Mobile forecast: Tablets take off, smartphones flat

Mobile will continue to be one of the strongest IT growth areas across government over the next few years, according to a study from IDC Government, though that growth will slow in some areas as device use reaches saturation levels. State and local governments will see some of the highest increases, as people who need to be in the field increase their use of smartphones and, particularly, tablets.

According to the IDC report, Business Strategy: Government Mobility Forecast, 2014-2017 — A Rising Tide of Devices and Services, there will also be an uptick in the services side of the business. Mobile vendors will look to expand their roles in the marketplace by providing expertise, consultation and best practices to government agencies, IDC said, as agencies try to figure out the best way to deploy mobile solutions, including the operation of app stores and access control.

Not surprisingly, IDC finds security has the biggest influence on the use of mobile in government, along with the need to develop mobile management approaches that cover the entire enterprise rather than separate areas of an organization.

But another major factor is the development of enterprise application platforms for mobile devices, said Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights.

“It may be that a mobile device is not capable of displaying all of the information you might get through a more traditional PC client solution or a Web interface,” he said. So agencies are looking to invest in a mobile app environment, which might include a mobile app store where employees can get government-specific apps and updates, he said.

The study also found other drivers, including the proliferation of enterprise wireless local area networks that allow devices to be used freely within buildings as well as over cellphone networks. And increasing interest in unified communications and collaboration across the enterprise is also fueling demand for mobile video on smartphones and tablets.

McCarthy doesn’t see bring your down device (BYOD) as a driver of mobile growth, because issues of access control and security are still limiting how people can use their own devices at work. Many government organizations now provide access to basic Internet and email services through these devices, he said, “but beyond that, things start to become more limited.”

While it’s growing, mobile still remains a fairly small part of government’s overall plans for IT, according to IDC. It makes up just 5 percent of the total 2014 hardware spend of $75.5 billion across all levels of government in the United States.

Although mobile spending will still be “robust” through 2017, the demand behind that spending is complex. Smartphone growth is expected to flatten over that period because, by then, most people will have a smartphone, but tablet use and demand will continue to grow strongly. The federal government will see a 12 percent combined annual growth rate (CAGR) in tablets of 12 percent, McCarthy said. State and local government spending will be even greater, with a 14.9 percent CAGR.

McCarthy said local governments will put more tablet-equipped workers in the community for social services or building and health inspections. “That kind of field work tends to be done at the local level, and those workers are the ones who are most likely to need a tablet to collect information on smart forms,” he said.

But tablets, according to McCarthy, have not yet displaced the desktop computer. That idea has  been a major part of the “post-PC” hype that has followed the evolution of smartphones and tablets over the past few years, at least in the public arena, but McCarthy doesn’t see that migration happening yet in government. So far, he said, tablets have been an addition to the PC.

That could change, he believes, as new form factors enter the PC market that combine both desktop and tablet functions, eliminating the need to buy two separate devices. But “we haven’t seen that take off yet and I’m not sure why,” he said. “Maybe it’s because of a lack of knowledge about these (hybrid) systems on the part of the government buyer, maybe it just doesn’t fit with regular replacement schedules yet.”

Among the potential barriers to overall mobile growth, McCarthy said, is government’s need to make a decision on the two or three devices it is willing to support.

Android is the most popular operating system right now, for example, but there are “a bunch of different variations of Android out there … and there’s no way any organization can test every one of these variations to make sure they are compatible and meet all security requirements.” he said. “So they’ve got to say that, in the future, they are going to limit the choice to just a few Android devices.”

That could prompt a slowdown in overall spending as government standardizes around those devices.

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