Productivity: Mobile phones vs desktop computing

If you want to make the iPhone less than useful for business, just copy and apply the best practices from Microsoft desktop management to it.

If you were suddenly charged with inventing a strategy to make cell phone use counter-productive for large organizations, what would you recommend?

Here's what I'd do: copy and apply the best practices from Microsoft desktop management: require central verification before each activation; limit who can be called; limit the vocabulary usable; record everything; require contact lists to be stored centrally; randomly rummage through phone memories looking for rule dodgers; impose a complex, time consuming change process; ensure that almost anything a user wants to add to the phone's capabilities has to be licensed and therefore controlled through the budget process; and, periodically clean out surreptitious user change by replacing user devices with ones that have the same buttons and menu items but in different places.

The comparison is an exaggeration, but the basic question this raises is deceptively simple: if software and functionality change in the world of desktop computing is roughly keeping pace with hardware change, why is it that the cell phone seems to have had many times the positive productivity impact the last twenty-five years of desktop progress can claim?

The answer, I think (and please be aware that this is an area in which there appears to be no significant research data to call on), is that we treat both as centrally provisioned services, but don't insist on centrally controlling cell phone use.

More importantly, I think the general answer to the question of what works well in IT points at user administration and decentralized control as the keys to success - and conversely suggests that only the most generic functions can usefully be centrally controlled.

The distinction between centralized provisioning and centralizing control is both critical to this and difficult to maintain. In general, giving one group control over a resource by making them responsible for central provisioning is an invitation for them to try to extend that control to usage - so the question really is why this has consistently failed in telecommunications.

Pending actual data (because I haven't been able to find anything credible) my hypothesis on this is that American culture during the early evolution of the telephone mitigated strongly against extending provisioning into user control -and that cultural continuation has consistently won out in the see-saw battles over control between users and governments or others with direct or indirect control agendas.

Notice that cultural continuation in the United States has also meant cultural engulfment overseas. Thus most European and other national telephone systems originated with national postal or railway organizations with deeply rooted control agendas -agendas they proved unable to exert as effectively as they wanted to. My guess is that when they imported the technology and expertise needed to meet international expectations on telco interoperability they also imported enough of the American telco culture to weaken their ability to impose those controls.

Compromises were, of course, made: for a long time France refused to rely on American switches and related work processes - and became the laughing stock of Europe for its phone service. Less dramatically, most European telcos won parts of this battle: most still meter by the minute and most originally required operators to pull the plugs on unacceptable conversations - just as the rulers in places like communist China continue to monitor which web sites their people use and arbitrarily block those they don't approve of.

Overall, I think there's reason to believe the control agenda was winning the battle in the late seventies - Amdahl, for example, sold heavy weight gear to countries including Canada and West Germany for the sole purpose of monitoring civil phone use and most north American telcos imported the European strategy of forcing customers to pay by the usage minute when cell phones first came in.

Fortunately, three other American innovations: the cell phone, commercial competition for government allocated bandwidth, and telco competition; combined with an historical accident - that the company which first brought major market success to the European cell phone industry happened to be located in Finland: a country with a long tradition of fighting oppression and the Soviet Union on its borders - to roll that back perhaps thirty or even forty years.

If this is right, then the most fundamental thing differentiating the cell phone business from the personal computer business hasn't been technology but organizational culture; with the telcos providing central provisioning but mostly leaving the user in control of usage, while the PC business moved squarely into the data processing camp to combine centralized provisioning with centralized usage controls.

If so, there would be several important corollaries: first the iPhone and its clones could be seen as centrally provisioned but user managed personal computers -thus making the technology a real threat to everything the PC industry stands for; and, secondly: the implication is that the right answer for anyone seeking IT productivity might be to simply roll back centralized control and empower users instead.