Don't call Texan Sheryl Padamonsky a road warrior. Sure, she spends an average of three days a week away from her company's Austin office. But she's not on the road. She spends the time working at home and at the house of her elderly parents in Cleveland. She stays connected with a Dell laptop, equipped with built-in wireless technology to tap in to the Net and a Webcam for videoconferencing. And she uses a palmOne (PLMO ) Treo 650 smart phone, which makes calls, keeps her calendar, and pulls down her corporate e-mail -- all while she's on the treadmill at the gym. The 40-year-old administrative assistant to John T. "Jack" McDonald, chief executive of tech consulting firm Perficient (PRFT ), seems shocked anyone would compare her to her always-traveling boss. "It's really about the ability to balance work life and private life in a way that's good for me, good for my company," Padamonsky says.
Once confined to jet-setting CEOs and salespeople who demand day and night access to the office, mobile corporate computing is coming to the masses. Superfast wireless networks, innovative communications software, and a slew of relatively cheap devices from notebook PCs to palm-size handhelds let practically any worker bee stay connected to the corporate hive, from wherever they may be. Call it what you will, a productivity breakthrough or a new form of wage slavery, but it's clear that work is becoming an around-the-clock phenomenon. "Work has crept into our lives, and our lives have crept into work in the mobile world," says Tim Woods, director of the research group Internet Home Alliance.
So it's no surprise that BusinessWeek's Information Technology 100 ranking of the industry's top performers is packed with companies that are making anytime-anywhere computing a reality. PC-industry heavyweights Dell (DELL ), No. 7, Microsoft (MSFT ), No. 27, and Intel (INTC ), No. 52, are trying to escape slower growth in the desktop-computer market by focusing on mobile gizmos and technologies. Microsoft, for instance, announced in early June its latest Windows Mobile operating system for smart phones, which lets users securely connect back to their PCs and popular desktop e-mail, Word, and Excel programs. For its part, Intel is creating sets of chips and software that let PC makers create thinner, lighter notebooks -- even one capable of making cell-phone calls.
Fast-growth wireless carriers are hawking packages of data, e-mail services, and equipment at prices just a fraction of the fees corporations were paying a year ago. One example: Cingular Wireless, the nation's largest cellular provider, in late May began offering unlimited data communications with Good Technology Inc.'s e-mail service at $540 a year, with a one-time $99 activation fee. Users typically pay at least $1,300 a year for such services. "Deals like this mean mobile access leaves the board room and goes mainstream," says Good Technology CEO Danny Shader.
In the next five years, the dramatic shift toward mobility will likely shake up the status quo among tech titans. This will be a melee between industry stalwarts such as Nokia Corp (NOK )., No. 18, and fleet-footed challengers such as Taiwan's HTC Corp., No. 11, which makes most of the Windows smart phones in the world. Wireless carriers from No. 9 Nextel Communications in the U.S. to No. 1 America Movil in Mexico look as if they'll wield enormous influence -- the kingmakers for the suppliers whose products and services they package and sell. Chipmakers such as Intel, Texas Instruments (TXN ), No. 66, and Samsung Group, No. 5, are sitting pretty, too. Their low-power processors, memory chips, and communications chips will be needed to power laptops and handhelds. One potential loser: Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD ), which has fallen behind in delivering mobile products that excite consumers.
Whoever wins, the world of work will never be the same. No one has calculated the potential productivity gains, but analysts and businesses have no doubt it will be sizable. Early corporate adopters of mobile technology say they win twice over: Employees tend to work more for the same pay, and the company can slash overhead at headquarters. That's because many employees can now work from home, and managers can do more scut work for themselves via their gadgets, meaning fewer administrative employees are needed to assist them. "It's really a blue ocean as far as savings," says Michael Howell, a vice-president at San Francisco hospital supply manager Broadlane Inc., which is outfitting its salespeople with Treo devices that will let them check on inventories for its 1.5 million-product catalog and submit orders from a client's office.
The tech industry's leaders have been promising ubiquitous computing for more than a decade, but only now is it feasible for tens of millions of people. The rise of the Internet and world standardization on wireless broadband technologies laid the foundation. Then, next-generation cellular networks and the ability to switch to Wi-Fi access on the fly let mobile workers connect anywhere, be it a subway in London, a café in Beijing, or a supermarket in Des Moines. To be sure, you can't get wireless signals in a lot of places -- but the build-out continues.
Because companies have established the foundation, all sorts of corporate applications are now coming to market. To make the mobile experience truly powerful for corporations, software providers such as Oracle Corp., No. 38, and Salesforce.com are tailoring their products to allow people on the road to check on customer orders and corporate inventories before heading into a meeting. The Transportation Security Administration is adopting BlackBerry handhelds to allow security employees at airports to compare passenger lists against terrorist databases -- and stop high-risk characters from getting into the country.
One reason for the newfound acceptance: Mobile computing is becoming much more secure. Many companies held back from equipping their employees with mobile gadgets because of concerns over lost equipment and unauthorized access to confidential information on their internal networks. But companies, including Research in Motion Ltd. (RIMM ), No. 74, Microsoft, and Good Technology have come up with solutions: software for remotely loading programs and disabling devices over wireless networks, while maintaining firewall security.
Now insurance providers such as Health Net Inc. (HNT ) are more comfortable that information about its 5.1 million plan members won't fall into the wrong hands. It's giving BlackBerrys to many of its managers so they can tap into customer records from anywhere. With worries lessened, IDC predicts enterprises worldwide will buy 16.2 million smart phones by 2008, up from a scant 2.6 million in 2004. "Companies now can start thinking about the innovative apps they can create and deliver to their workers anywhere," says RIM co-CEO James L. Balsillie.
Equipment makers are doing their part to stoke demand. By the end of the year, Samsung, LG, Nokia, and other hardware makers plan to ship camera phones that also will sniff out Wi-Fi networks and be able to shift seamlessly between them and traditional cellular networks. With such devices, companies could issue workers one phone that will log onto a network for cheap VoIP calls through companies such as Skype Technologies, while using the camera for MSN Messenger videochats when inside buildings.
Some workers may dump their PCs completely when hitting the road. Using wireless gizmos the size of a key fob, employees can log onto their corporate network and securely view data or write e-mails from any PC with a broadband connection. These devices receive and display regularly updated security codes. The employee simply types the latest code into the company's Web site. This system makes it hard for hackers to steal a company's code and use it to break in to its computers.
As the line between work and private life blurs, managers and employees will have to develop new discipline and communication etiquette so work and play don't interfere with each other. "With mobile devices, people are going to interchangeably switch from moment to moment, doing e-mail and office tasks but also experiencing pictures, music, and movies," says Scott Horn, Microsoft senior director for mobile and embedded devices. So forget the road warrior label. Think of them as life warriors instead.
By Cliff Edwards