Do smart phones really provide productivity gains?

There was a time when all you could do with a phone is talk. Now, with the iPhone, the Blackberry Storm and Google's Android phones, the ability to talk seems to be a minor feature. Has feature creep eliminated the productivity gains in these devices? Or are they worth all the bells and whistles?

There was a time when all you could do with a phone was talk on it. Now, with the iPhone, the Blackberry Storm, and Google's Android phones, the ability to talk seems to be a minor feature. Has feature creep eliminated the productivity gains in these devices? Or are they worth all the bells and whistles?


The development of the cell phone freed many businesspeople from the office and gave them the ability to be in contact with customers, vendors, and employees no matter where they were. When PDAs came along, the ability to keep data on a portable device that would synchronize with documents, e-mails, and other information on a desktop became a necessity.

The trend accelerated. GPS devices shrunk to the size of handheld devices.

Thousands of songs or audio notes from meetings, which once resided on CDs or tapes, could be carried anywhere. Internet connectivity went from the desktop to the laptop to the handheld device. Eventually and obviously, all these discrete devices were going to meld themselves into one unit. Finally, what mobile workers wished for became reality. You can do it all, anywhere at any time. You never have to be away from your e-mail, buddy list, spreadsheets, or latest sports scores.

However, is that necessarily a good thing? The old saying warns, "Be careful what you wish for, because it might just come true." Is there a point where diminishing returns kick in, and if so, have we crossed it yet?

Crackberries, et al.

Two recent things have brought the question of the effectiveness of smart mobile devices back into focus. First, RIM has taken a square shot at the iPhone with the introduction of the Blackberry Storm. Even TechRepublic's Jason Hiner has labeled the Storm a potential iPhone killer, at least for the enterprise.

Second, one of the stories that made the rounds after the election of Barack Obama was that fact that that he'd have to give up his Blackberry due to presidential record-keeping rules, security concerns, and other things. News sites all over the world grabbed the suggestion to rehash old stories just to use the term "Crackberry."

However, much as a bad pun as it is, the term wasn't applied without merit. Devices such as the BlackBerry have an addictive quality. Of course, it's not limited to the Blackberry. Even the ability to text and send e-mail on a regular cell phone has all sorts of impacts on people. People can't have simple meals without reaching for the devices. The comic strip Joy Of Tech brought this into relief in a recent cartoon:

(They also made note of Obama's Blackberry and e-mail problem.)

What started off as a convenience over time turned into a necessity and for some people an obsession.

Raising expectations

And even if using mobile devices hasn't risen to that level for most people, the ability to be contactable anywhere at any time has created the expectation that you'll be contactable. How many times have you called a friend with a cell phone, wound up in voice mail, and thought to yourself "Why have a cell if you're not going to turn it on?"

Along with the expectation that you'll be contactable 24/7 is an added expectation by some employers that you're available for work, or at least consultation, 24/7 as well. Even workers who are not on call can be bothered at random and annoying times by bosses who think just because the worker has a mobile device, that means that he should be free to talk.

The cost of constant interruption

Because of the numbers of things the new devices can do, there's more of a chance that one of their many features will do something to interrupt or annoy us. Although the interruptions themselves may not take very long, there is a cost to all the start and stop. With an interrupted train of thought, or the anticipation of potential interruption, workers can't fully concentrate on the tasks at hand. As soon as they get on a roll, they stop what they're doing to pay attention to the machine. There is little time to focus on innovative work or dive deeply on an issue.

The cost of all this interruption adds up. According to the Business Research group Basex, the cost of constant interruptions adds up to almost $650 billion. That amount is attributed to the total cost of what they refer to as "Information Overload," including instant messages, e-mail, and so forth, so you can't pin the entire $650 billion to cell phones. Certainly, however, a decent amount of overload and interruptions come from mobile devices.

