Mobile Computing: The future of field productivity

Mobile computing’s business implications

Over the past decade or so, mobile computing has become virtually ubiquitous, with smartphones, tablets, laptops and wearables having gone from novel devices to part of the everyday landscape. 

Yet many businesses have still been reluctant with regards to making these powerful, connected devices part of their daily operations. 

But while there are valid concerns when it comes to putting business-connected mobile computing devices – and all the inter-connected opportunities and pitfalls they bring – into the hands of employees, the fact is companies that aren’t utilising the potential they bring are falling behind. 

Because these small, portable, affordable devices offer unparalleled opportunities for businesses to improve their communication, training and overall efficiency.  

What’s more, there is still vast room for growth in what is a relatively young industry. 

When, for example, you look at the difference between the inaugural model of iPhone compared to the present iterations, you can see how fast this technology is moving. 

Mobile computing has a huge role to play in the future, which means you need to make it part of your present. 

What is mobile computing? 

In a nutshell, mobile computing is the ability to communicate – whether via voice, video or the possibilities presented by the internet, such as text and data exchange – without needing a fixed, static point to access power or the internet. 

While the history of mobile computing arguably began with Guglielmo Marconi’s creation of the radio in the late 19th Century, mobile computing as we know it today dates back to 1973, when Motorola employee Martin Cooper used a mobile phone to made a call. 

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the technology truly took off, with exponential growth coming into effect following the 2007 introduction of the smartphone, which saw the number of mobile devices in the world overtake the number of people in 2014

This is illustrative of why mobile computing is essential: it is the ultimate connector of human beings, with mobile devices reaching saturation point across the globe, in both developed and developing nations. 

What’s more, mobile computing gives anyone who has access to a device an easy, affordable way of connecting to the internet and all the wisdom and insight it offers. 

Mobile computing definition 

Mobile computing is the ability to transmit various forms of data – including voice, video, images and websites – using a device that can move around with its user; there is no need for a permanent, fixed link for the device to function. 

Mobile computing vs wireless networks 

With both mobile and wireless technology prevalent in modern society, these two terms have become virtually interchangeable – however, there is an important distinction between the two. 

So, what’s the difference between mobile and wireless? 

Mobile devices can be taken virtually anywhere and still be effective – which means they have both an internal power source (generally a battery) and the ability to send and receive data through a cellular network. 

By comparison, wireless networks offer internet connectivity with limitations based on how close the device is to a wireless router – you can’t, for example, connect to your home WiFi network when you’re at your place of work. 

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the difference is to compare a smartphone’s capabilities when it does vs when it does not have a SIM card installed.  

If your phone has had its SIM removed, it will still be able to connect to the internet, but will require a local WiFi network to do so. By comparison, when your phone has a functioning SIM card inserted, you can access the internet regardless of whether you are connected to a WiFi network.  

Local Area Network vs Wide Area Network 

A Local Area Network (LAN) is a group of connected devices that create a small network – for example, the devices that are connected within your home or business. Due to the relatively small size of the network, a LAN offers high-speed connectivity, stronger security, and is relatively cheap to install and maintain.  

A Wide Area Network (WAN) is a much larger group of connected devices – offering connectivity across cities, states and even between different countries – such as the internet itself. The drawback of this large network is that it is slower than a LAN and tends to be less secure, however it offers far greater coverage. 

Business implications of mobile computing 

One of the main reasons mobile computing is critical to the success of an organisation is that it means employees are almost always contactable. 

Should there be a hold-up in supply, a change in plans or an urgent issue that needs to be addressed, a team that is connected via mobile will be contactable – regardless of whether they are in a WiFi zone or have access to a landline. 

And the fact is, our inter-connected society has created an ‘always on’ culture. Conveniences such as on-demand entertainment, transport, hospitality and shopping have become standard, and this has fuelled expectations that the standard consumer will be able to request goods and services – or change an existing order – in real time. 

Within the business itself, mobile computing allows ease of communication in case an unexpected issue arise. For example, should an electrical team come in contact with a piping issue and require the structural or pipe engineering expertise, mobile computing means a request can be made on the spot, minimising downtime.

Finally, with cloud computing having emerged as the next major step forward, the relatively slow connection mobile computing can offer is now far less of an issue. Thanks to the huge levels of data that can be stored and processed on the cloud, companies can give employees secure access to vital information in real time, using the most basic of mobile devices. 

