The future of unwired business

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There is a lot of excitement surrounding the next generation of mobile devices on display at this year’s Mobile World Congress, currently being held in Barcelona. Smartphones are getting smarter and more powerful every day, and their popularity is changing the way we work.

Today, employees bring their own mobile devices to the workplace and expect to use them for office applications. Similarly, they expect to use social media applications like Twitter and Facebook. This is driving business to adapt. The so-called “consumerisation of IT” is borne out by the adoption of social media by businesses and the plethora of mobile devices (tablets/ iPhones/Androids/etc.) seen today in the enterprise. This is a stark contrast to previous times when corporate information technology departments determines what technologies – such as the PC -- became popular.

This consumerisation will only increase in the future. According to Gartner, 75 per cent of new business applications will use social media capabilities by 2013. And a lot of it will be through mobile devices.

Few technologies have unleashed the remarkable global change that mobile telephones have in such a short time.

Today there are almost 6bn mobile devices on the planet, more than one per adult across the globe, according to the International Telecommunications Union. Mobile broadband subscriptions have grown by 45 per cent annually over the last four years. Global penetration of mobile devices is a whopping 87 per cent (with 79 per cent for the developing world).

It is not uncommon to see slum dwellers in India – or, for that matter, poor people anywhere – sporting mobile phones. Why? Mobile phones have become a cornerstone of global economic development. Studies have shown that introducing 10 new mobile telephones per 100 people in the developing world can add between one half to one percent to a country’s GDP growth rate.

For instance, fishermen in remote villages in Bangladesh can find better prices for their catch by calling around on $20 mobile phones rather than having to travel to the nearest market and hoping for the best.

In the UK, a new breed of small businesses has been nicknamed “the TOTs” (Twelve-months-old, Optimistic, and Technologically-minded). These businesses are growing faster than average start-ups and are increasing their revenues speedily. One of the TOTs’ not-so-secret weapons is a heavy reliance on mobile technology.

Similar stories abound, but I believe the real impact of mobile communications is yet to come. Today, the majority of mobile telephones are still basically talking devices—although the spread of smartphones globally is giving us a sense of what is possible.

And that’s where the excitement is, that’s where the next wave of business opportunities will arise.

As more services are getting added through software, new worlds are opening up. Think of Apple’s iPhone. While still called a phone, it’s a mobile software machine, enabling people to customize it through apps, and gather information and connect to others at any time.

Software will transform mobile communications just as it transformed the PC and the computer industry. For the latter, software streamlined processes, improved efficiency, and enabled completely new business models. This led to remarkable prosperity, not only in the developed world but all across the globe.

Fueled by the continual drop in semiconductor prices and displays, more people everywhere will have access to smart phones. Just as the $20 mobile device was inconceivable 10 years ago, we will soon see smart phones at price points we cannot envisage now.

Within a few years mobile devices will take the place occupied by desktops. Already smartphones are outselling PCs.

In the coming 2-4 years, managing enterprises through smartphones or tablets will become standard.

We will see an explosion of applications in areas like mobile banking and healthcare. Take the case of Standard Bank in South Africa, which is bringing banking to tens of thousands of customers who previously had no access to banking. People in rural areas, where bank branches are few and far between, no longer have to travel to the branches but can do their banking through mobile phones. Standard Bank representatives can even open bank accounts for the unbanked through mobile phones by innovatively using a smart-phone’s capabilities such as its camera to capture images of identity documents.

Across the world, more and more banks will replicate what Standard Bank is doing. Just as the automatic teller machine revolutionized the way people withdraw money from banks, mobile banking will revolutionize banking itself.

Healthcare is another area where mobile technology can make a huge impact. Mobile sensors can monitor patient health and trigger intervention in case of problems, such as high blood pressure or high blood sugar. For doctors, tablets offer the possibility of pulling together various sources of healthcare data in real-time to make a proper diagnosis or prescribe the right medicine. Oncologists at the Charite hospital in Berlin are already making use of this capability to prescribe personal treatment plans with the best chance of success for cancer patients.

Personally, the thing that I like most about mobile technology is that it removes barriers, promotes inclusiveness and opens opportunities for those who would otherwise not participate in the digital economy. It makes the world “flatter” through availability of information in real-time. It promotes democracy. Would last year’s Arab Spring have been possible without mobile phones connecting people and spreading the news rapidly?

Mobile technology enables transparency, which in turn prevents risk, fosters accountability, spurs growth, unlocks creativity and empowers the individual. In developing countries, often the only way to participate in the digital economy is through mobile handsets.

Mobile technology connects consumers and businesses in a way never experienced before, opening markets and creating better access in the emerging world.

Most of the initial reviews surrounding the latest smartphones will focus on their streaming video capability and additional functionalities. However, it is worth remembering that our world will not get more productive or improve because we can watch videos on mobile phones. On the other hand, if we leverage mobile technology for things like better banking and healthcare, we can make a real difference.

Jim Hagemann Snabe is co-CEO of business software maker SAP.

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