In a weird way, the lack of enthusiasm around this week’s CTIA Enterprise and Applications show demonstrates just how consumer-driven the mobile industry is at the moment. The technology revolutions of the past were sparked by business demand for computing resources, while this time around businesses are struggling to figure out the best way integrate mobile devices into their workplaces, and they’re not coming into this fight with any advantages.
The last-minute decision of Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and Samsung to move their launch event for Ice Cream Sandwich and the Nexus Prime from the first day of CTIA to next week in Hong Kong really took all the air out of this show, which is all you need to know about the current state of business-oriented mobile technology: a consumer-oriented launch would have been the talk of the town. Attendees were treated to very few new developments in mobile, with perhaps the most buzz centered around mobile payments and the concept of connected mobile devices, both of which have been talked about for years.
The ennui is pretty easy to understand: enterprise technology managers controlled the pace and adoption of technology for decades but starting with the launch of the iPhone in 2007, non-technology executives and employees have been demanding the right to use the devices they find so palatable in their regular lives for work purposes. As a result, “enterprise mobile technology” is kind of a misnomer; the dollars, talent, and hype in mobile are going toward companies that are building things for consumers.
Just look at the three startups the CTIA chose to feature during its closing keynote address on Thursday. Two of them: Shopkick and Jumio, are working on ways for retailers to provide a more pleasant shopping experience for consumers through apps for daily deals and payments-processing via the mobile device, respectively. And the other, Tango, has built a video-calling application that certainly has ramifications for business use but is not pitched that way on the company’s Web site.
Much of the problem stems from the fact that mobile platforms are still very much in flux: there’s Android and iOS, and perhaps a few others, but standardizing across a platform is still a very perilous decision given how quickly the mobile world changes. In the PC era, companies could deploy internal applications without having to worry about platform conflicts, especially as Web applications became popular.
But mobile is much more dynamic. Take the BlackBerry, the mobile device of choice for corporations for several years: app development on the BlackBerry is anemic compared to what’s happening on Android and iOS, where all the talented mobile developers flock first.
Sure, you can still provision BlackBerrys for your workers in order to ensure secure e-mail transactions (when the service works) but they won’t like it. When they make their own spending decisions, U.S. consumers are fleeing the BlackBerry in favor of iPhones or Android devices.
“It’s almost impossible if you have more than 1,000 employees to standardize on one kind of (mobile technology) to support the use cases of all your employees,” said Aaron Levie, founder and CEO of Box.net, during a panel discussion at CTIA around mobile business technology. Therefore most businesses haven’t standardized on app-friendly mobile devices (a group to which the BlackBerry does not belong) because it’s simply too daunting.
“We standardized on Windows (PCs), and it took forever. And then the executives came in with iPhones and said, ‘you better make this work,'” said Robert Schlaff, vice president and global mobile product manager for Citi.
This is not to say that businesses aren’t aware of how mobile technology will transform the way people work.
AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph De La Vega told attendees during his keynote speech that mobile is growing as a percentage of the average company’s IT budget. Polycom announced new mobile applications that enable powerful video-conferencing collaboration a step above what consumer apps like Skype allow. And companies like Amgen have deployed thousands of iPads to their workers as part of an experiment in mobile working conditions, said Polycom CEO Andy Miller during his keynote address.
But there is little consensus: modern mobile technology offers so much more of a personal computing experience than the personal computer, which makes it much more difficult to find common ground across a big company.
That leaves the enterprise in the same position it has been in since the launch of the iPhone: struggling to fit the “bring-your-own-device” reality of today’s workplace into a mobile strategy that gives their workers the tools they need without having to double their IT budgets.
“You have to define what you’re going to control a little more precisely,” said Jennifer Rosales, executive director of Verizon’s business solutions group. For IT executives used to calling the shots, that can be a glum exercise.