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?