One of the primary drivers for me in searching for good mobile device technology is the hope I will find something that I can incorporate into my arsenal of mobile tools. I look for devices and software solutions that fit into my daily routine and help make my work easier. Good mobile technology must have at least one trait before it makes my toolkit- it must be something that is enabling. What I mean by that is the tool has to enable me to do something better, easier, or quicker. It can’t just be cool (although there’s nothing wrong with that) or have a wow factor, it must be an enabler. Tools like this are appearing all the time which is what drives me to root it out, put it through it’s paces, and ultimately incorporate into my work flow.I spend a lot of time thinking about how this technology can help others. Anyone who is involved in the mobile tech business must realize that what is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander when it comes to mobile gadgets. The needs of each person are unique and it’s certainly short-sighted to proclaim that Device A is the be-all for everyone. I try to avoid that mindset but I admit that’s sometimes difficult to do. So I’ve spent the past few weeks observing in the workplace. What I’ve been looking for specifically is the actual usage of mobile gadgets in different work settings, at different companies and locations, to get a feel for what is being used by a wide range of professionals. I have perhaps a unique perspective on this since I’m not in the IT industry, unlike many who are involved in mobile technology. People who are directly involved in the IT industry no doubt embrace technology in their work and personal life because they are familiar with it and exposed to it naturally. What I wanted to examine was how professionals in a totally unrelated field are using mobile technology and how they react to it when exposed to it in a normal business setting. What I observed surprised me.
I work in a high-tech industry that’s involved in producing 3D images of the earth’s subsurface. I won’t go into details here about this field or my role in it as I’ve done that elsewhere on this site. What’s important in this article is the profile of the typical professionals I observed for this article. I was conducting this observation over the past few months and it involves the work practices of dozens of professionals whose job functions cover many different levels in their respective companies. My contact was with people from high level executives all the way through typical office workers. It’s a safe statement that everyone I observed uses personal computers in their daily work to create documents and email. This is important as it indicates at least an exposure to rudimentary computing tasks and rules out the possibility that they are illiterates when it comes to using personal computers. In short, these people represent to me the profile of the user that would be most likely to embrace mobile gadgets, outside of the IT industry.I need to declare that there is absolutely nothing scientific about how I set out to observe this gadget usage. It’s not intended to be a definitive indication of anything, rather it’s purpose is to describe what I observed in the “real world”. I also spend a lot of time using the WiFi access in various Starbuck’s and some of the observations includes what I’ve seen in this setting. I have been simply watching if people are using mobile technology, and if so what gadgets they have chosen. When possible I have discussed the use of mobile technology in the individual’s daily routine to try and get a feel if they are really getting the benefits the device they use can provide them.A lot of this observation was done through lots of long, boring meetings. Most of these meetings require the attendees to take copious notes, a task that can really benefit from the use of a laptop, Tablet PC, or PDA. Out of dozens of attendees I observed here’s what I found was being used as note taking tools:PDA- noneTablet PC- noneLaptop- a handful of peoplePaper notepad- everyone elseThe realization that over this extended period of time practically no one was using any electronic tool for taking notes just blew me away. It’s important to note also that the few people who used laptops to take their notes usually had a paper notepad alongside it and seemed to be taking a lot of notes by hand in addition to the notes on the laptop. The reaction of the other attendees to the ones who pulled out their laptop was generally negative to my observations. It’s as if they were thinking the laptop users were indicating they were “more prepared” or showing off for their paper note-taking counterparts. This really surprised me and had never occurred to me this could be a factor preventing some professionals from using mobile technology in front of their peers. This would likely be an obstacle preventing them from even adopting some sort of mobile gadget to help in their work.It doesn’t really surprise me that I saw no one using a Tablet PC- I have not actually seen anyone using a Tablet PC in over two years, something that Tablet makers are trying to change. I thought I would observe more people using laptops and it was surprising to me to see very few actually using one. For the life of me I have no idea what notes the one who did have a laptop were taking on paper vs. the laptop. I did expect to see a few PDAs being used for note taking but of the few people who set their PDA on the table in front of them, no one took notes on it. I asked a couple of them why and they said that the handwriting recognition wasn’t good enough and they preferred to use paper. I asked pretty much everyone who took notes on paper during these meetings what they did with their notes and of significance is that almost everyone told me they would transcribe the notes into their desktop computer when they got back to their office. So it’s not simply a lack of desire to have their notes in digital form that’s holding them back.My observations in the Starbuck’s setting was somewhat different which is not surprising since a lot of mobile workers (sales people mostly) stop by the coffee houses for the WiFi access, just as I do. I’ve seen many actual meetings among coworkers, and one on one sales attempts. I’ve seen five people meeting at once, with as many as three of the participants using their laptops. The primary use of the laptops seems to be limited to accessing corporate database information, with almost all note taking done on paper. I’d say the laptops split evenly between WinXP and Mac, which is probably due to the “artsy” bent of most Starbuck’s coupled with a lot of the users being students. I’ve seen both Palm and iPAQs being used for internet access, but rarely with an external keyboard for serious writing. I’ve also noted a few Windows Mobile Smartphone users in Starbuck’s, the only place I have seen them in action. The seemingly tech-savvy people in Starbuck’s often express interest in whatever mobile gadgets I am using and ask a lot of questions. The result of those conversations usually ends in the declaration that serious mobile tools are too expensive or too time consuming to learn.So what do we make of this information? I don’t know. One thing that’s clear is that outside of the IT world or the enthusiast community there’s really not a lot of people using mobile devices. This is significant since they represent the increased market share that OEMs need to target to ship devices in greater numbers. The sad truth is I don’t see any of the big OEMs like HP, Dell, Gateway, etc. running ads for the general public that tries to sell mobile devices. Can you remember just one ad recently touting the benefits of the Tablet PC or Pocket PC? Until the big guys acknowledge this market we’re not going to see this mobile technology embraced by new buyers. One thing is I can say with certainty after opening my eyes with this “research” is that regular people aren’t using this type of technology. Those of us who are actively involved in either the industry proper or the enthusiast community forget how insular our outlook really is. We assume that this whiz-bang technology is for everyone, the only problem is the companies that sell them forgot to tell anyone.