The Law of Mobility

Published in Business Reform magazine September/October 2005

So far there have been two major technology mega-trends that have defined business in the information age.  The first was the personal computer.  The second was the Internet.  I believe we’re on the cusp of the third, which is mobility.

The PC revolution was defined by Moore’s Law which states that computer processing power doubles every 18 months at the same cost point.  This made it productive to put a computer on the desk of every information worker.  The implications of this could not have been foreseen, but in hindsight have radically transformed business.  For one thing, this revolution gave small businesses the kind of processing and creative power that previously had only been available to the largest of their competitors.

The Internet revolution was defined by Metcalfe’s Law which states that the value of any network increases exponentially with the number of users.  When the Internet had a thousand users, it was only mildly valuable to those thousand users.  When it reached a million users, it was more than a thousand times more valuable to each of the users, and the value continued to increase.  Once the Internet reached a mass market tipping point, it was so valuable that everyone had to have it.  For most of us, the Internet has become an increasingly valuable part of our business and our personal lives.  The implications of the Internet also could not have been foreseen, but in hindsight have radically transformed business.  Among other things, the Internet revolution has given small businesses the kind of reach and connectivity with markets that previously had only been available to the largest of their competitors.

The mobility revolution is also defined by a new law. The law of mobility states that the value of any product increases with mobility.  If a product is available for my use an increasing percent of my time, without a significant increase in cost (in terms of product cost, operating cost, and convenience), then it will be more valuable to me.  As the cost of building mobility into products approaches zero, then virtually every product will become mobile.  This is happening by converging devices you normally don’t have with you into products that you always have with you, and by using wireless networks to make information products always available everywhere.  The implications of mobility on businesses are unforeseeable, but I would venture to guess that the mobility revolution will empower small businesses in ways that had previously only been available to their largest competitors.

Let me try to make this mobility concept more tangible.  There are lots of places you probably go without your camera.  If you’re like me, there are times when you say “I wish I had a camera.”  If you are one of the growing millions of people who have camera phones, then you have a camera with you almost all the time.  The camera in a camera phone is typically not a high end model, but the value of that camera is significantly increased by the fact that it is always with you.  Camera phones are not significantly more expensive than camera-less phones, further adding to the increased value of the product.

A second tangible example of the law of mobility is my Bible.  My phone runs the Windows Mobile operating system.  I’ve purchased the Bible Reader software from Olive Tree and so I always have with me five different translations of the Bible, plus Greek and Hebrew dictionaries, plus a collection of commentaries.  There have been a number of times when I’ve unexpectedly found myself with a spare 10 to 15 minutes where I can pull out my phone/Bible for a mini-quiet time or to work on a Sunday School lesson.  These moments would be lost if my Bible collection hadn’t been mobilized.

How will this change business?  I think we have yet to see, but let me give a couple of examples.  A friend of mine recently told the story of how using wireless e-mail allowed him to avert a minor business disaster.  It was a Friday afternoon and he was four hours from home.  Just before starting the drive, he pulled out his Palm Treo phone and checked his e-mail.  He had received a message from a vendor saying that a product couldn’t be shipped to one of my friend’s customers without a missing piece of information.  My friend called the vendor, provided the missing data, the product shipped, and the customer was thrilled to receive it Monday morning.  Without mobile e-mail, my friend would not have seen the message until Friday evening, after his vendor had shut down for the weekend, delaying shipment until Monday meaning that my friend would have failed to meet his commitment to his customer.

As a second example, one dumpster company has armed all of their truck drivers with camera phones.  When a customer complains that their dumpster wasn’t emptied, often, the truck driver will have taken a picture of the dumpster, blocked by someone’s improperly parked car, and will have uploaded it wirelessly into the customer service database.  The customer service rep then e-mails the picture to the customer so that everyone is better prepared to have a successful transaction next time around.

What does this mean for you?  I believe that businesses will be as transformed by the mobility revolution as they have been by the PC and Internet revolutions.  These changes may come from your employees finding new ways to do their jobs using the power that is unleashed by the increasing mobility of a variety of products.  They may come from customers who encourage you to change the way that you do business with them.  Changes may be forced on you as competitors learn these changes faster than you do.  No matter where they originate, be very aware of these changes.  Seek out the power that is inherent in these opportunities that can differentiate your business and improve your performance.  But also be cognizant of the danger inherent in extending your business information into a mobile world.  Stay on top of emerging tools and services to manage these risks while maximizing the benefit of mobility.

As with the previous two technology revolutions, the mobility mega-trend must factor into how you can be the best steward of the resources with which you have been entrusted.

 

Russ McGuire is Director of Strategic Planning for Sprint, a Fortune 100 company offering an extensive range of innovative communication products and solutions.  Russ has over 20 years experience in technology, envisioning the future and helping make it a reality, including a very rewarding stint as Internet Director for Business Reform.

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