Mobile offices: what happened to the future?

They promised devices that would help us cope with the 24/7 business culture. But phone firms are still playing catch-up, says Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online

A chisel-jawed executive is driving across a dramatic landscape. As he pilots his luxury car down the highway, a device not much bigger than an ear-ring reads out his messages and emails. This is not today's vision of the future, but one set out by Orange, the mobile phone operator, in an advert more than four years ago.

Visit any high-street mobile retailer now, though, and it is hard to find anything remotely similar.

The disappointment goes beyond a shortage of smart gadgets to buy. The future promised by Orange - and the other mobile phone companies - was not just one of wire-free communication but one where workers were liberated from their desks, couples had more leisure time and parents could spend more time with their children.

The reality is more prosaic. Mobile phones are smaller and more powerful than they were even a year ago, and the networks offer more services. Some of these, such as video calling, would have seemed like science fiction even a decade ago. But in a world where almost everyone who could want a mobile phone has one - the UK market is close to 90 per cent penetration, says investment bank ABN Amro - the most dramatic technological developments have come in smart elevators, vending machines and air conditioning units, not personal communications. As mobile network operators and manufacturers look to recoup their investment in next-generation 3G technology, they are opting to play it safe.

At its enterprise summit in Amsterdam last week, Nokia was showing phones that, although powerful, were well short of radical. Take the 9300 Communicator. The handset - likely to be a hot seller among road warriors because of its high-quality screen and Qwerty keyboard - is a slightly smaller, neater and more stylish version of the original Nokia Communicator. But that has been around since the 1990s.

The 9300, and its more powerful, WiFi-equipped sibling, the 9500, are powerful computers as well as functional phones. But anyone who has followed mobile computing long enough to remember the Psion Revo will see a likeness in the 9300.

Nokia, though, has bold ambitions for its Communicators, which are built around the Symbian operating system. Company executives believe "the real marathon to mobilise the enterprise and business user has started".

Susan Macke, a vice-president at Nokia's enterprise solution division, argues that the Communicator phones represent significant progress. "If you look at what has been accomplished with the 9300, 10 years ago we were not even in that space." .

And if the series falls short of the vision set out by some of the network operators, that is not a problem for Nokia. "We tried wearable devices, but frankly wearable is not that useful," she says. "It could never make for a pretty necklace. This [the 9300] has the right feel and look to it."

Nokia, which has been losing market share to rival Asian manufacturers, hopes the Communicators will bolster its share of the business smartphone market. The 9300 will sell for €700 (about £480), putting it in a higher price bracket than many PocketPC-based devices, and close to the cost of an entry-level laptop.

Street prices in the UK may well come down, however, especially if network operators choose to subsidise the Communicators for new subscribers, or for people who upgrade from an older phone. And well they might, because the target market for the range represents the most valuable mobile phone customers of all.

"Operators across Europe say that 30 per cent of their users are mobile business professionals. They account for 70 per cent of their revenues," says Ms Macke. Although she will not give figures for specific handset models, she says that smartphones generate significantly more data, as well as voice, revenue for the mobile firms.

This is important because competition between these companies, especially as they launch their 3G networks, is forcing down the cost of mobile data services. To counter the downward trend, operators need to persuade existing subscribers to buy more services, and open up new markets for data. In Japan, millions of consumers, especially young people, view their mobile as the main way to access email and the internet. Models such as Nokia's 7610 smartphone, launched earlier this year, could persuade European consumers to follow suite.

Jussi Raisanen, the founder of the Helsinki mobile software firm Smartner, says more people will be persuaded to email from their phones rather than their PCs, as long as the industry can come up with less complex solutions.

Accessing email from a mobile device has tangible benefits, suggests Mr Raisanen. He is able to start work daily at 10am because he can catch up with messages at home, or on the move, from a smartphone. "The concrete benefit is that I do not have to be at work before 10am, and my life is more comfortable as a result."

It is people like Mr Raisanen - a young entrepreneur who wants to set his own working schedule - who will be the immediate beneficiaries of mobile advances. But company executives and other white-collar workers are also driving demand, as they struggle to cope with peripatetic lifestyles and a round-the-clock business culture.

Doug Clark, the leader of wireless solutions at IBM UK, points out that it is no longer a question of us going to work. Instead, work is as likely to come to us. Figures from IDC, the research house, back this up: by 2006 there will be 28 million mobile workers in Europe. So having the right technology is a necessity, not a luxury, says Mr Clark:. "If I can't access information I need, it causes delay."

If businesses and their employees are to cope with the need for more travel, longer working hours and growing volumes of information, they will need technology on their side. But it seems that the new age of flexible working and greater leisure time is not with us yet. To continue Nokia's marathon analogy, mobile workers are more likely to be running in order to stand still.