Here's what the "mobile-only" workforce will actually look like

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Last week, Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget -- my former boss -- dismissed the idea of a mobile-only future by posting a picture of the BI newsroom and noting that every worker in the shot was using a full-fledged personal computer. As he wrote, these are mostly tech enthusiasts in their 20s and 30s, the perfect picture of early adopters, but "they'll be damned if they're going to spend all that time squinting at tiny mobile screens." He concluded that businesses shouldn't bother redesigning themselves for a mobile-first or mobile-only world.

Benjamin Robbins, who's spending a year doing all his work from his smartphone, responded with his own picture of a 1970s era typing pool. He believes that the PC-filled office of today will someday seem just as outdated. 

Who's right?

First, let's start with the newsroom. What Robbins may not understand is that business reporters are not typical information workers. When I worked at Business Insider, I always had at least half a dozen programs open at any given time:

  • An IM program for instant communication with all my colleagues. (Even when physically present in the newsroom, everybody used IM to communicate, otherwise the cross-talk and shouting would have made work impossible.)
  • Email -- we used Gmail -- for more formal interoffice communication and nearly all external communication.
  • Tweetdeck with multiple columns to follow as many news sources as possible.
  • Multiple browser tabs open to the tweeted links I chose to follow, plus other sources like SEC filings, stock information, and any of the other sources I might be checking.
  • A browser tab open to the CMS in which we wrote all our stories, so we could be ready to start writing at any time -- vital for fast-breaking news.
  • A simple image manipulation program -- for most stories, the editors were responsible for choosing an accompanying image, then cropping it and making it look as good as possible for publication.
  • At certain times of day, a browser tab open to the SAI home page, where I could rearrange story order depending on what people were reading at any given time. (Various editors shared this duty at different times of day.)

For this kind of scenario, you want as much screen real estate as possible. This is why a lot of editors use multiple monitors when they're in the office, and seldom work on anything smaller than a laptop when they're remote.

But it's not just about size -- as Robbins points out, you could always connect a smartphone or tablet to a monitor or projector.

The lack of multitasking is a much bigger barrier. Most mobile operating systems don't let you work effectively in multiple programs at one time, and notifications only take you so far -- for instance, you might be able to see IMs coming in across the top of your screen, but to respond you have to switch out of what you're doing and open the IM app. 

Memory and CPU is the other potential barrier. I never tried to file a story from an iPad, but early on I tried to do some remote work with a cheap Toshiba netbook. The 10-inch screen was bad enough, but the real problem came whenever I tried to have more than two browser tabs and an IM program open at once and the entire PC slowed to a creeping crawl. (That netbook is now stashed in the big cardboard box of outdated technology in the basement.)

But as Robbins realizes, most information workers don't need to multitask like this.

More commonly, employees have a set of tasks to accomplish, and they do them sequentially, with bursts of email or web surfing in between. For these folks, today's mobile platforms are perfectly fine -- as long they have all the programs these workers need. And the application gap is closing rapidly thanks to the rise of cloud-based productivity services, which are available from any platform with a web browser, and the explosion in mobile app development. Virtualization can take care of any laggards that absolutely require an older operating system.

Apart from jobs that require multitasking, the other holdouts against a mobile-only workplace would be jobs that require resource-intensive software, like architects and mechanical engineers using CAD programs, audio and video engineers, or financial analysts using complicated Excel spreadsheets with tons of macros. 

But Moore's law and its corollaries march on. It's a safe bet that the tablets and smartphones of 2017 will be more powerful than the high-end workstations of today. As that happens, mobile platforms will embrace multitasking -- there won't be any reason not to -- and the few remaining differences between "PC" and "mobile device" will gradually disappear. Microsoft, for its part, already seems to be betting on this convergence, and is trying to remain relevant by positioning Windows as the one operating system for all types of devices. 

So it's certainly possible to imagine a totally "mobile" workforce in 2017. Instead of swapping between multiple computers, tablets, and a smartphone, workers could carry a single personally owned device that plugs into docks or connects wirelessly to whatever monitor they choose. 

That means the office of tomorrow will probably look a lot like the office of today, with workers staring at big monitors and typing on keyboards. But instead of a laptop or big old CPU tower on each desk, the whole thing could be powered by personal smartphones, tablets, or something in between.

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