the one thing

The biggest productivity killer is that there’s an app for that … and that … and that, too

March 29, 2014
Obsession
Mobile Web
March 29, 2014

Have you ever tried using a mobile app to get work done outside the office, only to realize you needed to use another app to actually complete the task? What started as a quick to-do ends up taking far longer than you expected. There are thousands of solutions on the market today, but a glance at the “productivity” category of your favorite app store reveals a sea of options with limited functionality, requiring users to cobble together various apps to get the simplest things accomplished.

Think about a task as simple as marking up a spreadsheet with your feedback on your iPad. You first need to get the file onto your device, either via a file sync and share app or by emailing it to yourself. Then you need to find an app with annotation capability in the app store and buy or download it. From there, you need to open the file in your new app, which may provide an unpleasant surprise: most apps will not allow you to annotate a spreadsheet, unless you convert it to a PDF file, which of course, you can only do on your PC or Mac. Once you sort that part out, you create a new, annotated version of that file and finally figure out how to get it back into your file sync and share app (since your device’s email client doesn’t support attaching a file) in order to share your notes with your colleagues. That seemingly simple task required three different apps, created three versions of the file and involved an eight-step process. While they may work for some people, these machinations can kill the productivity benefits of mobile devices, and the new mobile workforce will need to avoid this type of app overkill in order to thrive.

The difference between apps and applications

Apps are pretty great. You can get an app to unlock your car, an app to manage your to-do list, an app to hold onto all the articles you plan to read (someday when you have time) and more. All of these one-off capabilities are useful, but in order to do real, productive work from mobile phones and tablets, professionals need full-fledged, multi-faceted applications. An application, as opposed to a mere app, comes with an expansive range of features that help knowledge workers do their jobs as well on mobile devices as standard computers.

If business users need three apps to do something as simple as mark up a basic spreadsheet from their tablets, then the market can’t move toward full mobility. With 50 billion connected devices expected to be in use by 2020, application developers should expect business users to demand more of the tools that claim to make work more mobile. This is why we’re starting to see vendors such as Skype integrate with Outlook. Business users want similar integrations and services to come to them on common platforms.

Greater productivity for the mobile worker

When an enterprise employee creates, calculates and writes an earnings report, for example, she uses a suite of applications. That suite generally includes text, spreadsheet, and graphics functionality, as well as the capability to render, annotate and edit different document types. Until recently, all of these actions more or less had to take place at the desktop; mobile devices could only mimic this functionality by combining scores of apps to handle each individual task—one to create, one to annotate and so on. Savvy mobile workers see this as a productivity killer, and they’re right.

The mobile enterprise has to demand comprehensive applications that can focus workflows in more consolidated streams. For content management, this means viewing, editing, annotating and sharing functionality from the same application. Email, calendars, and personal information managers should also function as one. In a mobile workforce, an ecosystem of single-function apps won’t cut it.

As enterprises pursue applications in place of single-function apps, they’re also clamoring for control over the content their workers will create, edit and share via mobile devices. In order to support mobility and productivity without risking the security of sensitive information, companies need the ability to grant users mobile access to content, but still keep the files under control and only accessible to the right users, even post-download or on unmanaged mobile devices. Bolted on technologies that “wrap” mobile apps and serve as traffic cops for data as it flows between apps certainly have their place. However, implementing them successfully requires an extra layer of policy, which adds to the complexity of managing enterprise mobility as users without comprehensive productivity tools constantly comb the app stores for better ways to work with their data.

Too many mobile workers are carrying ecosystems of apps around on their smartphones and tablets. The sheer number of tools these professionals use to get their work done hampers productivity. If enterprises are to truly embrace a mobile future, they’ll need comprehensive applications with cross-device functionality that allows them to be just as effective on their mobile devices as they are on their desktops and laptops.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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