Navigating the Rapids of Mobile Technology

Posted by Dave Curry on September 18, 2012

By Dave Curry

Before our daughter came, my wife and I did quite a bit of whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River in Colorado. Some stretches of the Arkansas are very placid. RapidsIt’s okay to drift along and enjoy the scenery, knowing that you can take the occasional Class II rapids in stride as you come to them.

Other sections, such as Brown’s Canyon, are more challenging. Stretches of swift but quiet water are punctuated by Class III and IV rapids. You want to have an idea of what’s coming up so you can get set up right to avoid swamping the raft. But if you do end up taking on water, there’s generally a quiet stretch beyond it where you can bail out.

The Royal Gorge is another matter entirely. In the technical sections, Class IV+ rapids follow one right after another. Ditch the raft in one rapid and you’ll be in the water for the next one — and probably the one after that. When the water is high, not knowing what’s next or being unprepared to deal with it can be disastrous. But if you do it right, the ride is exhilirating.

I’ve often thought of whitewater rafting as an analogy in adapting to technological change. There’s challenge and reward, but to be successful you have to have an idea of what’s coming up and how to take it on.

Over the last five years, the flow of change in information technology has looked a lot more like The Royal Gorge than Brown’s Canyon. In this blog series, I’ve been highlighting disruptive innovations such as mobile technology, social media, cloud services and data integration that have been flipping lots of big rafts lately. As part of Trust Company of America’s focus on mobile and its impact on advisor practices, I’ve been asked to read the river ahead to the next bend and call out what I see.

1. Optimize your website for mobile users

The nearest patch of rough water for most advisors is that soon your website will get more traffic from smartphone and tablet browsers than from desktop and laptop browsers. Not offering a mobile-optimized experience on your website will be a little like putting those tiny desks from grade school in your reception area. Visitors won’t be comfortable so they probably won’t stay long.

That’s a big standing wave that’s easy to spot, but there’s a hidden eddy in the current behind it. It is tempting to economize by optimizing your website only for smartphones under the theory that tablets don’t need separate consideration. But tablets are not just laptops without keyboards, nor are they just big smartphones. Much of the increase in mobile browsing is being driven by users of tablets rather than smartphones. The rise of 7″ tablets will most likely accelerate this trend. Failure to offer tablet users a first-class experience on your site now while you have the momentum could leave you paddling hard later to break out while your competitors float by on the swift side of the rapid, laughing and splashing you with their paddles.

Similarly, a whirlpool lurks behind the trend toward mobile apps and curated app stores. Native app development for iOS or Android is an expensive proposition. It’s doubly expensive to target both. Where HP and RIM failed, Microsoft might be able to carve out space for a third app platform over the next year. If they succeed, multiply your cost by three. The prestige and exposure of having a branded app in the app stores might be worth it if you can put together a compelling application. But if your customers really just want a mobile-friendly version of your website, you could end up stuck watching a big chunk of your marketing budget swirling away uselessly.

2. Bring Your Own Device

That roar and foam further downriver is the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend. More and more, companies are allowing employees to use their personal mobile devices for business, often replacing company-issued devices and cellular plans with a stipend to the employee. Of course, our industry is subject to strict compliance rules. Moreover, advisory practices are founded on trust. There are legitimate concerns about whether it is possible to ensure the security of confidential information on employee-owned devices.

There’s no doubt that this particular rapid is treacherous. In fact, some people recommend that you that you ban personal mobile devices from your company network altogether. This is like portage, the tactic of taking out upstream of a rapid and carrying the raft around it. The problem with portage is that it slows you down.  In competitive industries, companies can ill afford to forgo the productivity advantage that results from letting the talented people they work so hard to attract use the tools they know and like. Portage also brings its own set of hazards – rattlesnakes for example. Organizations that issue company-owned mobile devices are getting snakebit by surging IT costs as carriers have  eliminated unlimited cellular data plans just as the latest devices and 4G networks encourage more bandwidth consumption than ever before.

If you want to stay on the river, you’ll have to navigate the BYOD rapid one way or another. This is challenging, but not impossible. Mobile device management tools are available from a number of vendors to enforce data-safety policies such as device locking and remote wipe. You should also select applications and workflows that do not store sensitive client information on the mobile device itself. This sounds like a lot of effort, but in practice, these are best practices to follow in providing access via company-issued devices as well.

3. Bring Your Own Cloud

There’s a lurker here as well. Bring Your Own Cloud (BYOC) refers to the use of personal cloud services such as, Dropbox or Google Drive for business purposes. Like BYOD, this is part of the overall trend toward the consumerization of IT services. Cloud storage is a natural fit for mobile devices. Many mobile users are accustomed to the use of such services without giving it a second thought. However, some rapids are too dangerous even for experts and personal cloud storage is probably in this category as well. Studies consistently show that consumer cloud storage services do not provide adequate security or control to be suitable for the storage of confidential information. Even when uploading such information to a cloud service does not violate regulations such as HIPAA, CNPI or GARM outright, the practice exposes firms to audit risk.

Fortunately, if you know that BYOC is out there as a hazard, you can steer around it. The number and diversity of cloud storage services means that even on the desktop the most practical strategy has been to manage this risk by means of user policy rather than through technology. A BYOC policy that educates employees to the danger and prohibits the use of personal cloud storage service to store confidential information is a best practice similar to policies you should already have in place concerning cloud email and storage services on the desktop. To make this stick, you’ll need to provide employees who use mobile devices with practical alternatives to consumer cloud storage. That’s is another reason to select applications such as CRM, document-management and workflow solutions with due consideration for their handling of confidential information in the mobile use case.

4. Beyond the Bend

That takes us to the bend in the river. The best anyone can do is guess at what lies beyond. Personally, I believe that mobile technology is entering an adoption and maturation phase. Over the past year, product announcements in the mobile space have tended toward spec bumps and nice-to-have features as opposed to game-changing innovations. Secure in their respective market positions, the big carriers have been leisurely about rolling out true 4G service (LTE) and Android updates. The various patent battles between Apple and Samsung are probably a signal that mobile device makers see a lot more room to litigate than to innovate. Finally, mobile application development is likely to involve a choice between costly, redundant native code and less-capable but cross-platform HTML5 for several years to come.

So it looks like once we get past the bend, we’ll be paddling in the quiet stretches between Class IIs and Class IIIs until we get to the next run of disruptive innovation. Even then, the innovations will probably come from advances in input and output capabilities (think Siri and Google Glass) that may not impact financial applications to the same extent. But experienced guides know that you always have to be scanning the river ahead and be prepared to paddle hard to catch the swift water and avoid the snags.

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