These emerging technologies will make mobile wireless the dominant personal computing platform of the future.
Change-Agent-in-Chief Vivek Kundra got flak earlier this year when he suggested giving government workers a $2,000 stipend to buy mobile devices for combined professional and personal use. Critics slammed the federal CIO for glossing over significant IT management, privacy and security problems — not to mention a questionable return on investment for the cash-strapped government.
Although the details were fuzzy, many experts believe Kundra is spot-on about the big picture when he called traditional desktop computers the old world and said the new world will be a virtual platform that relies on highly portable devices, such as smart phones and tablet PCs.
That raises the question: Will aggressive innovation by mobile-technology vendors in the next several years relegate desktop PCs to niche roles? In short, could mobile devices become the new mainstream personal computing platform, with or without federal subsidies?
You don’t have to peer far into the future to see that happening. Nearly 90 percent of the IT managers surveyed recently by InformationWeek said mobile devices, including smart phones, will represent a growing share of user devices in their organizations in the next two years.
Federal agencies are among those seeing that trend.
“It’s already the case that if you are building a health care app, you absolutely have to think about mobile from the beginning,” said Todd Park, chief technology officer at the Health and Human Services Department. “Talking about mobile as something special or something separate just seems goofy.”
But as the skepticism over Kundra’s idea shows, there’s a gap between rosy visions and hard realities. The challenge is to make mobile devices easy, reliable and secure enough that they live up to their potential to increase productivity. And if some employees use their portable devices for both their work and personal lives, as Kundra suggests many will, the challenges become even trickier.
Much work remains to be done. After all, it took the desktop PC the better part of two decades to become the indispensable computing centerpiece it is now, and it still remains a work — and pain — in progress.
Everyday mobile computing for the workplace and elsewhere will rest on a foundation of multiple, interdependent technology pieces — some built and managed by agency IT departments, others delivered as services by third-party providers. Many of those pieces are far from mature. But the outlines for the eventual solutions have taken shape, and the development work has begun.
Here are what the most important pieces will probably look like and what will need to happen in the next few years to get them into place.
Puzzle piece: Mobile desktops
The vision: Instead of loading stand-alone applications and data onto smart phones and tablet or laptop PCs, agencies will use the mobile devices as portals to resources housed in internal data centers or cloud services. As a result, workers will be unchained from assigned desks and hard-wired computers, and IT managers will gain greater management control over software, information and security policies on the mobile devices.
The reality: The public-sector push to private clouds is putting IT departments on track to deliver on-demand services — a change from the need to maintain hundreds or thousands of desktop PCs that stood as tiny islands of automation and potential unlocked doors for hackers. In addition, server virtualization, which is a critical component of data center consolidation initiatives, provides an introduction to desktop virtualization, which can allow for greater control of mobile devices.
What to consider: Some agency executives see a natural pairing of cloud technology and mobile applications. “If done right, this will absolutely unlock a huge amount of additional value in terms of what the government gets out of technology,” Park said.
For now, however, the marriage of cloud and mobile needs some help. Tablet PCs and smart phones running the Apple iOS or Google Android operating systems require a third-party application to run common business applications, such as the Microsoft Office suite. Cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) products avoid that issue by keeping software and data in a central location while workers use their mobile devices’ Web browser to manipulate the information. The problem is that work slows or comes to a standstill if network connections are strained.
Another option is desktop virtualization, commonly known in IT circles as virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). It can display an individual’s entire work environment on a mobile device while running the applications at a central location. VDI differs from SaaS by providing a single connection to all relevant applications owned and managed by the agency, not just to individual software subscriptions.
A number of VDI clients are available, including Citrix Systems’ Receiver, VMware’s View and Wyse Technology’s PocketCloud. Although the clients can display Microsoft Office and other business applications on portable devices, IT managers might need to tailor the look and feel of the programs so that they work well in smaller mobile formats.
