By Steve Ball, Managing Director, Cloud 9 IT

As many businesses know, being able to access data and applications from anywhere at any time is becoming increasingly important. We’re working from different environments more now than ever before — be it at home, on-site with customers, in branch offices, or on the move via mobile devices.

Allowing staff to work from a variety of locations is not only convenient for them, it can also bring enormous benefits to business, including reduced travel costs, increased productivity and retaining members of staff by allowing them greater flexibility. BT recently carried out a study which showed that its flexible workers are 20% more productive than their office based counterparts. Flexible working also helps businesses to overcome adverse weather conditions or other situations that mean staff can’t get to their normal place of work.

New developments in technology now allow more data and applications to be stored online, or ‘in the cloud’ as it is often referred to. As more of the applications we use are web-based, the platforms needed to access them require less computing power in peoples’ hands.

This trend can explain the massive demand we’re now seeing for small, more portable mobile devices such as exciting new smartphones and tablets. No fewer than 100 different tablet devices were launched at The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas at the start of the year, while at Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest mobile show, held in Barcelona in February, smartphones literally reached another dimension as LG launched Optimus, the first 3D smartphone.

These platforms offer easy to use, highly mobile ways for people to access the data and applications they need, provided there are good-back end systems and communications links in place. Mobile platforms are set to be increasingly popular as businesses and individuals alike see the benefits of IT set ups that allow users to work more flexibly, freeing users from the traditional set up of the desk-based PC. So much so, that analyst firm Gartner has predicted that by 2013, mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common
device used to access the internet worldwide.

We’re now witnessing a race between many of the key players in the smartphone and tablet sector to offer the best devices and operating systems (OS), and therefore provide the easiest functionality for users. Hardware manufacturers and software vendors, including Apple and Blackberry, Google and Samsung are all competing in this sector. Some of these companies are joining forces - for example Nokia recently announced it will use Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS as the main operating system for all its smart phones.

All of these vendors have already or will shortly be launching tablets to augment their smart phone offerings too. While Apple has seemingly been the main contender in the fight to own the smartphone and tablet space, others are now waking up. Blackberry, HP, Nokia and Microsoft are all now trying to catch up, releasing new software and hardware to grab a share of the market.

For business customers, these competitors may be able to offer more cost effective hardware than Apple, and operating systems better suited to their commercial needs. Many people argue that since cloud computing is allowing more applications and data to be accessed online, the actual device and operating system used will not be so important.

The recent trend for innovation and development in platforms and operating systems can only be a good thing as the players race to provide the best functionality they can. The focus is on making the user experience as good as possible, improving how people can benefit from mobile technologies and use them most effectively.

Alongside new mobile devices, we are seeing a trend for more and more products to be produced that are internet protocol (IP) enabled. Google’s Cloud Print model is a good example of this - although still in its early stages, it ultimately aims to allow users to print to any printer in the world, via any device so long as both are connected to the internet.

For the average business user there are many applications for this kind of technology — being able to work remotely on a smartphone or tablet and print information at the office, or print directly to a client’s printer. IP enabled technology is thriving in many areas, from printers to vending machines that can communicate when maintenance is needed.

In the same way that the internet has levelled the playing field for smaller businesses to compete, new mobile platforms and systems are allowing smaller businesses to access tools only previously available to large businesses. For small and medium sized businesses, embracing mobile technologies can lead to huge benefits, and as the technology continues to excite and progress, now is a good time to embrace it.

About Cloud 9 IT

Cloud 9 is an Oxfordshire based provider of cloud computing services to SMEs. Cloud 9 runs the only commercially available data centre in Oxfordshire, and from here works with many organisations to help them take advantage of the benefits of cloud computing.