October 22, 2009

The Promise of Mobile Computing

There's been a lot of noise made about the benefits of mobile computing. It will keep us connected, it will be make life more convenient, and we can watch movies of dancing Internet kittehs where ever we might be.

Well, maybe not that last option.

I will admit that I am a little skeptical of the mobile computing promise. The skepticism doesn't come from any sort of ludditry; I have the smartphone and the laptop, too, and I can surf in a coffee shop with the best of them. No, my skepticism comes from the fundamental question: do you want to be so connected?

The basis of this question comes from my own experience thus far: most of the tasks I do in a mobile capacity are, well, for work. Usually it's checking my e-mail or managing websites via the phone or laptop. If I am traveling, there's a little more personal tasks involved, like watching a DVD on the plane or checking the weather forecast, but there's usually some work involved, as well.

But, even though I enjoy my job enormously, it is not something I care to do at all hours. A balance must always be made between work and home, no matter how cool your work is. So, being connected--to me, at least--means shifting that balance more towards the work side of things.

Lately, though, I have begun to re-think this notion. I am finding more uses for my mobile device that are family-oriented. Exploring my smartphone's app store has led me to finding a lot of tools I can use for home life, such as a remote DVR app that lets me record TV shows on my home DVR if I forgot to do it before leaving the house. Or an app that lets me track a loved one's flight as they return home. Or the app that lets you find a decent restaurant within walking distance while visiting a major city.

Being leery of mobile computing for work is also a bit of a contradiction for me. After all, I, like many others in the US, actively telecommute. In fact, I telecommute 100 percent of the time, since our offices are in San Francisco while I live in the culturally opposite location of Indiana. Connectivity is how I do my job. This point was driven home when my Internet service provider informed me they were going to be laying fiber in my neighborhood next week and there might be occasional outages. The fact that I knew I could relocate to any number of places to re-establish connectivity (yes, including the coffee shops) set my mind at ease and made me realize that even if you don't use it all of the time, the availability of mobile computing is of great value.

I'm not alone. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, over 38 million people of US workers work from home at least once a month, according to the October 8 report "Telework and the Technologies Enabling Work Outside Corporate Walls."

That portion of the workforce population, 37 percent, is significant in many ways, not the least being that the notion of telecommuting has certainly become mainstream and not some passing fad. It also indicates the enormous potential market for vendors and developers who are looking for some place to py their trade. There's 38 million people out there who need decent tools to make their work efforts better. And the employers of those 38 million folks are looking for ways to do it at a lower cost.

You can see, then, why a Linux option makes increasing sense for such a market. If low-cost netbook and laptop clients can give workers the tools and connectivity they need to get their work done (all the better if those tools are plugged into cloud-based applications), and if smartphones with high-end interfaces like Moblin can make those platforms more viable for remote employees, then Linux stands to be a driving technological force in making this telecommuting marketplace more efficient than ever.

Tools that can make you work smarter, not harder may actually bring a better balance to your work-home life. That's the promise of mobile computing with Linux can bring to employees. Doing it for a lower cost with more stability and security is the promise for the employers.