For the first time in history more people are now connecting to the Internet via mobile phones than from a desktop or laptop computer. So now that mobile devices seem to be taking over all digital activities, will that leave a role for computers on the desks of the company of tomorrow?

Spread of mobile devices killing off the office computer

Today the majority of online services have become ‘mobile first’ or even ‘mobile only’, i.e. designed primarily – or exclusively – to be used on mobile devices. The eventual domination of mobile Internet technology has been well trailed for a good many years now, but StatCounter – a Dublin, Ireland-based company that has developed a web traffic analysis tool to track the use of digital technology – has recently come up with the facts to prove it. It has in fact taken less than a decade for Internet access via mobile phones and tablets to overtake the number of connections made from our desktop computers.

StatCounter

Given that most newcomers to the Internet nowadays first discover the World Wide Web via a mobile device, their domination looks certain to continue growing. Initiatives such as Facebook’s Internet.org, whose goal is to connect the next four billion people to the Internet, will be carried out primarily – if not exclusively – via mobile devices. Even in the United States, 20% of all 18-34 year-olds do not use computers at all, according to a comScore survey carried out in December 2015.

Have companies anticipated their staff turning away from computers?

The difference in experience between connecting to the Web from a computer and from a mobile device is quite considerable. People use these two types of equipment in very different ways, and the software packages for each are designed and used differently. Spotting the trend, the Internet giants have set out to adapt to the mobile revolution. And of course, this revolution will not stop at the doors of companies and businesses, so have company bosses really thought about how they are going to transition not just by going digital, but by switching to specifically mobile technology? This question arises even more sharply when it comes to the generation known as ‘digital natives’ – in actual fact ‘mobile natives’ who are going to be less and less familiar with the use of computers.

Transition to mobile at work: quickest in ‘computer-free zones’

In the same way that people in emerging markets are now connecting to the Internet directly via mobile devices without going through the desktop computer stage as the more advanced economies have done, a large number of professions are now switching to digital technology without ever having really embraced the desktop. Perhaps most illustrative of the mobile revolution are taxi drivers. Uber’s new way of doing things has really shaken up the taxi driving business, and now you can scarcely find a taxi driver who has not got a smartphone hooked up to the dashboard. In San Francisco, cabbies often have a whole range of smartphones, or a combination of smartphones and tablets, stuck to their dashboards, so that they can browse between the apps of Uber and its US competitor Lyft – and French-designed traffic and navigation app Waze.

smartphone

Nevertheless, people in many lines of work where using a computer had become the norm are now also embracing mobile devices. A journalist from US monthly magazine Wired recently claimed that she could cover an entire event such as CES in Las Vegas with just her smartphone. In stores, tablets are increasingly replacing the cash registers that used to be connected to computers. A survey by French think tank Lab e-santé (‘e-health Lab’) even revealed that 94% of young doctors now use a smartphone and tablet in their daily work. So it appears that all, or almost all, jobs are being affected. But what about traditional companies where desktop computers have reigned for many a year and where staff do not get to choose for themselves the tools they work with?

The rise of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)

Close to 74% of the companies polled in a survey carried out by Crowd Research Partners already authorise, or plan to authorise, management staff to bring their own Information and Communication Technology devices to the office and work with this equipment. Some 40% of these firms even allow all their employees to do so.

The employees interviewed for the survey see a number of advantages with BYOD, with 63% of the respondents pointing to the ease of working remotely or while ‘on the go’, 56% mentioning greater job satisfaction and 47% claiming higher levels of productivity. Companies can even make considerable cost savings from a BYOD policy. So, faced with intense demand from staff for BYOD policies to be introduced, companies are having to get over their fears of security breaches.

BYOD

Accordingly, a number of tech companies are developing services designed to facilitate employees’ use of their own devices at work. One example is mobile security provider Good Technology, which has come up with a means of encrypting employees’ work emails on their mobile phones. In September 2015 the Sunnyvale, California-based firm was acquired by Canadian company Blackberry for $425 million. Personal devices in the workplace still have not entirely replaced the desktop computer, but they are now being used for many activities which used to be the preserve of the desktop. However, companies cannot just be content to simply accept the fact that staff are using their own devices. They also have a basic responsibility to ensure their staff have the most effective equipment to hand.  But how can they do that in the present context?

Use of different formats giving rise to hybrid tools

Most Americans use a smartphone, a computer and a tablet in parallel, and will choose which one to use depending on the task in hand and the time of day. Sometimes they use several tools at the same time. Manufacturers have therefore adapted their products to these different habits, developing for instance a hybrid form of the smartphone and tablet, known as the ‘phablet’, or a cross between a laptop and a tablet, such as Microsoft’s Surface and Apple’s iPad Pro.

tabs

Thus, while the traditional desktop may not quite be disappearing just yet, it is certainly undergoing transformation and a company transitioning to mobile is highly likely to make use of hybrid equipment. Nevertheless, there are a number of startups whose aim is definitely to do away with computers altogether, replacing them with mobile devices.

Mobile devices steadily taking over

Smartphones are steadily becoming increasingly more vital equipment – and so more valuable – than computers and this trend has certainly not escaped the notice of the manufacturers. While you can now buy a Chromebook laptop for $150, your Google Pixel smartphone will set you back at least $649.

Another illustration of this trend is the value proposition of Andromium, a startup with which L’Atelier BNP Paribas met up at the Demo Day run by 500 Startups, one of the largest accelerators in Silicon Valley. This San Francisco-based company, which succeeded in raising close to $3million via a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, argues that people can save themselves the cost of a laptop by simply connecting a screen and a keyboard to a smartphone. Andromium’s flagship product – the Superbook – is a simple screen-keyboard combination that sells for less than €100 and can use all the functionality of the smartphone to which it is connected. With this approach, the ‘computer’ becomes an accessory to the mobile device, not the other way around.

Asked via the Whale app about the future of computers at commercial companies, Andromium founder Andrew Jiang predicted that, given the weight of people’s habits, computers would ‘survive’ another five to ten years, but he pointed out: “If you look at those who are still in school today, they are ‘mobile-first’. It’s easy to imagine that in a generation or two, young company employees will have gone beyond the idea of using a desktop computer at work, or even using a laptop computer.

Andromium is not the only startup to have thought about how mobile devices can help firms increase their productivity going forward. For instance, Galveston, Texas-based Arovia has developed a 24-inch screen that can be collapsed down to the size of a paperback book. The young firm recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help market its novel product.

Meanwhile French company Adok went to ‘The Refiners’ accelerator in Silicon Valley to gear up for the launch of a terminal which uses Augmented Reality to transform a meeting room table top into a giant interactive tablet, without the need for special glasses.

So it seems there is no shortage of startups on a mission to get rid of computers, even laptops, on the grounds that the mobile route can help to enhance productivity, and traditional companies would do well to keep a close eye on this trend. In addition to simply ‘going digital’ companies ought to be thinking carefully about switching to specifically mobile technology as this is where a good number of the interfaces for the workplace of the future are to be found. Steve Jobs, who began his career working to develop desktop computers, had already grasped this reality when he made his move to launch the iPhone and then the iPad. And there is one telling statistic that seems to clearly highlight the trend towards mobile: computers today account for less than 13% of the revenues of Apple, the company with the highest market capitalisation in the world.

By Arnaud AUGER
Senior Strategic Analyst, Head of Media Atelier North America