloud.
Video applications are going to be more common, particularly as you get into a 4G network environment. There will be a lot more video, TV and movie downloads. You'll see this in both entertainment and business applications.
Our network is extremely open. Sprint has never blocked an application. Our app store is really just an augmentation of what's out there from many different sources.
Sprint was the first one to open all of its devices for HTML browsing. We can't guarantee the quality of that application that you find somewhere other than our store, but we think you should have access to it.
We sell devices for $100 that we paid our suppliers $400 to $500 for, and that's not even counting if there is a retailer involved. So, we're out a lot of money when you walk out the door.
If customers don't want a contract, that's fine. It's all about customer choice. But with a contract, you can get a smartphone for a fraction of the cost you would pay without a contract. Most of them will choose not to pay all that money upfront and instead take the contract.
Early-termination fees have become a real hot-button issue, but there is a reason for them that's rooted in the reality of the cost of doing business. We'll continue to use them.
We want users to have as many devices as possible to use on our network. The smartphone will continue to be the Swiss Army Knife.
Honestly, my No. 1 mobile-business app is e-mail. I use calendar functions a lot, too, and the camera and the alarm clock. I like the Android apps, things like Google Maps and Google Sky. The soundboard apps on Android are a lot of fun. That's about it, which I guess makes me kind of a boring old guy.
What can businesses do via mobile technology? The easier question to answer is "What can't they do?" Not much, thanks to a few technologies you will be hearing more about later in the year:
The mobile industry geek brigade will want to corner you and try to explain the differences between 4G LTE and 4G WiMAX, two technologies beings used in network upgrades. But the important thing for businesses is that they will be able to enjoy bandwidth bursts up to 12 Mbps--which is why everyone is suddenly talking about video apps.
No more dropped calls inside your office when you have a femtocell. It's like having a cell tower next to your desk--but without the broken ceiling, the noise or the giant concrete base to trip over. A rapidly dropping price tag (now between $50 and $100) makes femtocells ideal for small business.
Everyone knows about Wi-Fi, but one of the most interesting trends for the rest of 2010 and beyond is the phone as Wi-Fi hot spot. The Novatel Wireless MiFi unit--in use by Sprint and Verizon Wireless, among others--started the trend. But smartphones integrated with the capability, such as the HTC Evo and Palm Pre Plus, are making it more attractive and efficient.
Voice over IP is another not-exactly-new technology that's new to mobile. Alternative voice apps, such as Skype Mobile and Google Voice, might be close to finding a place in everyday mobile communications. For business users, it's all about cheaper calling, but these apps wouldn't be ready for prime time if mobile devices and mobile networks weren't ready to fully leverage the Internet.
Bill Malloy, venture partner, Ignition Partners
Bill Malloy, venture partner, Ignition Partners
Bill Malloy has been there since the beginning: He started out in marketing for McCaw Cellular in 1985, helping the mobile industry pioneer launch the first mass-market product (the Go Phone) and the first nationwide mobile brand (Cellular One). After AT&T acquired McCaw, Malloy became a top exec there. He's a two-time Internet company CEO (Peapod and WorldStream Communications) and since 2002 has been at VC firm Ignition Partners, in Bellevue, Wash., guiding the next generation of mobile and Internet innovation. Malloy talks to us about patience, the vending machine of mobile apps and how mobile video changes everything.
The best customers for wireless always were small businesses. The small-business user has always been one of the first to figure out what's right for them.
Since I started in the mobile business more than 25 years ago, we have been in search of the one device that can do everything. My God, did it take a long time.
We're at the point where we've rendered the computer into a small device. You also have almost a vending-machine approach with applications. The result is a great, rich environment where the thresholds are so low for starting a new business.
I remember when I had a SkyPager and my cell phone, because the pager had better coverage and you got messages. Even when the BlackBerry came out, I still had a phone. But since I've had a smartphone, I'm not using other devices as much.
Because applications are starting to go independent of wireless carriers, you have more of a shopping mall environment.
All of the things that make a small business work are now at the device level with smartphones. You can get business apps, QuickBooks, your time sheets--all on mobile. The investment you had to make before in an office and Centrex service--you don't need to worry about today.
There are so many emerging things that were new years ago that we now can touch and feel. What I'm really interested in are the people who are creating businesses from the intersection of all those things.
Back in the day, we would sell a small business a $3,500 phone based on the idea that you could use it in a car. The idea that you could do something you couldn't do before was enough. That's where we are today with mobile video apps.