Examples per industry 

Oil and Gas 

Oil and gas is one of the world’s most de-centralised industries, with companies generally operating at multiple locations dotted around the world. 

With this being the case, the ability to access a central database of – often sensitive or proprietary – information is vital for fast, efficient and profitable workflows. 

“Remote working is now the norm for many oil and gas company principles, either working from multiple offices, home or on the road,” Progressive, a finance and IT consultancy dedicated to the oil and gas industry, have noted.  

“Having the entire company network at your fingertips is the difference between feeling connected and feeling slightly out of touch. The ability to access files securely on the fly through any internet enabled device is a huge benefit to transient oil and gas staff.” 

Pharmaceutical 

Jokes about healthcare workers’ poor handwriting are set to soon be a thing of the past, with QR (Quick Response) codes becoming more and more common in hospitals, surgeries and pharmacies. 

A recent study had patients in a hospital all given a unique QR code by which they could be identified. The result found the codes to be “the most practical, cost-efficient alternative method of automation of patient authentication capabilities in public healthcare facilities with limited budgets”.  

Basically, anyone working in the hospital was able to produce their mobile device, scan the code, and immediately access a patient’s medical history. There was no need to waste time typing a name or possibly getting the spelling wrong. 

In an industry where the difference between life and death can be literally a matter of seconds, simple, affordable mobile computing solutions are set to substantially improve levels of care. 

As a result, the efficiency that is so vital to modern healthcare is right there to ensure a clear message can be conveyed in a matter of seconds, which ensures proper care is given throughout a patient’s time in hospital. 

AEC Building Infrastructure 

While architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) are closely interlinked, and the data they use to do their various roles tends to be the same across a single project, the same data points can have vastly different implications depending on which industry is using it. 

What’s more, with building infrastructure also including various industries that are involved after the construction process is complete – think building management, waste disposal and environmental sustainability – sharing data is becoming paramount in this industry. 

So what’s the best way to get this data to the right people? A 2013 study found that “Cloud Computing platforms provide a more efficient and robust mechanism for individuals within the AEC industry to collaborate and share data.” 

And the best way to ensure this data is uploaded to the cloud and can be accessed – particularly when on a building site, when WiFi and LAN tends to be rare – is mobile computing. 

Power 

The power industry is becoming increasingly fractured, as the sources of energy expand beyond non-renewable sources.  

In fact, according to the Australian Government’s Department of Environment and Energy, “As at 31 December 2018 there are more than 3.17 million small-scale renewable installations in Australia, including more than 1.15 million solar and heat pump water heaters, more than 2 million rooftop solar power systems, 423 wind systems and 18 hydro systems.” 

This is all data that needs to be kept track of, particularly as the number of people who have a smart meter – which provides detailed insights to consumers on a regular basis – continues to increase. 

It all means that workers in the power industry need fast, reliable access to data and information about the grid or a given customer’s use. Mobile computing can ensure it’s always a few taps away. 

Manufacturing 

Mobile computing is a vital aspect of modern manufacturing, with increasing reliance on automation and collaboration in design. 

And far from leading to a lack of employment, The American Enterprise Institute recently found that firms that are increasing their technological input have both incomes and employment levels that are “rising faster than in those that use less”.  

“For many manufacturing sectors, the problem is not too much technology, but too little,” the paper read. 

What’s more, the authors cited a study which found increased collaboration in the supply chain sees problems solved twice as fast, while the ability to keep close track of the manufacturing process improves overall efficiency. 

Overall, by supplying your employees with mobile computing devices, you are empowering them to solve problems faster and improve supply chains. 

Setting it up right: Mobile computing architecture 

The three most important aspects of mobile computing architecture are scalability, security and reliability. 

The scalability factor means strong mobile computing architecture means it should be fit for purpose whether it is being used by a sole trader or a multinational corporation. Furthermore, it means that should a business begin to grow or scale down, mobile computing can shift in scalability with relative ease, meaning it stays relevant throughout the business journey. 

The security factor is, really, a prominent feature in any architecture – whether it’s for a building or a computing network. In the case of mobile computing, security is largely taken care of by encrypting the data that is being transmitted. Strong encryption ensures that a user can feel confident they are sending and receiving data that is reliable and trustworthy. 

The reliability factor is arguably the most important of all – simply put, if you can’t depend on your technology to work effectively when you require it to, you won’t use it.  

Most mobile computing database issues stem from inadequate architecture surrounding one or more of these three factors. 

