What does mobile productivity look like?

In our most recent podcast, James and I were talking about the new Ultra Mobile PCs announced recently by Microsoft and Intel and it turned into a conversation about how mobile computing looks for different people. The way we use mobile devices is changing all the time.

In our most recent podcast, James and I were talking about the new Ultra Mobile PCs announced by Intel. The concept, in slightly different form, was discussed again at a recent Microsoft Partner Briefing where this new type of device was called a Lifestyle PC. It turned into a conversation about the variety of ways mobile computing manifests itself for different people. The notion of a cell phone with computing capabilities may be completely flipped on its head. The way we use mobile devices is certainly changing all the time and I've noticed trends that seem to be defined by demographic borders like age and occupation.

If you're unfamiliar with the concept, UMPC is Intel's latest foray into the palmtop category of miniature devices that run on "real" Windows. Currently, the OQO is the only real contender in the market but Intel announced that first generation devices will be forthcoming in the first half of the year from Samsung, Asus, and Founder, according to a report at TG Daily. These first generation devices will run Windows XP. In the second half of the year, Intel predicted a set of second generation UMPC offerings from LGE, Acer and Averatec that will run on Windows Vista.

A few days later, Digiens reported a pre-release announcement from Samsung about their initial UMPC offering which will be shown at CeBIT in Germany this March. This device, a clamshell mini-laptop design doesn't line up with the Microsoft vision but appears to be a worthy competitor for the OQO. 

Microsoft's "ideal" specifications for the Lifestyle PC, according to Tablet PC MVP Rob Bushway who attended the Partner Briefing, include:

  • Wearable
  • All day battery life (12 hr on-time)
  • $500 msrp
  • Always on
  • Connection through 3G
  • Instant use
  • 10"
  • Pen-based
  • Full Windows-based

While these near-future devices push the envelope, what we have today is a mashup of increasingly smart converged devices like the Blackberry line, Palm Treo 650 and 700, Windows Smartphones, Danger Research's SideKick, Nokia's Communicator line of phones, and their recent Internet Tablet. I've been particularly fascinated with that device as it comes from a company synonymous with cell phones yet it has no telephony capabilities. As EV-DO becomes more prevalent and VoIP applications like Skype become available for more platforms (Nokia promises VoIP for the Linux-based Internet Tablet sometime this year), the notion of a cell phone with computing capabilities may be completely flipped on its head.

But I mentioned the demographics of mobile productivity and communications at the outset (thought I'd forgotten?) and these hardware trends mirror the usage patterns I've been noticing. Personally, I don't like cell phones. I think they promote bad driving and boorish behavior in public. But they're a necessary evil. We may be leaving the land of POTS and cell-based telephony but we haven't crossed that border yet. I know that the conventional cellular market has passed its zenith when I see cheap four-button phones designed for kids that come with color-coordinated carabiner clips to match their school backpacks that sell for next to nothing and are advertised as a great add-on to your family plan pool of minutes. They'll be included in Happy Meals before too long.

I watch my daughter (21) use her cell phone primarily as a text device. Her SMS units outnumber voice units on our monthly bill by a 10:1 ratio. When I ask her about this, she explains that you can have a phone conversation with one or maybe two people. SMS allows her to chat, coordinate, and collaborate with as many of her friends and co-workers as she likes in pretty much real time. Because her preference has become clear, I find that I send her text messages far more frequently and phone her less.

I don't call my son (14) when he gets home from school on latch-key days when my wife is at her gallery. I send him a Skype instant message. Why? Because he won't always run to grab the phone but he always responds to the incoming IM chime. There's a certain geek Pavlovian thing going on there.

I do as much communicating using VoIP and IM as I can. Economics plays a big role in this choice but presence is almost as important. I know in advance whether the person I want to communicate is available when I use Skype, Google Talk/Gmail Chat, or Windows Live Messenger. If they are, we chat using voice or IM. If they're not, I send an e-mail. I can make a discrete decision about the most effective way to get in touch with them instantly. The phone only tells me the party I want to reach is unavailable after I've dialed, waited for the requisite number of rings, and left a voice mail message which might or might not be listened to soon enough to matter. E-mail, IM, and VoIP are simply more immediate and more effective for me and the people I communicate with.

Except for my wife - who turns her Mac on when she has time to check e-mail and much prefers I call her using my Treo so she knows it's me on the Caller ID. Different strokes for different folks.

Last week at work, we met with a consultant and trainer. She travels the world, is very successful, and doesn't know her own cell phone number. Watching her work in Word and PowerPoint for two days, fumbling past the Personalized Menus in Office XP running on Windows 2000, it was quite clear that she has found a level of technology that is good enough for her needs. I offered to show her how to turn off those darned Personalized Menus (one of the worst ideas Microsoft has had in its ongoing quest to make Office more helpful) and she smiled and said she was OK with it the way it was. The few extra minutes she stood to save were more than offset by any change in the setup she had already learned how to use. 

When you work in a technology business and have embraced your inner geek, it's easy to forget that not everyone is as fascinated by the bleeding edge as you are. Two years ago, when I talked to my non-geek friends and associates about my blogs, they thought I had a rare tropical disease. Today, that's a less common reaction. When I mention to my parents (in their 70's and just now joining the always-on high speed net) that I was talking to a friend in Europe or Australia, they ask if I was using that "Skype thing".

Communication, collaboration, and productivity are all being profoundly influenced by the technological tides we're experiencing. Take a look around at how the people in your life - younger and older - in your business and out of it - use technology to connect. It's an eye-opening experience.