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.
Dan O'Shea is a Chicago-based writer who has been covering telecom, mobile and other high-tech topics for nearly 20 years.