Architecture tiers in Mobile Computing

The following three-tier system of mobile computing architecture is favoured in mobile computing, as it allows updates of a single tier independent of the others. 

Presentation tier 

The ‘front end’, this is the tier the consumer sees and interacts with – such as an app or website. It is generally designed as a graphical interface, which makes it easy for the standard layperson to understand and use. 

Application tier 

The ‘middle person’ in the equation, the software in this tier takes the information that has been input at the presentation tier, processes it, and makes a decision as to what information is required to fulfil the request, and where to get this data from.  

Data tier 

The ‘knowledge bank’, this tier is where the necessary information required to fulfil a request resides – be it in a physical server, the cloud, or a simple text file.  

Why information management and database governance are critical to success

Information management and data governance are crucial to getting the most out of mobile computing. 

While just about every industry in the world is making gradual improvements all the time, the world of IT is making leaps and bounds at an unprecedented rate. With this being the case, constant management is necessary if your systems are to keep up with best practice. 

Management also helps to ensure that the most important information is easily accessible. By tracking what data is being accessed most frequently, versus that which is rarely called upon, the most important and commonly used data can be stored in a fashion that makes it easy to call upon.  

Mobile computing devices & solutions 

We’ve obviously come a long way since the ‘brick’ used to make the first mobile phone call all the way back in the ‘70s, with the modern smartphone packing more powerful than the computers NASA used on the Mars Curiosity Rover

However, mobile computing is about so much more than just mobile phones, with a range of devices running an ever-growing array of software that have real-world applications to work situations. 

Devices – Hardware 

Mobile computing is used in everyday portable devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptop and computers, as well as in the growing field of wearables. 

Wearables hold the key to upskilling the workforce through on-the-job training. Augmented and Virtual Reality allow green or veteran workers to practice maintenance or construction tasks in a simulated environment to improve their productivity and efficiency in the real world.

Looking into the future, while devices such as Google Glass and Snapchat Spectacles may have been a failure, there is still every indication that virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are going to be integrated into the plant lifecycle. The future may even involve a remote workforce instructing robots via virtual reality.

Solutions – Software & Applications 

As evidenced by the success of online education platforms such as Khan Academy, as well as universities increasing their podcast and video recording offerings, the future of training and education is going to have a strong pre-recorded component. 

This has very real time and money-saving implications in the workforce. Rather than having to train individuals to do the same job each time a new person is employed, apps and even videos uploaded to YouTube can be accessed to teach the necessary skills. What’s more, by accessing these learning tools using mobile technology, the learning can be done on-the-job, in real time, making it all the more effective. 

On-the-job applications are set to become even more integrated as AI becomes more common. For example, an experienced engineer may need a refresher on how to repair a piece of machinery. But rather than have to read an entire manual, they could use an AI-enabled camera up to the machinery in question, and using industry-specific software, the device could show the engineer the next required step in the process. This evolution is part of a paradigm called enterprise mobility management, or connected worker.

Finally, in an era of amazing apps and snappy software, there’s a lot to be said for simple, person-to-person communication. If someone is facing an issue over which they are uncertain, need to update an order, or are simply running late, mobile computing allows for quick, easy communication via text message or phone call.  

Security & compliance 

Unfortunately, any tool can be used as a tool, and that’s certainly the case with mobile computing. 

Mobile computing security issues are the primary way that a company can have issues after employing this technology. 

The good news, however, is that there are simple steps to follow that will help ensure mobile computing remains a force for good in your operations. 

Threats & consequences 

One of the main threats of an attack is loss of data – a hacker managing to gain access to the private and proprietary information, or even financial details, that are found on your company’s mobile devices.  

The consequence of a data loss could be a competitor then being able to use your information. The manufacturing process that makes your company more efficient and therefore cheaper and more attractive to consumers could be accessed and shared among your competitors, removing your competitive advantage. 

Another threat is that of identity theft. With mobile devices being so affordable, they tend to be used by a single user, which results in personal information slowly storing up, This information can then be stolen and used by a hacker. 

The result of identity theft can be to request and gain access to personal accounts – both financial and other, such as social media – and take money, commit embarrassing or potential illegal acts, or use company funds to purchase items.  

Finally, there is the threat towards availability. This is a more specific attack, one that has consequences on individual devices, by shutting down a device or rendering it ineffective – for example, by uploading a program that quickly runs the battery down or one that can delete vital software. 

