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Mobile UX: nice phone, mind if we erase it?

March 4, 2010

Once upon a time, computers were big and expensive. Companies owned them. People used them for work.

Over time, computers got a little less expensive, and so some people bought and owned them. But they weren’t really portable, so they lived in people’s homes and people used them for personal things.

Then computers got even less expensive and became portable and things started to get a little murky. People started bringing business computers home, and they would occasionally do personal things on them. And sometimes people even brought their personal computers into work to have more persistent access to their personal information space.

Then, of course, phones became computers and everything went to hell. Er, heck. Can you say hell in a corporate blog entry? Whatever. Anyway, phones are an interesting case because (a) they’re very personal devices (phone display as mating ritual, anyone?) and (b) it’s hard to carry around more than one at a time (people have, after all, a limited number of pockets to stash them in).

When smartphones were more expensive and less desirable (I’m looking at you, Blackberry and Windows Mobile), they were primarily provided by companies who exerted control over their configuration and allowed (or put up with) personal use of them. People put up with corporate control over the devices because they were corporate devices.

Things got a lot murkier with the introduction of the iPhone and later Android and webOS phones. Suddenly people were buying their own smartphones and wanting to use those personal phones for business. That desire presents businesses with a bit of a quandary.

On the one hand, hooray for people wanting to spend their own money and time on business tasks. On the other hand, these smartphones are still pretty dumb when it comes to separating personal and business use. None of the smartphone platforms support a notion of syncing personal and business information separately. You can sync your personal contacts with your business server or your business contacts with your personal server, but some data is going to end up where you (or your company) may not want it.

And then we get into stickier territory. Businesses want to protect their data, and if their data is on your phone then they want some measure of control over your phone. For one thing, they’d like password protection on the device, since phones aren’t yet smart enough to separate personal and business information. And furthermore, they’d really like the ability to remotely wipe your phone. Whenever they decide it’s necessary. That won’t be a problem, will it?

I personally think that explicitly recognizing that people use their phones for both personal and business purposes and providing support for that behavior at the platform level would really provide a phone OS provider an opportunity to differentiate their offering. Unfortunately, none of the providers seem to be stepping up to bat on this one. Apple is most concerned about the consumer market; business concerns are a secondary priority. RIM is the reverse: business first, personal use secondary. And Google? Well, they really want all of your data, period, so they’d rather you avoid thinking who can see and do what altogether. Hey, have you seen our animated phone screen backgrounds?

There is some work around the edges of the problem. HTC introduced the notion of Scenes for its Sense UI, with separate scenes possible for Work, Home, Weekend, etc. But that’s unfortunately as far as many companies have gone. So in the meantime, that’s a nice phone you have there. Can we have the ability to erase it?

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