In the early days of IT, it very much seemed like a case of 'the bigger the better'. Giant super-computers filled entire rooms, performing functions considered rather basic in the chip-driven world of the 21st century. Rapid innovation within the sector over the past 40 years has seen IT functionality increase beyond recognition, and indeed inversely to the size of computing devices. This trend has been ongoing throughout the last decade, evidenced by the decline of the clunky desktop PC, which has lost market share to streamlined laptops, even smaller notebooks, and now flat-screen tablets and hand-held smartphones. Arguably, mobile device users now possess more computing power in one hand than their grandparents had access to in an entire city.
The advent of broadband and development of the mobile internet has proved to be a major game-changer for the IT industry as a whole, and not least for the world of business. As mobile devices have adopted more of the features associated with home computers, all constraining geographical ties with fixed technology have been broken. Wi-Fi and the development of 3G networks means the internet is all around us, and device manufacturers fully understand the opportunities this affords to gain leverage.
In the rapidly-evolving 24/7 world of today, businesspeople need round-the-clock access to web services, work applications, email inboxes and chat regardless of their location. Mobile devices allow professional people to work on the go, whether they are on a plane or train, in a hotel room, or waiting to enter a business meeting. Away from corporate Britain, consumers love nothing more than to update their Facebook accounts, download music and check the football scores at their time of pleasing. Whether they are on public transport, sat in the dentist's waiting room or stood in the school yard – internet connectivity is the golden word.
With a smartphone, consumers have immediate access to information, and control over their non-immediate environment that they could never have dreamed off – it is an obvious appeal. Manufacturers realise this, and hence they are working overtime to meet product and service demand. IDC recently reported that 300,000 new mobile applications have been created in the last three years alone, and predicted the continuation of this trend as the industry gains maturity. Over the coming months and years, the firm expects apps to find their way beyond smartphones and tablets to other devices, such as web-connected televisions.
IDC forecast that 10.9 billion apps will have been downloaded by the end of this year, rising to an incredible 76.9 billion by 2014 – generating revenues of £22 billion. Scott Ellison, vice-president of mobile and wireless research at the firm, claimed that developers "will 'appify' just about every interaction you can think of in your physical and digital worlds". He added: "The extension of mobile apps to every aspect of our personal and business lives will be one of the hallmarks of the new decade with enormous opportunities for virtually every business sector."
Fellow IT analyst Gartner broadly agrees with this market projection, predicting a 117 per cent increase in the number of mobile downloads this year. The firm claimed the industry, one that launched as recently as July 2008, would be worth £9.5 billion to the global economy over the next 12 months. And according to research director Stephanie Baghdassarian, this is not a frenzy which is likely to pass. In his view, there is "a sizeable opportunity" for mobile application stores in the future, as more businesspeople and consumers purchase devices.
A study conducted in January 2011 by In-Stat highlighted the level of demand currently being seen for smartphones, with the analyst suggesting they will account for half of all mobile purchases made during 2012. The firm predicted 850 million shipments for 2015, with sales then bursting through the magical one billion barrier. Demand for new online services is driving frantic innovation, and the increased functionality of mobile devices which follows is encouraging more and more consumers to join the revolution. Clearly this is a profitable cycle for manufacturers with a foothold in this burgeoning market.
But are there any obstacles to this flying juggernaut – any potential constraints on the growth of the mobile IT sector? Perhaps one or two. The ongoing economic uncertainty is limiting many people's disposable income, and consumer confidence remains low more than a year after the recession ended. But vendors have worked around this by providing low price entry points in the market, with some offering smartphones as part of monthly subscription deals to spread the cost. Top-end devices may represent a significant customer investment, but make no mistake, this is not like buying a house.
In terms of web access, internet service providers have issued frequent warnings over the prospect of saturated networks. In the UK this could prove problematic, particularly with Ofcom dragging its feet over the auction of additional spectrum, delaying the launch of long-term evolution (LTE) technology. Despite the launch of 4G networks in the US and Japan to alleviate pressures on mobile broadband services, it could be 2014 before LTE is introduced on domestic shores. Demand for mobile data is insatiable, and whether ISPs can continue to provide mobile internet services at current pricing levels – at least in the short-term – is debatable.
Concerns have also been raised over smartphone security, particularly in the business context. Heather Mclean, editor at Mobile Business, has highlighted the issue of employees bringing their own personal devices into work, blurring the boundaries between consumer and business IT. With this increasingly common, she suggested that employers may struggle to monitor the data that is uploaded and shared on in-house systems. Echoing these sentiments, Paul Allen, editor at Computeractive, drew attention to the increased virus and malware risks associated with mobile device use.
The European Network and Information Security Agency recently warned of a number of security risks affecting smartphone users, including spyware, poor data cleansing, accidental data leakage, and unauthorised premium-rate phone calls and text messages. Such comments are likely to be of interest to consumers, but it is doubtful whether they will have any real impact on mobile adoption rates.
An awareness of security issues should simply persuade users to take the steps necessary to safeguard their life-organisers – which is in itself a positive development. With the benefits of smartphones widely appreciated, and increasingly apparent as innovation continues, the perceived benefits are seen to far outweigh the negatives. Having held the world of IT in their hands, and had the power of the internet at their fingertips, there really is no turning back for UK consumers.
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