Smartphones in the IT Ecosystem

In my previous blog “Smartphones: The Ultimate SaaS Platform” I talked about how smartphones are destined to become the ultimate platform for SaaS.

As we witness the evolution of smartphones it behooves us to learn from the history of previous IT revolutions and see what worked in the past and what did not. When the Personal Computers stormed on to IT stage in the mid-Eighties they were for the most part islands on to themselves and aliens in the IT ecosystem dominated by mainframes and minicomputers. This was prior to the emergence of networking, and there was no easy way to exchange information between the old world and the new. While Personal Computers made tremendous inroads and improved personal productivity, their impact was not as dramatic as it could have been if they were properly integrated in the ecosystem from the very beginning. IT departments were wary of the new kid on the block and their workload for supporting the new computers increased substantially. For a while the IT world was split between the desire to invest in PCs versus increasing the investments in mainframes and centralized infrastructure.

Over many years, helped by the emergence of robust networking and the Internet, Personal Computers became integral, accepted and dominant players in the IT ecosystem. In this world there is a balance between mainframe and desktops with a widely accepted understanding of what works best on servers and what is best implemented on desktops. The emergence of SaaS is shifting the focus back to the mainframe and centralized model. Seamless integration between the desktop and the centralized mainframes/servers has been the major factor contributing to this balance.

Now as smartphone come on to the IT stage the world is likely to experience the same type of turmoil and tension as witnessed during the early days of the Personal Computers. Perhaps due to the Internet it will not be as chaotic. There are at least five different smartphone platforms namely iPhone, Android, RIM Blackberry, Windows Mobile and Symbian. Each of these platforms is sprouting a large number of applications. While most of these applications are game-ish in nature, more and more business applications are likely to emerge. This will create demand for these applications platforms to interoperate with the mainframe and back office applications, which will again lead to tension and conflict in IT departments.

If we learn from the lessons of the Personal Computer we can avoid much of this tension and conflict. They key lesson is that smartphones are not an island onto themselves. Instead, they must coexist as a part of the IT ecosystem in which other computing platforms, namely the mainframe and the Personal Computer, still have a valuable and long-term role to play:

  • Mainframes, in which I include large servers that have evolved from the desktops, will continue to run large, legacy applications and host much of the information that powers the Internet and applications of all types. The rapid growth in Cloud Computing and SaaS has strengthened the position of mainframes. Centralization makes it easier and more cost-effective to manage.
  • Personal Computers will continue to play an important role on the desktops because when the smartphone user wants to do some serious work, he or she still prefers the usability, speed and large screen size of the desktop. Yes, there will be a day when I can plug my smartphone to a large display and keyboard and replace my desktop, but that will simply be a device that switches between a desktop and a smartphone.

To be an excellent player in the IT ecosystem, smartphone must therefore have four additional capabilities. First, they must have an easy way to integrate with back office applications hosted on mainframes/servers. Second they must offer a smooth and seamless transition to and from the desktop. This means that the user should be able to start work on one platform and then seamlessly stop and continue work on another platform, and vice versa. Third, there must be some centralized way of managing the “mobiletops” of smartphones that allows business applications to be deployed to a large number of smartphones, but without hindering what users want to do privately. And finally, while smartphone are great for presenting information, they are not very good at collecting information.

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