12 ways for smartphones to be more business-ready

Smartphones still have a way to go before the mobile devices are extremely useful business tools straight out-of-the-box. Deb Shinder identifies features, capabilities, and functionalities that would make smartphones more enterprise-ready.

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), LG showed -- among other things -- Android phones integrated with a washer/dryer and vacuum cleaner. That's great for home users, but what cool integration and other features do business users still crave? In this article, I'll take a look at some of the things I'd like to see in upcoming models to make smartphone business users more productive. In some cases, "there's an app for that," but depending on your OS and hardware, some of those apps work better than others and some may not work at all. In other cases, a few high-end phones have the desired capability, but most don't. And in other cases, the phones have the capability, but the wireless carriers block it.

1: Easier printing

Despite all the years we've spent striving for a paperless office, business often demands hard copies of documents. Most smartphones offer you the ability to view and even edit documents, spreadsheets, and other files, but getting those pages onto paper may be more difficult. Users often have to resort to emailing the document to themselves and accessing it from their computers in order to print it.

Today's modern printers can connect to a Wi-Fi network, and most of today's smartphones also support Wi-Fi connections. With the right software, this enables easy printing directly from the phone. Some applications will also allow you to send print jobs over the Internet. HP provides a free app for Android phones and iPhone called iPrint Photo, which allows you to print picture files directly from phone to printer. But business users need to be able to print text documents; to do that from Android, you'll need an app such as PrinterShare (for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents) or PrintBot (for PDFs). The iPhone has AirPrint, which works with HP's ePrint-enabled printers. RoboPrint is a remote printing app for Windows Phone 7 and Android.

I'd like to see printing functionality built into all smartphones, without the need to install (and in some cases purchase) a separate application.

2: High-quality, "managed" camera

Once upon a time, the general consensus was that camera phones were for consumers, and business-oriented phones shouldn't have cameras. One reason for this was that companies working with sensitive materials didn't want employees to be able to bring in phones to take photos of in-development products or documents containing confidential information.

However, there is also a good business case for including cameras on smartphones. A good camera on a smartphone can be useful for conveying visual information that cannot really be adequately described by voice or in writing. A video camera can be especially useful for capturing and documenting entire work processes.

A nice feature would be if companies had the ability to automatically disable the cameras on phones when an employee's phone enters a designated area. This would give workers the advantages of having the camera to use as a work tool, while still protect the company's interests where needed.

3: Better remote desktop integration

The day might come when all you need is your phone when you're at the office; you could dock your mobile device to a big monitor, keyboard, and hard drive. But most of today's smartphone users still depend on their desktop computers for running high-powered applications and getting work done. It would be handy to connect to your desktop from your phone and view and control that desktop remotely via RDP, ICA, VNC, or some other such protocol.

There are remote desktop clients for iPhone/iPad, Android, and Windows Phone 7, but none of the ones I've tried work very well, and they're relatively expensive for phone apps: Xtralogic's remote desktop client for Android is $24.95, iTap mobile RDP client is $26.00, and Remote RDP from Walter Yongtao Wang is $9.98. One must expect some limitations when you try to put an entire computer desktop on a tiny phone screen, but I've found most of the programs to be much more difficult to navigate than they should be, to the point of not being very useable.

I would like to see a standardized RDP and/or VNC client built into smartphones that is intended for business use and optimized to connect to the built-in remote desktop services in Windows or the popular VNC server software. I'd also like for it to be easy to set up and use and much easier to navigate.

4: Built-in scanning capabilities

Most smartphones today have built-in cameras, which makes it possible to take a photo of a business card or other document, giving you sort of scanning capability. However, it would be nice to be able to use the phone like a handheld scanner and move it over a large document and especially to have it use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to convert text into editable form. I'd like to be able to save the scanned documents as Word docs or PDFs, rather than just as graphics files.

There are apps available such as JotNot for the iPhone and Scan2PDF Mobile for Android that you can use for scanning documents. Document Scanner for Android has an add-on that will allow you to crop the document before you save it. Most of these apps are not free, although there are some "lite" versions that are (but include a watermark).

Another app that can be handy for business is a barcode scanner. For example, Barcode Scanner Android app will scan the barcode on a book and let you search for keywords in the book and find where they occur. Barcode scanning apps work with the phone's camera, which is another reason to have a good quality camera on business-oriented smartphones.

5: More sophisticated GPS tracking

The GPS function on today's smartphones can be used in many ways. The ability to get turn-by-turn driving directions and to see street view maps of an area have probably saved countless wasted hours of company time that might have been used wandering around, looking for a location.

The problem is that the GPS works better on some phones than others. I would like to see business-oriented phones come with a good GPS that doesn't have problems picking up the satellites (including indoors). Software that allows companies to track employees' locations on company-issued phones can also be useful -- not just in ensuring that workers aren't making unauthorized side trips but also for safety purposes.

Another feature that could be useful is software that logs the phone's movements throughout the day and can be set to do so only during particular hours (i.e., work hours).

6: Integration with business software

Many workers would like to see better integration between their smartphones and the business software they use at the office. Smartphones achieve good integration with services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, and most smartphones integrate fairly well with Exchange. But business users also need to be able to easily connect to SharePoint, Microsoft OCS/Lync, and other software services. The client apps that are available vary in quality. Standard clients that are easy to install and use are a must for serious business users.

