Actually, you don't need a PC to do "real work"

Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo

A notion persists among many analysts, IT pros, and even users that you can't work productively on a mobile device, especially smartphones because of input and screen size limitations. I believe this is a false premise based mostly on a lack of imagination about the ways we work, especially when thinking about Microsoft Office and heavyweight enterprise applications.

If we start to rethink work applications in mobile terms, we can begin to develop highly useful apps that let us get work done on the fly, on any device.

In fact, Microsoft's entire mobile strategy is based on the idea that mobile devices have failed to this point in business because the have not allowed us to do "real" work. From Office 365 to the snap-on keyboard on the Surface tablets, the whole idea behind Microsoft's approach is to recreate the PC experience on a mobile device. But this entirely misses the point of creating a new way of working that takes into consideration the mobile experience that takes advantage of the strengths of touch devices.

If we could produce tools that push content to you, that are designed to limit input by typing; if we could rethink applications from ones that were created for a PC with a keyboard and a mouse to ones on a smaller screen using mostly the tip of your finger, then we could begin to take advantage of this medium and move beyond the PC era to an era of mobile work.

As a simple example, I began this post in iOS Notes, and as I typed with my fingertip, the program anticipated the words, greatly reducing my typing effort. For all the grief iOS autocorrect garners, it worked remarkably well to reduce the number of taps it took to generate this work.

But such an approach still relies on PC thinking, perhaps simplifying it a bit, but not appreciably changing it.

One obvious answer is to develop better voice recognition. Then we don't have to type. But leaving aside the difficulty of actually building a reliable voice recognition tool -- Microsoft, Apple, and Google have all taken shots, and all are still wanting -- there are way too many instances where using your voice wouldn't work. Can you imagine everyone sitting in an airport terminal waiting for a plane, or at the coffee shop muttering to themselves as they create a document?

Presentations on the fly

No, reinventing mobile productivity requires something more than simply talking. It requires a new way of thinking, of creating workflows that require far less entry.

I looked at one such product this week called Seismic LiveDocs. Seismic has basically created a tool that can work across platforms and that pushes information from various sources into a presentation template. Their primary use case right now is financial services, but CEO Doug Winter told me other types of clients are using it, including pharmaceutical customers.

You can still save the final document in your precious PowerPoint, but instead of having to create or recreate a presentation for each customer in PowerPoint, Seismic does a fair amount of the work for you. You start with templates, which Winter claims a non-technical manager can set up with a series of options without help from IT. With a fixed template design, it reduces the amount input required to produce the work.

Credit: Seismic
You can create a presentation from a mobile device making a series of choices.

Consider the financial services use case. You have a meeting with a client. You take out your tablet or smartphone, open a template, and begin very quickly to build a customized presentation. The system presents a simple form and you can build the presentation by making a series of choices; the template automatically fills in your custom information based on your choices in the presentation template. Very little typing is required.

It might pull customer information from Salesforce or other enterprise system, or the most recent stock or mutual fund pricing from Morningstar.com. It could produce house values from Zillow or employee contact information from the HR system. 

After you make your choices, the system compiles a presentation with your branding for you that you can share with the client on screen, by email, or through Chatter if you're using the version in Salesforce. You can even print a hard copy for the client to take along. In this case, you are far more likely to use a tablet than a smartphone, but you could potentially create it on the phone and later pick it up on your tablet, or PC. or laptop when you met your clients.

It's worth noting there aren't specific LiveDoc apps for Android and iOS yet, but you can access an HTML5 version in your browser.

Mobile requires a different way of thinking

Another product I saw this week is also well suited to this model. It's called Silk and it's a blogging tool with a twist. Instead of entering long text-based posts; you instead track structured data and basically fill in a custom form you create. They released a new teams product this week that lets people share a Silk site among team members. It lets you import data from spreadsheets, create visualizations and use various widgets to help you present or input the data in various ways.

Again, it can be set up to require very little input when it's designed to capture certain distinct types of information. And you can't say that this isn't real work. 

When I interviewed Datix CEO Derek Colvin last year about his experience transitioning his company to cloud products -- the three biggies were Google Apps. Salesforce, and Box -- he said one of the big revelations for his employees was the ability to pull out their phones and access their work content even on the train. Even though they weren't necessarily doing the bulk of their writing work, they could review and edit it -- and that in itself was highly useful for them -- making them far more productive.

As we begin to think about new ways of working with these devices, programmers will take advantage of the tools built into the device whether it's the camera to take pictures and video or the GPS to automatically detect location. These tools can provide different ways of adding information beyond typing.

Consider a program for an insurance adjuster armed with just a smartphone or a tablet. They can take a picture of the damaged property. The location can fill in automatically. The program can guide them to fill in various types of information about the damage and the associated costs --and then it can generate a report based on this information in the same fashion that Seismic creates a presentation. The report could be a Word document. It could be stored automatically in a client folder in the cloud. 

How about a real estate agent? They need to take listings with a set kind of information. Surely you could create an app for that. You take a picture of the house, maybe record a video tour. You fill in details like the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and whether it has a garage, a porch, or a breezeway. Is there a finished basement? You can enter the information by making choices and again generate a report you could share.

Such programs for insurance and real estate agents probably exist. If they don't, there's a business idea in the making.

Once we begin creating apps that do the work for us and take advantage of the devices we are using, we can reduce the amount of time we spend inputting information -- and then suddenly these devices become much more productive without ever requiring a keyboard and mouse to make it happen.

There will always be some jobs that require that kind of input, including -- if I'm being honest -- the one I'm doing right now. But for many jobs, you can transfer that capability to a mobile touch device and be wholly productive doing it.

All it takes is some imagination and rethinking how we work.

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