The result of such an attack is taking one of the most advantageous aspects of mobile computing – its ability to be used at virtually any place and any time – and destroying it. It essentially turns a highly advanced piece of technology into a plastic rock. 

With all of these attacks, along with the financial cost of replacing or fixing the phone is the time cost, as a new device is brought up to speed. 

Attack Types 

Attack via communication 

These are the kind of attacks many people deal with almost on a daily basis, in the form of emails from complete strangers – containing attachments – that arrive in your email. 

The attachment, of course, has a virus within it, meaning if you open it the virus will install itself on your device and begin to play out its destructive pattern (which, generally speaking, includes trying to replicate itself by sending more emails featuring infected attachments).  

While email is the most common form of this at the moment, it can also be achieved via messaging systems or even via Bluetooth. 

Attack via software vulnerability 

Just as nothing in the real world is perfect, the digital world contains flaws as well – meaning that software has inherent vulnerabilities. 

Whether it’s your operating system, your web browser or even your word processor, all software contains a certain amount of bugs. Generally speaking, are discovered by the software creator and a ‘patch’ is sent out to fix the issue, but in the meantime, these bugs present flaws and therefore vulnerabilities in your computer’s software. 

Attack via hardware 

While batteries are critical to mobile devices, they also present a potential vulnerability by which your device can be attacked. Specifically, it’s been discovered that malicious software can be uploaded to a device via its charging port – which, usually, doubles as its data connection. 

Commonly referred to as ‘juice jacking’, a device can be infected through hardware by plugging it into a charger that contains a chip that then uploads malicious software into the device. 

Malicious Software 

Malicious software (malware) generally refers to either a worm, virus or Trojan. 

A worm is a piece of standalone software that can replicate itself and spread through system weaknesses or social engineering – such as ad for a fake prize on a website – to trick a person into opening it.  

A virus also spreads through system weaknesses, but requires a ‘host’ program upon which it inserts itself and operates in tandem with. As a result, a virus can lay dormant on a device until the host program is executed. 

Trojans take their name from the Wooden Horse of Troy – they appear to be a pleasant or at least innocuous, which sees them ‘invited’ on to a device (be that by clicking on a link or opening an attachment). However, once its gained access, the Trojan proceeds to infect the device.  

Countermeasure 

While there are plenty of ways for your security to be compromised, the good news most can be avoided with some simple, often common-sense-based actions. 

With regards to software vulnerabilities, the advice is pretty simple: stay on top of updates! It may sound obvious, but so many top companies fail to follow it. A prime example was the ‘Heartbleed’ virus of April 2014, which was global news, yet a year later it was discovered that 74% of Forbes Global 2000 companies had not taken the necessary steps to close vulnerabilities against the attack. Simple does not mean obvious – so stay on top of the basics! 

Battling hardware infection comes down to ensuring you don’t go plugging your device into unknown ports. This may mean – as it’s been reported the American NSA recommend of its agents – you always carry an extra AC adapter or purchase a power-only USB cord to ensure you can securely recharge, but this will certainly add peace of mind. 

By installing solid anti-virus software and firewalls – and, again, ensuring they are constantly updated – you can feel confident that your systems will be safe against malware. 

Finally, while devices continue to come with the prefix ‘smart’, the reality is that it’s only as clever as the person using it. With this in mind, robust training and well-established and monitored protocols can help to ensure that your workforce are keeping your operation safe and secure against potential attacks.  

Mobile Computing: Advantages vs Disadvantages 

Obviously, there are certain mobile computing challenges to be overcome if these devices are to be part of your operations. 

For starters, mobile devices represent a series of new potential gateways for malicious software and black-hat hackers to attack your business. However, all businesses that have any form of computer as part of their operations – whether it be heavily relied upon to organise day-to-day jobs or simply for word processing – is exposed to these risks. 

It’s a simple fact of business in the 21st Century – all computers are tremendously powerful tools, but that means they can be used against the business as well. That may offer cold comfort, however it’s the world we live in. 

But the very fact these devices are targeted at all is illustrative of how much they offer a business – after all, why would someone attack an aspect of your business that doesn’t matter? 

No, the reason anyone would look to exploit a mobile device is that they offer huge advances in vital aspects, such as intra-business contact, training and improving efficiency. And they do this with devices that are relatively cheap, easy to use, yet hugely powerful. 

What’s more, the benefits of mobile computing will only grow as both software and hardware continue to make advances, creating more specialised apps and software designed to solve problems in specific industries. 

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