VDI technology can also help agencies bring proprietary applications into the mobile era by using software wrappers that allow devices to interact with the programs running at data centers. Examples include Citrix’s XenApp, Microsoft’s Application Virtualization and VMware’s ThinApp.
“Based on the pilots that we are doing now and the conversations that we are having with customers, we will see a mass transition to the virtual desktop infrastructure,” said Chris Knotts, vice president of technology and innovation at IT consulting firm Force 3.
What's the downside? As with SaaS, workers aren’t able to access the virtualized environment when a network connection isn’t available.
To get around that problem, Citrix, VMware, Open Kernel Labs and other virtualization companies are developing new types of hypervisors, the main command-and-control module in virtualization environments. Sometimes called microvisors, these mobile equivalents create separate pairings of an operating system and applications — known as virtual machines — that run directly on mobile devices. If a connection to the data center fails, people can continue working and sync up file changes when they reconnect to the data center or cloud service.
For now, those options are available for only a handful of mobile hardware/software combinations.
Puzzle piece: The new personal computer
The vision: Tomorrow’s super-powered, untethered hardware — including multiprocessor smart phones, tablets and netbooks — will replace traditional PCs for all but a few power users who require maximum processing horsepower right there on their desktop.
The reality: Today’s tricked-out smart phones come with dual-core processors, and quad-core models are expected by the end of the year. MicroSD chips carry 32M or more of memory. When those features are coupled with advancements in operating systems, smart phones and tablet PCs could become viable desktop replacements.
“People may not be running Photoshop on a 4-inch cellular phone screen [now], but in five years, the phones could be powerful enough to do so,” said Alan Reiter, president of consulting firm Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing.
Nevertheless, nagging limitations remain. The space constraints of mobile device displays and tiny or screen-based keyboards reduce productivity for many common work tasks.
What to consider: In the coming years, the choices for docking stations for mobile devices will grow. An early example is Motorola’s recently introduced platform for its Atrix Android smart phone. The phone will provide the processing muscle while the docking station will offer a large screen, keyboard, and USB slots for mice and other peripherals so users can have all the benefits of a laptop PC.
Motorola might have gained an early lead in this category, but vendor-agnostic docking stations could ultimately win out.
“Personally, I would move away from proprietary devices, and I think most folks will tend to go in that direction,” Knotts said.
Puzzle piece: Data management and security
The vision: Advanced mobile management tools will make it easier to synchronize data between mobile devices and data centers and make it possible to draw clear separations between business and personal information stored on devices.
The reality: Data synchronization options are available today with commercial products — such as Google Docs, Dropbox and Box.net — that create cloud-based central folders for storing files accessible by mobile and desktop PCs. However, vendors are still in the early stages of introducing products that allow devices to safely double for work and personal use without exposing sensitive agency information or an individual’s personal data.
What to consider: As described above, mobile hypervisors are one answer to the information-separation challenge. IT managers can create separate professional and personal virtual machines that maintain different contact lists, documents, Web links and other data. In addition to maintaining distinct user profiles, virtualization also enhances security by keeping applications on one virtual machine from accessing — or potentially infecting — data on a companion virtual machine.
An option that veers from the virtualization path is Enterproid’s Divide software, now in beta for Android smart phones. It creates a walled-off business environment using proprietary Android applications for e-mail, contacts, calendars and tasks. Additional security controls restrict the business applications from exchanging data with applications outside the so-called sandbox.
Puzzle piece: Ubiquitous wireless networks
The vision: Next-generation cellular and Wi-Fi networks will enable wireless connectivity almost everywhere and at data throughput rates that are equivalent to the fastest wired networks.
The reality: Next-generation Long Term Evolution and WiMax — and subsequently LTE Advanced and WiMax 2 — will continue to raise the performance bar for wireless networks. But speed isn’t enough. Service providers are struggling with the more fundamental problem of limited spectrum availability. The solution to that problem will rely on new and creative ways for service providers and enterprises to incorporate Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies in a bandwidth mix that can handle both voice and data traffic.