There are also a number of apps for Android and iPhone that allow you to view and/or edit Microsoft Office documents, but genuine Mobile Office is available only for Windows phones. My wish list includes Microsoft offering versions of its Mobile Office software for other smartphone platforms. I understand that Microsoft wants to make this a selling point for Windows Phone 7 devices, but will anyone really switch just to get that app?

7: VoIP

Here is probably the most controversial item on my wish list -- at least from the wireless carriers' point of view. Voice over IP apps such as Skype are available for smartphones, but the carriers generally cripple them so that they can only be used on Wi-Fi, and/or they charge it against your voice minutes when you use them on the 3G network. They don't want to cut into their revenue from expensive voice calling plans, but they alienate customers by insisting that you buy voice minutes in order to use what is, essentially, a computer. It's as if Verizon or AT&T wouldn't sell me a home Internet connection unless I also paid for a landline from them, whether or not I needed or wanted one.

Business users, who may need to talk on the phone more than the average consumer, would be especially appreciative of the ability to do at least some of that talking over the Internet with a VoIP app instead of using up minutes. It'll probably never happen (unless there's a government mandate that forces carriers to do it), but my wish is that wireless carriers would treat VoIP apps on 3G like any other app that uses the Internet on the data plan.

8: Voicemail integration

Smartphone plans generally include voicemail, but I don't want to have to dial my carrier's voicemail number to get my messages. With my VoIP providers, voicemail has always been integrated with email; when someone leaves a message, it's sent to my email inbox of choice as a .wav attachment. This allows me to save the messages in a folder on my Exchange server so that I can access them again anytime, from any device that I can use to get my Exchange email. Why can't this be a standard feature for calls to my cell phone number? At the very least, Visual Voice Mail -- which allows you to scroll through your messages and listen to the ones you want, rather than having to listen through the whole list -- would be standard and not an extra cost feature if all my wishes came true.

Another very useful feature would be the transcription of voice messages to text, so you could get your voicemail messages while in meetings or in loud areas where you don't want to or can't listen to an audio message. Sure, you can use Google Voice to do this (or Microsoft OCS/Lync in a corporate setting), but many small business people don't need all the extra features that those services offer and would like to have just this functionality built into their cell phone's voicemail.

9: Standardized conferencing

Video conferencing is becoming more important as companies try to cut down on expenses by avoiding many of the in-person meetings that require travel. Some smartphones, such as the iPhone 4, HTC EVO, and others, include front-facing cameras for video conferencing, but most mobile devices do not. The smartphones that do usually have a fairly low-quality camera as the front-facing camera. And different phones use different videoconferencing applications (e.g., the iPhone uses FaceTime, the EVO uses Qik, and some other devices can use Fring), and these applications aren't compatible with each other. Additionally, the iPhone only supports using FaceTime when you're using it on a Wi-Fi network, not with 3G.

My wish list includes having a good quality front-facing video camera on all or most business-oriented phones (or even better, different versions of the phones that let you choose whether you want a front-facing video camera), and standardized software so that users with iPhones can talk to users with Droids, for example -- and can do it without having to find a Wi-Fi network.

10: Video output for presentations

Some of today's smartphones, such as the Droid X and EVO, now include video out ports, generally mini HDMI ports. The Samsung Galaxy S phones and the HTC Droid Incredible support video out through the 3.5mm headphone jack (Galaxy S also supports microUSB to HDMI). The iPhone 4 supports video out via the iPad Dock Connector to VGA Adapter or the Apple Component AV cable. However, some of these phones only support using this output in "gallery" mode -- that is, you can only view the photos and videos recorded on the phone. There are apps, such as Real HDMI, to unlock the HDMI function so you can use it with other applications, but they're really aimed at consumers who want to output movies from their video players.

For business users, it would be great to be able to connect your phone to a TV or computer monitor and show PowerPoint presentations or display whatever is running on the phone's display. My wish list would make that a standard feature, with a standardized output port so you could use the same cable regardless of which phone model you have.

11: Better security

For consumers, it's all about features. For business users, security is a big deal. Smartphones are getting smarter about security, with most including the ability to lock the display with a PIN, many supporting remote wipe and encryption of data, and antivirus/antimalware now available for mobile devices. BlackBerry has long been considered a gold standard for smartphone security, supporting such security mechanisms as RSA SecurID authentication and HTTPS connections, along with code signing and digital certificates. Other platforms are implementing more security features.

However, not all smartphone apps are created equally secure. For example, viaForensics, a security company, recently analyzed mobile phone banking apps and found that many of them had serious security flaws.

My wish list includes better security for all business-oriented smartphones, including the ability for the IT department to manage the phones as they do the computers that connect to their networks.

12: Better battery life

Many of the great features on this wish list would make smartphones more functional for business users, but more functionality often translates into more power usage. No smartphone wish list would be complete without the wish for a better battery -- one that would charge fully in 10 minutes, last for five days with moderate/heavy usage, and be small as a microSD card and light as a feather. Oh, and I want it to be removable and user-replaceable, too. I know we're a long way from that, but hey -- 20 years ago, who would ever have imagined that we would have a device with 512 MB of RAM and 32 GB of storage space that would fit in our pockets?

By Deb Shinder

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...