A business case to get shot of smartphones
Mobile Communications

A business case to get shot of smartphones

Technology conferences can be interesting for unexpected reasons. Keynote speeches rarely offer dramatic surprises, product demonstrations may or may not be helpful for attendees at the sharp end, but talking to people and observing their behaviour can yield new insights.

Peter Wüst, senior director of the Emerging Solutions & Innovation Group at NetApp, tapped me on the shoulder prior to starting his presentation at Insight 2017 in Berlin and said, “Wow, that's really cool!”

He was talking about the Psion 5mx open on the desk in front of me, which I was using to take notes. He asked about its battery life (about a month of normal usage), then surprised me by showing me his new Swiss dumbphone, saying, “It's an expensive way to do very little!”

He calls the phone his 'personal firewall' since it's a way of avoiding pings and notifications all the time. “Not even WhatsApp, it just does phone calls and texts.” About my Psion and his phone, he joked, “So appliances are coming back into fashion!”

I'd thought I was an anachronism for not carrying a smartphone, but Wüst told me he had the same mindset. He doesn't need or want an all-singing, all-dancing pocket computer, just a tool that does one or two jobs well; an appliance, in other words. Then a German IT journalist chipped in to say that his colleague also carries a dumbphone. Dutch and Belgian journalists then complained about constant notifications from their smartphones, wanting to disable them entirely. Nick Thurlow, head of NetApp UK, lusted after the 5mx that evening, asking me to bring it to the conference the next day so he could play with it.

There was a time when distraction-free mobile computing was a joke. If I'd brought out a Psion 5mx five years ago I'd have been laughed at due to it being old, out of date tech. “No smartphone? Loser!”

That's changing. Now nobody's laughing. Oh, all right, there are still a few smirks. But when I explain the lack of internet connection, people's eyes light up and comprehension dawns. It's an appliance, a tool, something that does one job reliably with the minimum of hassle or maintenance. No fuss, no distractions. An antidote to the continual pings, updates, messages, notifications, emails, warnings and other attention-demanding, concentration-sapping events generated by the astoundingly capable electronic devices that most of us carry around every day, everywhere.

There are, of course, sound business reasons for carrying a smartphone. Some jobs simply can't be done well – or at all – without one. But some jobs can't be done well with one. Tasks that involve focused concentration for long periods of time, or the ability to lose oneself in abstract thought in order to solve complex problems, are made much more difficult by the existence of smartphones. Sure, you can switch them off… but you won't, will you?

Psychological studies show us that there are limits to our attention. There's only so much new information we can take in and make use of at any one time. This is true in the workplace just as anywhere else in life. Additional sources of business information only make employees more productive if they can actually process and make use of that information.

Beyond a certain level – which varies depending on the individual – what happens instead is that the employee feels overwhelmed and unable to cope with the flood of new data. The brain's central executive becomes saturated and the person goes into a high-stress coping mode. It's probably no coincidence that workplace stress levels have risen in line with business smartphone adoption. For some workers, more does not mean better.

Even so, the distraction-free 5mx is far from ideal in today's world. Its lack of connectivity is beneficial in terms of eliminating distractions, but limiting when it comes to synchronising data with other systems. It requires the use of a Compact Flash card reader or a serial cable instead. Also, the screen is dim and murky, and even with the glowing green backlight it's not great indoors. Eventually, it will succumb to the inevitable screen flexi-cable failure or hinge breakage. In short, not unlike many of the people still using (and writing about) these machines, it's showing its age.

Planet Computers is launching an updated Psion 5mx-alike that addresses the connectivity issues and brings the design bang up to date. It's likely to sell well, if only for the keyboard, but to an extent it misses the point. It's too complicated, too capable, too connected. Its Android OS opens up innumerable possibilities, a paralysing choice of apps and options. There's just too much going on. It's a smartphone with a nice keyboard, not an appliance.

It seems likely that there's still a niche for a simpler, more appliance-like reincarnation of the classic Psion machines. And when even senior IT-savvy executives in large technology firms are questioning the wisdom of using smartphones in a business environment, that niche might be larger than it first appears.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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