What to consider: Steps are already being proposed to reduce agencies’ dependency on cellular networks. Late last year, a group of senators introduced the Federal Wi-Net Act, which calls for the General Services Administration to significantly bolster wireless capabilities at federal buildings in the next two years. The plan includes using Wi-Fi wherever possible and installing emerging femtocell technology. Similar in concept to Wi-Fi hot spots, femtocell base stations can link cellular-enabled mobile devices to commercial networks for voice and data traffic.
If the federal government does push femtocells in the near term, it will be ahead of many private enterprises, which haven’t committed to the technology in a big way yet, said Aditya Kaul, mobile networks practice director at ABI Research.
But that could change in the next five years. “Femtocells are cost-effective, easy-to-deploy solutions [that] require little or no maintenance from the IT team,” Kaul said.
Service providers are testing higher-capacity, enterprise-grade femtocells for voice coverage and improved 3G and 4G data capacity indoors. Agency IT managers will have to decide if they need femtocells in addition to increased Wi-Fi capacity to meet the data and voice needs of smart-phone users, Kaul said.
Puzzle piece: Unified communications
The vision: In addition to providing multiple ways to communicate — including voice, instant messaging, e-mail, and Web and videoconferencing — mobile devices will provide seamless interfaces so users can move from a phone call to a video chat and Web conference without hanging up and reconnecting. Meanwhile, the network transport on that single call could switch without interruption from an in-office wireless local-area network or Wi-Fi hot spot to a cellular network by searching for the most efficient and cost-effective path available.
The reality: Although all the individual channels are available on wireless devices, the underlying technology for unifying them into a seamless whole remains immature in the mobile world. The same goes for bridging Wi-Fi to cellular and voice and data networks in a seamless manner. Some vendors have made progress with forwarding voice-mail messages to e-mail accounts or vice versa, but unified communications is a more complex integration of multiple network transport types and communication channels in real time.
What to consider: Interest is high in mobile unified communications, with ABI Research forecasting compound annual growth rates of more than 30 percent through 2016, spurred in part by the growing use of tablet PCs.
But agencies will face new security and administration challenges when managing a mobile enterprise that extends beyond enterprise firewalls, said Subha Rama, a senior analyst at ABI Research.
Agency CIOs might be able to escape some of those challenges by using one of the cloud-based services that cellular providers are introducing. In the coming weeks, Verizon is scheduled to launch a unified communications service whose beta testers include Virginia. The cloud service uses technology from Cisco Systems, one of the competitors in the wired unified communications market and maker of the Cius tablet PC, a device designed for business users that Verizon will sell.
But some observers still see obstacles.
“Mobile [unified communications] is something that a lot of folks have had on their radar screens for quite some time,” said William Stofega, program director of mobile device technology and trends at market researcher IDC. “But to take what’s on my desktop and replicate it on my mobile device — we’re still not there yet.”
Mobile apps that support agency missions
The mobile applications of the future won’t all be about word-processing documents and spreadsheet files. Federal agencies are also contemplating ways the devices could be used for mission-specific applications.
For example, the U.S. Geological Survey is in the early stages of developing an iPhone app that would use the device’s built-in geospatial capabilities to help gather scientific data. The plan is to widely distribute the program so that when people see an endangered animal, they can use their phones to take a photograph and send it, along with the animal’s Global Positioning System location, to scientists who are monitoring endangered populations, said William Corrington, chief technology officer at the Interior Department.
HHS officials foresee mobile applications that help individuals better manage chronic diseases and overall health. Such apps could make patient information “liquid rather than frozen” in manila folders stored at physician offices, said Todd Park, HHS' CTO.
“Patient health information not only has to be turned electronic, but the electrons have to be able to go wherever the patient goes,” he said.
In addition to providing access to electronic medical records, the apps could alert patients when it’s time to schedule an office visit, remind them to take medications, or, for diabetics, automatically report glucose levels to health care providers.