Mobile video will absolutely be a big area. The ability to see people on the call and items that you want to look at changes everything.
Adequate has more value than not being able to do it at all. And it will only get better.
The excitement around the iPad demonstrates that mobile-device users are ready for new form factors and larger screens built for a mobile video experience. As 2010 plays out, business users will see a number of new mobile devices, from smartphones to netbooks, that will help deliver on the promise of new mobile video apps while providing other new features of interest to business users.
Due out this summer, it will be the first phone made for Sprint's 4G network, the advent of which Sprint CEO Dan Hesse says will usher in an array of mobile video apps. The Evo's 4.3-inch screen will accommodate video apps that businesses will find useful, such as videoconferencing. It also has two cameras--an 8-megapixel camera for HD video and a 3.1-megapixel camera on the front screen to enable all those video calls. Plus, it can serve as a Wi-Fi hot spot for as many as eight other devices.
The computer company started making smartphones for international markets last year, and it makes its U.S. debut this year with the Aero. The first Android smartphone for AT&T's network, it will one-up the iPhone by including Adobe Flash. Also notable: Wi-Fi connectivity and a custom user interface developed by Dell and AT&T.
It's billed as the first Android smartphone with push-to-talk service--good news for field businesses on Nextel's network that have been waiting for a device that preserves traditional push-to-talk utility. Somehow simultaneously slim and rugged, it also has Wi-Fi and a screamin' speaker.
Palm Pre Plus
Another smartphone that doubles as a Wi-Fi hot spot, the Palm Pre Plus and related Pixi Plus also allow cordless inductive battery charging. The Pre Plus has double the memory of the original Pre--encouraging if you want to run multiple apps at the same time.
Russell Shaw, general manager, Skype Mobile
Russell Shaw, general manager, Skype Mobile
Internet voice maven Skype sees mobile as its next frontier. Initially available as a download for a limited number of mobile phones, Skype has started working with device makers to integrate its apps into their phones as well as with mobile-service providers to offer Skype as an additional alternative to their own voice service. (Verizon recently became the first U.S. mobile carrier to offer unlimited Skype-to-Skype calling on some of its smartphones.) Last year, Skype brought in mobile marketing veteran Russell Shaw to head its mobile efforts. Here, he speaks out about open networks, customer choice and the advent of the mobile office.
A lot of people thought video calling wasn't going to happen, but why? There are more devices starting to come out to support it and more networks starting to support it.
There will still be instances when people don't want to use that video call button, but it's a great way to do business when you want to see someone face-to-face.
When you look at it, what do small-business users really want? Value and control. They want it to be easy to use with no hassles. Skype working with Verizon can offer that. Business mobile users are going to see freedom of choice now.
The walled garden for mobile applications can only last so long before the forces of market and the forces of customers break it down. Customers should have applications flexibility and should be able to use the applications they want wherever they are.
We're a real advocate of open networks and policy because customers want that flexibility. No government should help build barriers that limit creativity and innovation in any way.
Devices are changing, too. The device manufacturers have been learning a lot in recent years about how to make devices more intuitive.
Some companies will always have a physical office location in some way, but the office of the future will have so many permutations--whether you are working in a Starbucks, in the airport or wherever. Mobile helps call into question how much time you spend filing and doing desktop things and whether or not you can do those things from another location.
"Doing more on mobile" might be a good theme for small business to work toward, as more apps look to cut the cord on daily functions such as managing travel details, initiating video calls, processing mobile payments and attending meetings.
Developed by the well-known airline booking network Sabre, TripCase is an iPhone app that shows messages, alerts and status updates on travel-related information such as waiting times for security lines, bag claim info, flight status, gate changes and all pertinent flight, hotel and rental car information for different trips.
The VoIP and video calling app is no longer available on Windows Mobile phones, but Skype is looking to make up for that by integrating Skype Mobile on more devices out of the warehouse and packaging it with service from mobile carriers like Verizon Wireless.
The latest among a cadre of applications that enable payments by mobile phones, including the capability for small businesses to use mobile phones to process customer credit- and debit-card payments.
This BlackBerry and iPhone app takes videoconferencing toward full collaboration with screen-sharing of presentations and other data, similar to the popular desktop app WebEx. It even lets you "fetch" the folks who haven't shown up yet.
A group chat app that also allows shared presentation, this iPhone player may realize its fullest potential now that it's available for the big-screen iPad, too.