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Laptop vs Smartphone: No Contest

Executives at smartphone manufacturers like Palm Inc. and BlackBerry need only look at their own products to understand why, even as the devices gain popularity across different job functions and levels, the penetration among all mobile workers remains a fraction of the total potential user base. (See Device Trends: What's Next?.)

"Most mobile workers are quite reluctant to give up their laptops," points out Randy Sailer, director of telecommunication services at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "They see smartphones as a somewhat convenient compromise at best."

That view supports the findings of a report released today by research firm In-Stat, "Converged Devices: SmartPhones vs. Laptops and PDAs in Business Markets," which finds that "manufacturers need to overcome several major hurdles if users are to rely solely on a smartphone" when out of the office. "There are significant concerns," the report continues, "about screen size and inadequate keyboards."

Add to that a dearth of fully mobilized applications and issues with handling attachments, and you've got a sizable skepticism factor in convincing mobile workers to leave their laptops at their desks and carry only a smartphone.

"Our employees like smartphones," adds Sailer, "but only as a supplement to doing 'real work' on a laptop. You can do enough to get by with a smartphone, but it can be slow."

"At a maximum, customers will review documents using smartphone Acrobat or Word viewers," agrees Justin Morehouse, director of security assessments for the east region for FishNet Security, "however, they are reluctant to make edits or work exclusively on documents from their smartphones."

The days of smartphone-only travel are still far off, Morehouse believes: "Mobile workers are still forced to use their laptops for performing day-to-day operations that require the use of more robust business application suites such as Microsoft Office."

The report further claims that many users are wedded to redundancy, carrying laptops or PDAs even when a smartphone alone will suffice. Morehouse is not so sure. "I would argue that a majority of mobile workers who carry more than one handheld device do so out of necessity," he asserts. "For example, either one device is for personal use while the other is for business, or the business has yet to consolidate their handheld devices to one platform."

Consolidating mobile devices on one platform, creating mobile applications that run like desktop versions and automatically synch across platforms, and building sales channels to educate users and overcome their skepticism all remain significant obstacles to device-makers and mobility software companies looking to shift a higher percentage of mobile workers to smartphone habits.

And, oh yeah, there's the small matter of sound quality.

"The main problem I hear with all of these units is that the phone quality compared to a straight cellular phone leaves much to be desired," observes Chuck Thompson, IT manager for Fortis Prime Fund Solutions, a Cayman Islands-based unit of the merchant banking division of the Fortis Group. "The manufacturers need to focus on making the voice calls clearer."

Indeed, RIM has put much R&D and money into improving the BlackBerry's voice performance, and it's having an effect, according to Stephen Taylor, information systems manager at Denver-based law firm Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons.

"Among our employees, I am seeing more people give up their personal cellular phones in favor of new BlackBerry devices," Taylor reports. "Now that the BlackBerry devices are much better as cellular phones, they are getting rid of their personal cellphones and carrying only a new BlackBerry device."

How long will it take to overcome these hurdles? Well, a sizable portion of road warriors will likely never leave their laptops behind. As Taylor observes, "The real road warriors are still taking both devices: They use the BlackBerry devices while in the airport or in a car, then they use the laptops once they are at an office or hotel."

But emerging applications vendors will help drive the deeper penetration of BlackBerries, Treos, and related devices -- making them even more indispensable to current users and the mobile device of choice for a larger number of new users.

"As smartphones become a larger part of the market because of developing business applications," the In-Stat report concludes, "we will see a virtuous cycle of more solutions on a smartphone."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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