Mobility options for SMBs

When it comes to mobility, SMBs now have more options than ever – notebooks, mini-notebooks, tablet PCs, handheld devices, smartphones, even thin mobile clients.

Then there are consumer and commercial models, and different purchasing channels (retailers or VARs). All this choice can leave SMBs scratching their heads, and wondering how to secure and manage all the data that’s going to be floating around out there.

As we transition into the Facebook generation, the idea of connectivity and how people communicate online is changing. Users are demanding different devices – particularly younger employees from the Net Generation (under 31 years of age) who want more control of their data. That Net Gen employee will also influence IT purchases.

For the SMB, the challenge is finding the right fit. Many smaller businesses, for example, choose to buy consumer notebooks at a big-box retailer rather than commercial versions.

From a demand standpoint, we’re still seeing high double-digit growth in the notebook space, said Crawford Del Prete, executive vice-president of worldwide research with IDC Corp., at the HP Connecting Your World conference here last week. There’s a massive segmentation of users in this market, and we’re going to continue to see a sub-segmentation of mobility – this could even mean different products for the same person. “We don’t see growth dropping anytime soon,” he said.

There used to be a theory that everyone would carry a single device for all of their mobility needs. Now, it’s more commonly held that a central PC will act as a central hub, or “Swiss Army knife” that serves out content to mobile devices.

“This comes down to the job that people want to get done,” said Del Prete. If they want to do coding or manage their data, the PC is still the best option. We’ve already seen hardware designed for specific tasks, such as the digital camera, that relies on the PC. “We’re headed to that world,” he said. People thought PCs would end up in a smartphone, but instead we’re seeing a splintering – there are more devices out there than ever.

And that can lead to a lot of confusion for small businesses wondering which devices are best for their business – and, perhaps more importantly, how to secure and manage all those devices. There’s also the issue of connectivity – people now have several wireless subscription accounts, instead of multiple devices on one connection. This is why we could start to see new offerings from telcos to accommodate this, or the reemergence of the personal area network.

Another option is the mobile thin client, though the market is still in its early stages. But it has real possibilities with the changing landscape of notebook computing, said Ted Clark, senior vice-president and general manager of the Notebook Global Business Unit in the Personal Systems Group at HP. That means you take the hard drive out of the device, and simply require a keyboard, a screen and a pipe. “It could really be a game changer,” he said.

But even the thin-client experience can translate into something more “pudgy,” said Del Prete. Users may want to download the latest Adobe flash reader, for example.

While cloud computing is a great idea in theory, many users are resistant to the idea – and some want the best of both worlds (they don’t want to edit video online, for example).

In the next five years, we’ll see more services being offered in the cloud, which essentially is a place with a specific set of applications that know your profile.

But it’s a leap the world is not ready to make, said Del Prete, and for the foreseeable future we’ll continue to see a hybrid model out there. While we’ll see more secure containers in the cloud, users will still be concerned about data protection, and it will take a long time to change that perception. “It means the keyboard is here to stay,” he said.

We also haven’t seen a real takeoff in tablet PCs – they’re mainly being used in verticals or for specific business applications. Today, however, it’s an expensive technology, said Del Prete, but as the price comes down, we’ll see increased usage.

There’s always a crossover in the long run, said Clark. Over time, almost every technology will cross over, from commercial to consumer (and vice-versa), with the possible exception of entertainment-related technologies. Blu-Ray, for example, showed up in commercial notebooks first, and then made its way down into consumer products as the price dropped.

A lot of product does in fact straddle consumer and commercial, said Michael McAvoy, director of SMB and commercial marketing for HP Canada. But commercial notebooks tend to have more features around security and manageability. Also, smaller businesses don’t have time to mess around with complicated technology, he added, and need to be up and running as close to day one as possible. So finding the right service and support is critical (HP, for example, offers Total Care for SMBs, which offers local, personalized support, from choosing and buying to transitioning and disposing of technology).

In a tight labour environment, employee satisfaction is also becoming more important, he said, so some SMBs are looking to offer more work/life balance through mobility.

At the conference, HP announced 17 consumer and commercial notebooks, including the “value” Compaq b-series to the luxury Voodoo notebook, with choices of Intel or AMD processors. The high-end HP EliteBook is aircraft-design-inspired, and offers HP QuickLook 2 software for quick access to e-mail, calendar, task and contact information, and HP SpareKey, which eliminates the need to call IT support when passwords are forgotten. The HP File Sanitizer permanently deletes chosen documents to military security standards. Several notebooks have the option of a mercury-free Illumi-Lite LED display, which is lighter and more energy-efficient than standard notebook display technology (HP has a goal to remove all mercury from its entire notebook line by the end of 2010).

We’re also seeing wireless broadband start to take shape in Canada, said McAvoy. “Connectivity will be much more robust,” he said, adding that we’ll have the ability to be connected between hotspots. Through HP Mobile Broadband, select notebooks support multiple mobile broadband network technologies and multiple mobile operators (using Qualcomm’s Gobi technology), which increases international roaming options.

HP also announced the TouchSmart All-in-One, a touch-enabled PC that allows users to tap or swipe their finger on the screen to access everything from photos to games to the Internet. The goal is to bring that same technology to the mobile market. “We’re not there yet,” said Clark. “We’re working on it.” There’s no timeline yet, but he believes there are even more opportunities for multi-touch technology in a mobile setting than in the consumer space.

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