The Internet: Is Mobility a Power or a Danger?

By Russ McGuire

Remember the mid-1990s? This thing happened called the Internet. Yeah, we technologists know the Internet didn’t happen in the 1990s, it had already been happening in the 1970s and the 1980s, but it really happened in our business about a decade ago.

Depending on your corporate culture, the nature of your business and workforce, and what side of the bed you woke up on that day, when you saw the Internet wave about to hit the shores of your business infrastructure, you either said, “Oh wow!” or, “Oh no!”

For the very few of you who said “Oh wow,” the Internet was all about the unleashing of power. The Web represented a universal client that could be used for unifying access to the business’ core applications. As Internet access became ubiquitous—with everyone having it at home and it showing up in hotels and convention centers (and even coffee shops!), you could connect your employees into the business wherever they could plug in. The Internet’s connectionless model enabled emerging communications tools such as instant messaging, intranets, extranets and a multitude of future ways of collaborating, sharing information, and improving communications. And, oh yeah, the Internet would be a great way to commoditize telecom bandwidth.

For the rest—almost everyone—in the “Oh no!” camp, you saw the incredible dangers that the Internet represented to your business. As departments within your company started connecting systems to the Internet, they were opening up holes for hackers to break into your critical operations. As users browsed the Web or opened e-mail attachments, they unleashed viruses that quickly spread across the enterprise. As employees could get to anything on the Net—they did—sapping productivity and potentially opening the business up to lawsuits. As users increasingly moved out of the four walls of your business buildings, they still expected “desktop” support, stretching your already thin resources. And the demand for precious budget dollars to buy, implement and support rapidly expanding Internet pipes, Web servers and content servers of every flavor, firewalls, anti-virus-spam-spyware software continued to grow, even as IT budgets were shrinking.

Whatever your perspective, the reality is that the Internet has been a huge focus for all of us for the past decade—both in capturing the power of the Internet and managing the danger. But guess what: That’s nothing new. We jumped through the same hoops from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s as our businesses adopted the PC, moving computing power out of the safe, yet-constrained environment of the datacenter onto virtually every employee’s desktop. We spent a decade running to catch the power of the PC to create competitive advantage for our company while wrestling to bring the dangers of the PC under control. That’s our job. It’s what we do, and we’re good at it. So get ready, it’s all about to happen again. The Age of Mobility The PC age was simply the result of a fundamental economic reality. Long ago, Intel founder Gordon Moore made a pretty simple observation. He said something like, “Every couple of years we can squeeze twice as many transistors onto the chips we’re making.” Moore’s Law, as we know it, wasn’t some deep scientific fact uncovered through complex mathematical proofs, it was a simple observation of a clear reality. And yet, the implications are huge.

Moore’s Law also implies that the cost of computing power is regularly being cut in half. That means that we (industry) could afford to use computing power in new places and for new applications that we couldn’t previously imagine. In the mid-1980s, it meant that we could financially justify putting a PC on each knowledge worker’s desk. Today, it means that we can put a microprocessor in our car key and in the light switch on the wall, and soon will put an RFID tag on every product sold at our local Wal-Mart.

The Internet age was the result of a different economic reality.

Long ago, Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe made the simple observation. He said something like, “The more people that join a network, the more valuable the network is to all the participants.” Again, no deep scientific thesis here, but a simple observation with huge implications.

Metcalfe’s Law basically pointed to the fact that, if a network ever reached a threshold of a certain number of users, then it would become so valuable that everyone would need to become part of the network. That happened ten years ago and we’ve been feeling it ever since.

To get a sense of what comes next, let me make a simple observation: “A product is more valuable the more you can use it.” I call this the Law of Mobility because if mobility gets built into a product, then you’ll have it with you available for use all the time. Think about the BlackBerry. Think about a cameraphone. Neither one is valuable because it’s a more feature-rich, higher-quality version of their less-mobile cousins—they are valuable because you always have them and can use them anytime, anywhere.

This simple observation has significant implications for all of us. As the cost of adding mobility into products falls precipitously, mobility is rapidly being built into everything—and all of it is ending up on your network. (Keep up with the latest at

What are you doing to capture this power of mobility and how are you managing the emerging dangers?

Capturing the Power

I think I can summarize the power of mobility down to two words: “Here” and “Now.” How much is the value created by our business for our customers constrained because something isn’t “here” and it isn’t available “now”? Mobility creates power and value by eliminating those constraints. I recently shared this simple observation with one of Sprint’s large customers. Their response was spot on: “So, it’s all about the Law of Mobility. How do we increase the value of our product by taking things that were fixed and making them mobile?” For this customer, their “product” is actually a service, and they are now working to unlock information, systems, capabilities, etc. from being tied to a specific location and instead able to move to where that component of their “product” can best serve the customer. Solving the “here” problem will unleash tremendous power and will clearly differentiate this business in the eyes of their customers.

Another customer recently explained that his business suffers when he can’t get information in time to meet his customers’ needs. The right update might be waiting for him when he gets back to his desk, but by then, it’s too late. The wrong part has been shipped, or not shipped at all. The wrong service was performed or in the wrong way. If this business can use mobility to solve the “now” problem, they too will unleash tremendous power and rise above the shoddy service expectations that have been set in their industry.

So what does this mean for IT? Unfortunately, it probably means increased spending with unclear paybacks, but what else is new? The above examples are intentionally vague and may not even relate to the opportunities to unleash the power of mobility in your business, but it probably comes down to investing in the right mobile devices, the right applications and the right mobile services to overcome the “here” and “now” constraints that have been plaguing your company.

Managing the Danger

Although I’m sure that many new dangers will emerge as we move into the mobility age, we can already guess at some of the big ones. The security of data (especially when a mobile device is lost or stolen), the threat of viruses, the challenge of supporting mobile users and the complexity of managing a portfolio of applications on multiple device types (many owned by end users) across diverse networks (most outside IT’s control).

As with many IT management challenges, there are at least three ways to deal with these dangers: Ignore them (not recommended), outsource the management or become an expert and invest in the tools. Both tools and managed services are available to address virtually all of the known dangers of mobility and I’m sure savvy businesses will continue to introduce offers as new threats emerge.

“Oh wow?” or “Oh no?”

In retrospect, I think most of us relate to the “Oh wow!” or “Oh no!” positioning based on how prepared we were when the Internet question was raised by our CEO or by some overly-hip board member. If we were already thinking about the Internet, both in terms of the power it could unleash or the danger it could impose on our business, then we were ready for the call and could confidently respond with, “Oh wow! Look what the Internet can do for us!” If we weren’t ready then all we could do is say, “Oh no! Look what the Internet can do to us!”

How will you respond when your CEO calls asking what you’re doing about mobility?

Russ McGuire is a leading strategist and visionary in the telecom industry. He is director of business strategy for Sprint. His experience includes 20 years in the telecom industry as well as experience in the defense and nuclear power industries.

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