The possibilities -- and limits -- of smart phones and tablets

New developments in mobile technologies almost always start with commercial users, then inevitably work their way into enterprise use. But how well can they be used on the job?

A panel of industry experts discussed the directions new mobile devices and services might take in government at the FOSE conference April 4 in Washington, separating what smart phones and tablets do well from where they still lag behind traditional PCs.

Mobile devices are often used to access essential services in both the commercial and public sectors, said David Metcalf, director of the Mixed Emerging Technology Integration Laboratory at the University of Central Florida. Certain aspects of mobile devices, such as games, can be applied to other areas, such as training in the public and private sectors, Metcalf said.

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The University of Central Florida participated in a leadership training project with Google that updated an existing training program by adding a competitive/gaming component to the training, he said. Before the addition of the gaming aspect, the course had a 30 percent participation rate. After the gaming feature was added, class participation and completion rates shot up to 90 percent.

Metcalf said educational material was the second most downloaded material, after games, for mobile users. There is also more intergenerational use of mobile devices, with parents handing smart phones to their children to view images or access services. The intuitive design of mobile devices is also very helpful for younger users, he said.

New and popular devices can have many effective applications, but their use may be limited to certain demographics, the panelists said.

One in five Americans owns a tablet computer such as an iPad or an e-reader such as a Kindle Fire, said Aaron Smith, a senior research specialist for the Pew Internet and American Life Project. But despite their growing popularity, Smith said he does not see tablets replacing smart phones. For the moment, they will remain more of a luxury used by primarily educated and professional individuals, he said.

Each device has a different use case, Metcalf said. At the moment, it is 30 percent slower to type on an iPad than on a laptop or desktop PC’s keyboard, he said. And it is 50 percent slower to type on a smart phone, he added.

So although mobile devices are very efficient in helping people consume information and services, they are not as helpful for information/content producers as laptops and desktops, he said. Because of these differences, users and organizations need multiple device strategies about when to use a certain type of device, he said.

Smart phones can ultimately be used for a variety of purposes beyond the obvious — for example, peripheral devices such as a digital stethoscopes and heart rate monitors, Metcalf said. Digital medical devices are very accurate in recording patient data, and smart phones can serve as communications hubs for these devices by connecting to local networks.
Smart-phone users also vary in how they access information and services between applications and websites, Smith said, adding that most users rarely use more than five applications regularly.

Demographically, younger users tend to use more apps, but these are in areas that are regularly referenced such as news, sports, weather and social media. “People want the information they want and they don’t want to wrestle with" the application or interface, Smith said.

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