Despite the tendency to curb spending during rough economic times, some tech purchases can actually pay off. See why smartphones may fall into this category.

In a recession, most executives are not keen to invest in any new gadgets. Stretch out the laptops as long as possible, keep the software you have, and upgrade only if there is a clear business ROI reason to do so: These are the thoughts running through most IT decision-maker’s heads. On the other hand, there are always new technologies that, no matter the economic conditions, are worth investigating. Here are a few reasons why your organization may want to consider purchasing smartphones.

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1: People can do more work, on their own terms

Right now, most employees must do more with less, be extra productive, and be as available as possible — particularly if they’re taking on more workload with contractors and employee head counts are going down. The fact that people are working harder and longer is not a happy situation, but it’s the reality. An updated smartphone, one that delivers great performance (for fast Web browsing and e-mail use) and a good user experience (easy navigation between applications and services) can help people squeeze in a bit of extra work in the after-hours or on the weekends without being chained to their laptops or schlepping into the office. That means more time with family and friends.

2: Smartphones are fast becoming the productivity tool of choice

Many analysts predict that smartphones will be the most important computing appliance for employees going forward — surpassing laptops by leaps and bounds. Why? You can do everything on these devices: manage your personal life, your work life, and all your communications; search for information and reach colleagues more easily; receive and review documents wherever you are; and entertain yourself while stuck on the bus, train, airplane, or at the in-laws. Highly intuitive mobile tools and applications are what employees need — and crave. By 2013, smartphones will double their share of the cell phone market to about 20%, according to a March 2009 report from In-Stat.

2. Smartphones are the hot area for mobile business software developers

It’s true, the average CIO might hesitate to purchase a device that allows employees to enhance their social and entertainment activities while at work. But these mini-computers have changed from toys to sophisticated multi-functional power tools:

  • On the Apple iPhone, there are more than 300 business and productivity applications for download, many of them free.
  • Research in Motion is soon to launch its online store App World for BlackBerry users. Currently, there are thousands of applications available from third-party vendors.
  • Microsoft, Nokia, and Samsung have already launched or will soon launch online app stores for the U.S. market.
  • Google, for its G1/Android OS smartphone, offers the Android Market, “an open distribution channel for mobile applications” featuring 1,000 apps and growing, including enterprise-focused third-party applications for exchange connectivity, office document access, and VPN, according to a Google spokesperson.

3: Smartphones can help you stay better organized and track information on the fly

Smartphone apps — which include many free or low-cost downloads — allow you to enter, monitor, track, and search for all sorts of information, including budgets, project hours, FedEx shipments, password data, and taxicabs. One of the popular time-saving iPhone applications, FlightTrack Pro, sends updates to your phone about current flight itineraries, including cancellations and gate changes. On my iPhone, I use an application called Recorder (one of many such apps) that easily records a conversation or just thoughts I voice while I’m driving. I also love my Google voice search application, which allows me to speak a location into my microphone to retrieve my destination Web site and address within moments.

4: The smartphone can deliver BI at a low cost

The notion of using a smartphone as a tool to review and manage business intelligence data is still more of a pipe dream than reality for many companies. But expect this area to grow. According to Ken Collier, a senior BI and agile development consultant with Cutter Consortium, the growing availability of user-friendly BI applications and the focus on real-time decision-making based on business rules and exception-based reporting are two trends creating demand for mobile BI. He gives the example of a trucking company that can deliver alerts to a manager’s device about service problems or other high-priority issues with its fleet. Mobile BI can be less complex than it may appear, however, and shouldn’t require special software on the device as in the past, says Collier. “Push to me what I want to see so I can get it wherever I am. You can use a simple text message as an alert that a report is now online and then go click the URL to see that.”

5: They’re getting cheaper

It took only a year for Apple to chop its iPhone 3G price in half. Other vendors have followed suit, and now, you can purchase a smartphone for $200 or less. Check out this list of smartphones for budget-minded buyers. Unfortunately, data plans are still high — but that may not last long in this economy.

6: Smartphones deliver more ways to keep in touch with customers and provide excellent response times

If a customer sends an urgent e-mail about an order and you’re not in the office to read it, you miss the opportunity to provide superior service and foster customer loyalty. Companies that use their smartphones to quickly answer questions, solve problems, and find product information will have the edge over the competition.

7: Smartphones may become the best platform for social networking and collaboration

Social networking is all the rage, but it’s only effective for business purposes if the tools are easily accessed from anywhere and provide appropriate search features and rich content. Your IT department can provide secure access from smartphones to internal Web sites for collaboration and research. Let’s say an employee is at a customer site and needs to get some quick feedback to recommend the best product based on the customer profile. He or she could log on to an internal social networking site and search for feedback. According to The Kelsey Group, the number of mobile devices users who connect to social networking sites or tools increased from 3.4 percent to 9.6 percent in 2008.

8: Options for securing smartphones are getting better

With all the data you can carry around on these devices, it’s no wonder CIOs have a love-hate relationship with the smartphone. Technologies to enable secure mobile computing are here, and they’re increasingly embedded in server and networking applications. For instance, IT can enforce VPN access to corporate data from a mobile device, require passwords to access a device, encrypt sensitive data on the corporate network, and control data assets by wiping a device that has been lost or stolen. For a bigger investment, you can purchase mobile device management (MDM) software, which verifies device configurations, bans access to insecure WiFi networks and applications, enforce security policies, and so on.

9: Mobile technology is the center of innovation

Savvy IT managers look to where the technology investment is focused — and smartphones and mobile technology remain a hot area. It makes sense to keep watching this market and stay as current as you can, since smartphones and other small mobile devices are one sector of the tech industry that shows promise in terms of R&D. Mobility will continue to drive new applications and benefits for business even in a recession.

10: Your CEO probably uses one and wants the best

This is certainly not one of the biggest reasons to purchase new smartphones for your workforce. However, the top guns at your company expect you to be investing in the tools that have the potential to make the most difference for productivity and deliver a large number of features wrapped up in one device. High-tech executives, in particular, won’t be keen about smartphones that are slow and cumbersome to use. Those employees in your company who travel a lot rely heavily on these devices — in fact, many company officers don’t even bother taking a laptop on the road anymore.