At some point, you cross the point of diminishing returns. I think for many people that point passed a long time ago. Certainly there are some individuals who need to be able to be contacted at any time. And there are those highly mobile workers who need to be able to connect from anywhere. But for the vast majority of people it seems to me that they're better suited to just leave the things off and/or change their expectations about technology.

Of course, it will take time for culture to catch up to technology in that regards.

So do smart phones really provide productivity gains?

What do you think? Do smart phones really provide productivity gains or are they mere distractions?


I sometimes think that most of the people talking about Smartphones need either a flip phone or candy bar and a netbook. I need a smartphone - a combination of a phone and a PDA so that I do not have to carry both. e-mail is nice, but I do not spend hours a day getting tendinitis in my thumbs. My need is for a phone, my contacts, my calender, Pocket Quicken. Too bad that I now have a Motorola Q9E with Windows Mobile 6.0 which does not use my notes and leaves out half the functionality that is in Pocket Quicken. Netbooks are cute, but I do not need one.


It's mostly an impedimate to productivity unless one is in tech support or sales.


Again. This is an important discussion that needs to take place. We need to be in control of the technology that we use to communicate with others. I have a smart phone, and it enhances my productivity. But then, I'm an uber geek, so maybe I am not typical. My wife finally upgraded and we now have identical smart phones. She loves it, it helps her/us be more coordinated and efficient. She is a soccer mom without the soccer. But there are rules that allow your communication device of convenience to help you, and not over power you. These rules are different for everyone, but the basics are the same. Rule 1. Define times that you will take calls from group X. This means that when my mother calls me during business hours, she gets voice mail. When my boss calls when I am off/vacationing/etc. He/She gets voice mail. This may be different from you, but having these rules, and following them sets up a pattern of availability that people will learn. Rule 2. Learn and use the features in you phone so help with recognition of who is calling in. I have groups of contacts setup with distinctive rings. Family is one, Work is another, and so forth. This means that I don't have to look to make the decision. I bet soon that I will be able to set these groups to go to voice mail automatically based on time preferences, or if my calendar says 'busy' or something. Rule 3. Within groups that you communicate with regularly, setup some protocals. In the earlier days of my cell phone usage, my wife and I had a plan. If she called once during work hours, she went to voice mail. But if she hung up and called right back, and I was not in a meeting, I would pick up. If I was in a meeting, I would still send it to voice mail, and I would tell people that I had an emergency and excuse myself and call back. (today, we just text, "Emergency") Setting up a protocol with your team, employees, family, etc helps people know that you care about their time and interruptions and are trying to avoid abusing them. A good things for managers to think about. Rule 4. Think about a choose the type of email connectivity that you want to have. I have chosen to use a manual pull, my wife polls every 5 minutes, and I know that the blackberry users can get it pushed to them with the RIM. But before you go here, think, "How often do I want to be notified that I have email when not at my desk?" If the answer is like mine, "I only what to get email when I actively check." Then set it up that way. If not, then set it up some other way. I get annoyed when I kept getting mail on the dingleberry during meetings. For that and other reasons I moved away from the blackberry device. But the point is, we have choices. I am sure there are others that have different interpretation or unique rules to prevent the convenience from becoming and annoyance, but these are mine.


You forgot the "real" smartphone in your abstract/intro, the Nokia N95 8GB.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

There are those that these really add the needed functionality, however, I think that many times it is over-used or a 'fad' item, rather than having any actual use. I have deployed many IPAQ devices, and some people really love them, while others it was forced on and they dont like it, while others want it just to want it, and still others have a need a few days a month, but not all of the time.

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

For many people, smart phones are essential, For others, they're just the latest gotta-have gadget. People justify a 'need' where there isn't one. The ubiquity of the machines increases the usage and interruptions in them. In Decision Central, I ask if there's a point of diminishing returns: I think at some point the constant hassle makes it hard to concentrate. And you can't always just turn them off because people 'expect' you to be contactable. After a while, it's just not worth it. What do you think?

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