When laptops started to become more prevalent in corporate America, it brought with it the promise of freedom. That is, freedom from the office, freedom from the cubicle farms and freedom from the ball and chain of the corporate world: the desktop PC. From executives to sales people to consultants in the field, there was finally a way to stay connected and keep on top of work while out of the office. Yes, you had to deal with slow and wonky VPN’s and sometimes the added nuisance of unwieldy RSA tokens to get into the corporate systems. The benefits of being able to work anytime and anyplace, however, more than made up for the mild inconveniences. You could say the laptop changed our mode of work—and some would say it killed work-life balance, but that is a whole other topic.
When the humble Blackberry came on the scene several years later, it upped the ante on efficiency and flexibility. Email and messages could come whenever, around the globe, instantaneously, and all without hunting for Wi-Fi or dial-up connections. Because they worked so well with corporate email systems and were highly secure, IT departments welcomed the devices. The Blackberry became all the rage in the C-suite, with bankers, for sales reps and of course celebrities. Now people could always be “on,” for better or worse, so much so that some of the more obsessive users half-jokingly referred to them as “Crackberries.”
Then Apple happened. Not comfortable merely with slick looking computers and fancy multi-function personal music players, they released the iPhone with great fanfare. It did what the Blackberry did and then some. It had email and calendar and such, but it also came with an App Store filled with multitudes of apps that extended the device well beyond that of other comparable devices. Whereas the Blackberry was a handheld super-email device, the iPhone was a handheld supercomputer. People were dropping their “Crackberries” like a bad habit.
Apple was not done yet though. Out came the iPad two years later, and Apple was able to convince tens of millions of people globally to plop down even more cash for a device that was in many ways just a bigger iPhone. And while there were similarities, there were obvious usage differences given the greater screen real estate that made it easier to consume media. With more and more of these devices, as well as Google Android versions of smartphone and tablets entering the workplace, it was quickly becoming clear that IT departments were losing the war on corporate control of infrastructure and data. The workforce was going rogue.
So, you might be asking what is with the long-winded run-down? What exactly is the point in rehashing old history? The point is, that although we workers are fully mobile-enabled, our companies and institutions are anything but mobile-ready. That is not to say there are not solutions and technologies to help companies manage and secure mobile devices more effectively. The Mobile Device Management (MDM) market is pretty well established, and the level of innovation and competition is fairly robust. The real problem is that there is little for this infrastructure to run other than email and a handful of apps. In other words, we may be mobile-ready and the enterprise may be infrastructure-ready, but we are a long way from being able to work exclusively mobile.
It is really the current crop of business apps vendors that have failed to keep up. The enterprise-computing world is still in a web-oriented mindset. That vision sees workers seated in front of computer monitors or laptop screens, engaging the software with a mouse and keyboard, connected to the Internet, opening apps in a browser and typing a lot. Typing to authenticate, typing to search, typing to enter data, typing to do anything of substance in the application as the user is drawn into deeper and deeper labyrinths of screens and menus and forms. But it is hard to blame the vendors entirely, because workforce bias has conformed to the “Excel standard,” which has shaped workplace expectations of software utility for over 2 decades. You might have heard the quip where any function could be done in Excel. The sad part is that this thinking is pervasive throughout the biggest companies in world.
This is also the biggest sweet spot for opportunity. Some have broken through the defenses of the corporate wall such as Box and Evernote, but with simple apps that helped teams collaborate better. But we are still far, far away from equipping a mobile-only workforce. Danielle Morrill, in a series of tweets, dove into the very challenges of going completely mobile, and I have discussed the issue on a number of occasions, including “Enterprise Tech and Mobile First” and “Future Trends in Enterprise Software.”
However, despite my initial pessimism, I believe there are 3 positive trends. First, more entrepreneurs are rethinking the existing paradigm and designing outside of those limitations. Second, the workforce is expecting better apps delivered sooner. Consumer web and mobile space has spoiled employees to the possibilities, and the workforce is pushing back, thus the rise of BYOD and increasing contraband app usage outside of corporate IT. Third, the devices themselves are becoming significantly more extensible and powerful than even just a couple of years ago, providing an ample testbed to push the limits of automating wholesale many of the offline business processes and functions that before required extensive data entry and tedium.
I am bullish on this year being a breakthrough year for the mobile enterprise. Let’s not mistake the fact that we are in the early innings still and that tech cycles can take well over a decade to mature. But this is a watershed year for enterprise mobility and the mobile business applications market. Just look at the number of startups vying for business in the last Emergent Capital Mobile Business Applications Landscape. Mark my words. I believe this will be the year that sees the next cycle of billion-dollar enterprise companies emerge.
This article was originally published on Strong Opinions, a blog by Birch Ventures for the NYC tech startup community.
Image credit: CC by Michael Coghlan