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The Myth of the Mobile Worker

Mobile Only: Week 32

Benjamin Robbins, an EMF member, is spending the next year working solely from a single mobile device. Each week he shares his thoughts and experience with us on what it means to be mobile-only.

IDC just released a report that PC sales have run into a wall and are struggling. The headlines of the last day or two are driving this point home. For example, one piece titled “PCs Showing Severe Slump” states that the slow PC sales

“…showed the ‘vulnerability of PCs and the loss of mindshare among buyers,’ according to IDC. Tablets and smartphones have been putting pressure on the market…”

Another article, titled “PC Market Much Worse Than Expected,” offers up an explanation as to lack of sales. It states,

“Consumers and companies alike also remain drawn to smartphones and tablets, which continue to eat up PC sales.”

However, this past week I have been at MobileCON in sunny San Diego. This is one of the major mobile events put on by the CTIA. As such, my expectations were that mobile use and consumption would be comparatively off the charts. Why shouldn’t I expect that? I am at a “mobile” conference, the entire point of which is to espouse the benefits of mobility in the enterprise.

But looking around the conference, the choice in computing was no different than any other setting I usually find myself in; PCs were the predominant platform. Don’t get me wrong, there were some tablets and phones. But a large number of demos were happening on PC-type devices. It was the same composition for the seminars and presentations.

The media workroom was just as bad, if not worse. On several occasions I surveyed the room to see how other people were working. Of the approximately 40 or 50 people in the room, only 2 or 3 were ever doing their work on tablets. Rather than mobile mayhem, it was rows of media types on laptops neatly aligned like schoolchildren doing their schoolwork. I would not have expected my working on a mobile device at a gathering called MobileCON to stand out.

It wasn’t just looks that gave away the crowd’s PC attachment disorder; their speech betrayed them as well. Walking around the floor and talking to individuals I heard phrases such as, “I’ll send you an e-mail when I get back to the hotel this evening,” “Hold on a sec, I need to get that document off of my laptop,” “Where can I plug in my computer?” and my favorite, “Let me show you a demo of our mobile product,” said while using a PC connected to a large monitor. Sure, there were people dashing off texts and tweets from their phones, but I expected more, well, mobile. Isn’t this the target demographic of road warriors, the collective group of sales and marketing folks who travel from show to show and customer to customer peddling their mobile wares? I couldn’t think of a more perfect demographic to work almost exclusively mobile.

Something is not lining up. If PCs are in a slump, on the decline, in the winter of their life, old, outdated, and out of fashion, shouldn’t that be reflected in reality? If I am at a mobile conference, then why do I see PCs everywhere? This should be the enterprise mobile mashup of all mashups. These should be my people, my computing compatriots. No man may be an island, but working mobile-only sure did feel like it.

What is mobility? Judging by this highly mobile crowd it is nothing more than a lot of talk. It seemed to be on par with the booth swag and tchotchkes attendees got, a Tinker toy. Instead of passing out mints, mice, and memory sticks, exhibitors could just as well have passed out mobile devices, all the while proclaiming, “Ladies and gentlemen, gather round. Let me show you the future, full of possibility (but it won’t work for me ’cause I need to use PowerPoint, look up an old e-mail, or have a form you need to fill in).” It makes me question whether we believe the stuff we’re shoveling. Where is this mobile worker? Mobile man (or woman), show thyself.

Mobility may be the new way of working, but most people just want to get their job done and will take the tried-and-true path to do so. What is mobility? A contextual convenience that we have the need for only 5 to 10 percent of the time? Is mobility a grand idea but too drastic of a change to be a primary compute platform?

We are creatures of habit. We go to the same coffee shop, the same restaurant for lunch, and run the same paths. When it comes to work there is no such thing as mobility in the sense that all we really want to do is get our work done and we’ll take the known route to get there. So as PCs ride the sloth into the sunset, I have a challenge for you and your habits. Pick a task that is part of your daily PC routine and commit to getting it done on a mobile device. See if you can do it for a day, a week, or a month. This is a worthwhile challenge because when individuals change their habits, whole enterprises change their habits. Until we do, mobility will only be sweet sales speak.

Benjamin Robbins is co-founder and Principal at Palador, a firm that focuses on providing strategic guidance to enterprises in the areas of mobility, apps, and data. You can follow him on Twitter. Mr. Robbins resides in Seattle and blogs regularly at


  1. Posted October 11, 2012 at 16:41 | Permalink

    I did not get to go to Mobile Con this year, but wasn’t this conference branded as more of an IT conference compared to last year? It has been my experience as contradictory as it may be, that IT workers do not carry as many mobile devices as Sales, Marketing and Sales Technology workers within the Enterprise. I am not sure if it is that they are either coding at their desk all day or need the horsepower, but that has been my experience. Thoughts?

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    • Posted October 12, 2012 at 14:24 | Permalink

      Matt – thanks for your comment. The post is speaking about exactly the Sales/Marketing roles you mention. The conference in the past may have been focused on IT, but they are all-in with mobile now. As well, it seemed like the IT folks in attendance were leveraging mobility more than the sales and marketing folks in the booths. My overall point is that we spend a lot of effort touting the benefits of mobility and don’t seem to proportionally take advantage of them. Until we break our habits PCs will remain the norm.

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  2. Posted October 13, 2012 at 10:41 | Permalink

    The problem with most of the mobile devices that I face is that while they are good for browsing, tweeting, skyping, etc. They are not very suitable for general work. There is a limit on how fast I can type on my touch device while I can type without looking at the keyboard. Its easy to open Word and PPT docs but not very easy to create and edit them. I guess till these problems are sorted out you are going to continue seeing laptops everywhere you go.

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  3. Posted November 10, 2012 at 07:57 | Permalink

    As you indicated, people are creatures of habit, and the need to get something done trumpets the need to be creative. So -how do we create the shift and move to a more mobile world. I will attest, somewhat to what you indicated , one thing at a time. Find those activities that the organization does on a regular basis, prioritize, find the solution and begin to evangelize, communicate , show and tell. If you have truly found the mobile experience for that activity..they will come. Move on ..find the next activity that matters. There is a threshold when people will begin to stop and think, do I need to carry the 5 pounds today….for the three days, for the week , or to home …and that’s when innovation and demand turns from I wish to I need. Be prepared to respond to that shift. Doing nothing to shift that paradigm, to eliminate the friction of the Mobile platform will just result in “some things” being remotely mobile able. My role to my employer in the next year is really just that – to push the bubble on what is remotely possible…and then do it again. It’s going to be an interesting year. thanks Ben.

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