clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

When Small Screen Is First Screen

When will business application designers start to treat the smartphone as the primary device for Getting Stuff Done?

Don’t look now, but the smartphone is now the “first screen.”

Actually, you probably are looking now: IDC research shows that 80 percent of smartphone users check their phones within 15 minutes of waking up, and 79 percent of smartphone users have their phone on or near them for all but two hours of their waking day.

For the first time since such things began to be measured, says research from Millward Brown, people are spending more time with their smartphones than they spend watching TV.

Consumer entertainment already reflects this reality: For example, Fox Broadcasting engages viewers of popular TV series with added mobile content, with Twitter as another channel for active interaction.

The question is, when will business application designers start to treat the smartphone as the primary device for Getting Stuff Done? When will user experiences be crafted for the person who is running a career, or even running a company from their phone?

It’s long past time to get over the novelty of a full-function Web browser in one’s pocket. Using a browser on a small-screen device is a last resort for mobile-intensive users, whose total Web-access time while mobile is approaching three hours per day — but only 22 minutes, on average, are spent in the mobile browser, according to research by Flurry.

What people clearly prefer is the crafted user experience, appropriate to context and form factor, of a mobile app that turns cloud-resident resources into relevant information and straightforward options for action.

That’s why it borders on perverse to see legacy IT providers laboring to bring the 1980s model of so-called “productivity software” to the mobile device: Inviting users to author documents on a downsized desktop, when their device should be serving as a window into a real-time interactive world (both inside and outside a company).

Consider the environment in which 1980s-style “office suites” of word processor, spreadsheet and database were born and became the norm. Connectivity was episodic and limited: A matter of “dialing up” a low-bandwidth Internet connection, for periods of a few pay-per-use minutes at a time, and exchanging documents in what can only be charitably called a batch-mode interaction.

This was never desirable, but in the connection-poor environment of the late 20th century, it was a necessary compromise.

When we’re always connected, “normal” behavior changes. In any real-world collaboration, would one person sit across a table from another taking notes while the other person talks for 10 or 15 minutes? And then say, “Give me a moment …” and author a point-by-point document in reply, to hand across the table minutes or hours later?

Nor does it make any sense, in the continuously connected environment of today’s mobile user, to be lobbing multi-paragraph documents back and forth instead of engaging in conversation.

These conversations, increasingly, involve not only people — but also connected resources and devices. It’s dangerously old-school to wait for a person to read a report, notice a problem, and send out a call for help, when a data-driven trigger can set off a programmed workflow that engages appropriate resources immediately.

This is not an aesthetic difference, not merely a sop to “digital native” Millennials. In a world of legacy laptops, carrying a “desktop metaphor” into the field, a sales rep might sit across from a customer making notes on desired changes to a contract — then end a meeting, go to a car, get onto a VPN via wireless hotspot, and start a one- or two-day process of response.

In a modern world of conversation and collaboration, the desired options are interactively explored and priced before the meeting ends; the contract is signed with a fingertip on the glass; and when the sales rep heads for the car, it’s to start the engine and go on to the next deal.

No company should underestimate the impact of this change in the pace and dynamics of customer interaction.

For the person at the top of the org chart, this mobile-optimized model is the difference between trusting that org chart’s labeled boxes or actually knowing who is getting things done — because now it’s possible to have real-time metrics of interaction and effect.

Running a company from a phone is not a statement about technology, but an opportunity for new and far more vigorous and rewarding behavior: Enabled by technology, to be sure, but not an automatic outcome of technology adoption.

The smartphone is a window, not a desk, but the manager still needs to look through it and act on what can now be seen.

“Run the business on your smartphone” is not a Stupid Technology Trick, nor is it a compromise in which speed is allowed to overshadow completeness. It’s both a faster model and a more complete model, in which the technology truly disappears into its function of connection — and people can focus much less on the complexities of using a PC (and occasionally even “getting online”) to put that energy into Getting Stuff Done.

Peter Coffee is VP for strategic research at, where he serves as a liaison with the IT and business community to define the opportunity and clarify customers’ requirements on the company’s evolving Salesforce1 platform. He is the author of two books, “How To Program Java” and “Peter Coffee Teaches PCs.” Reach him @petercoffee.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.