Go mobile first and profits will follow

The ubiquitous smartphone is ringing up sales for companies most willing to embrace mobile business – so don’t get left behind, warns Stephen Pritchard

The Brick has no wi-fi, no 4G and no apps. An homage to eighties style, it is no smartphone, unless you consider shoulder pads and mullets smart. But, with 5p change from £50, it will probably sell by the truckload.

Behind The Brick’s apparent silliness, though, lies a serious message for business. The mobile phone is now so ubiquitous that retailers can market novelty versions, and so commonplace that no business can afford to ignore it.

While The Brick, thrown into the market – as if a disruptive missile – by Carphone Warehouse and Binatone, needs to hook up to a “proper” smartphone to do anything more than make calls or send texts, those smartphones themselves have made their way into almost every walk of life.

For businesses, this means they have to embrace the mobile revolution. First, there is the customer-facing side of mobility: mobile-friendly websites, social media – which is now used more on mobiles than on personal computers – and, of course, apps. Ignore these ways of reaching customers and they will go, or tap, elsewhere.

But behind the scenes, smartphones, tablets and the middle child of the mobile world, phablets, are making equally far-reaching changes to the way many organisations operate.

The move by businesses to put consumer devices to work – and, by many, to allow employees to bring their own equipment to the office – is forcing companies to look again at how they do business. And increasingly powerful phones and tablets are starting to edge out desktop PCs and even laptops.

Businesses have to embrace the mobile revolution – ignore these ways of reaching customers and they will go, or tap, elsewhere

Smaller companies are moving to mobile technology because it is inexpensive to buy, more flexible than much conventional IT hardware, and offers new and cost-effective ways to reach consumers, especially through social media sites.

Start-up firms are taking to mobile technology for all these reasons, and because they need to move quickly and their (often young) founders have never really considered running a business any other way.

But the companies that are most likely to adopt mobile first are in the consumer sectors, with industry and government, unsurprisingly, a little further behind.

“The industries that are looking at mobile first are the ones that are much more consumer oriented: banks, retailers and any product company that tries to make an impression on consumers,” says Nisha Sharma, managing director at Accenture Mobility. “But they are also bringing that in-house for ‘business-to-employee’, making mobile part of the culture there too.”

Introducing mobile devices means thinking again about how computer applications are designed, developed and supported. It means thinking about security and privacy, what to do if a device is lost or stolen, and how to negotiate between the often conflicting demands of employees, who want to bring the latest devices to work, and compliance and security teams, who need to keep customers’ data or company secrets private.

Then there is the time and effort needed to overturn 30, 40 or even 50 years of IT and business practice. “Our research among IT decision-makers found that 71 per cent had commissioned mobile apps, but just 22 per cent of enterprise applications were available for mobile access,” says Matt Bancroft, president and chief operating officer of Mobile Helix, a business software development company.

“Companies want to do more, but they are worried about the costs and security implications. Chief information officers are worried about having to re-invent what they have, for mobile.”

As a result, businesses still have a way to go before they are truly “mobile first”. Firms might adopt what Steve Cardell, president of enterprise services at HCL, the IT consultants, describes as a “surround” strategy, where business activities are wrapped in a thin layer of mobility.

“Companies see things and mobile enable them,” he says. “Most just take an existing activity and make that mobile. They don’t make it part of a mobile strategy: we’ve seen companies with 300 mobile applications, but they don’t have a consistent look and feel, and don’t integrate with the back office.”

However, some companies have made the move. Often this is because they’ve worked with, rather than against, the consumerisation trend, and have taken the features and functions that make mobile devices popular with the public, and put them to work.

This applies whether it is creating advanced data visualisations on tablets or using game mechanics to create incentives for field engineers to update service records via a smartphone.

“As time passes, the traditional divisions and differences between applications, operating systems, devices, machines and file formats is eroding,” says Alan Pelz-Sharpe, research director for content management and collaboration at 451 Research, an analyst firm.

“To help deal with this ever-changing environment, thinking mobile first makes sense… Apple moved the goalposts some years back and users’ expectations have altered significantly. People really don’t want complex multi-purpose applications; they want single-click, task-specific apps that they can use securely, anywhere, anytime.”

They want applications that work on that most personal of computer, the smartphone. Businesses that understand that will be rewarded with satisfied customers, more productive staff and, ultimately, higher profits.