What the mobile enterprise really means

July 13, 2012, 4:36 PM UTC

By Todd McKinnon, Contributor

FORTUNE — We hear so much about the ‘mobile enterprise’ that it’s difficult to really know what it all means, or why it matters. A future where employees work from the device of their choosing intimidates many business leaders, causing them to fret about complexity and the security and compliance implications of an increasingly mobile world.

It was all so much easier before.

But lamenting the challenges of mobile is shortsighted and ignores both its inevitability and its massive potential to bring real value to companies. If you’re a leader of a company, you should start paying attention to the following trends to get your company’s mobile pieces in place for the future.

There’s An App for That…Now
It wasn’t long ago that mobile devices were completely novel. I remember my first mobile phone: It looked like a brick, and beyond allowing me to make phone calls at $1.99 per minute, had about the same level of usefulness. We’ve certainly come a long way. Now, you can cash checks by just snapping a picture, book a town car with the press of a button and pay for your morning coffee by swiping your phone. Oh, you can make phone calls, text and check your email, too.

Think about it: Just 10 years ago, we had fax machines, PBX boxes (remember those?) and those clunky cell phones. Today, buoyed by the cloud, we’re drowning in email, tablets and smartphones at every turn. Change happens fast, and in ten years, the technology we use at work and at home will look very different from how it looks today.

Sent From a Tiny Computer in My Back Pocket
According to the International Telecommunications Union, there are more than one billion smartphone users worldwide, and almost six billion mobile phone users total. (Note: The world’s population is around seven billion right now – it seems that even toddlers are texting.) People all over the globe, even those who lack basic infrastructure such as running water, are chatting wirelessly. Mobile is already huge – whether you’re in Kabul, Kalamazoo or Kathmandu.

The most exciting part is that is that we’re just getting started.

Over the next several years, smartphones will increasingly replace unconnected mobile phones, which means that almost everyone on the planet will have a tiny computer in their back pocket. And they’ll be doing more work on those computers, no matter their industry. Nearly every job in the world will become a ‘computer job’ — not just white-collar desk jobs. Oil rig workers miles out at sea, plumbers making house calls and, yes, office workers will all rely on smart mobile devices to do their jobs. Not only does this open up new ways for companies to connect with billions of employees, customers and partners, but it’s also an opportunity for forward-thinking leaders to redefine how their companies communicate, collaborate and train employees in the “mobile-first” world we’re quickly approaching.

This shift also spells the end for the multiplicity of specialized mobile devices in many industries. Standalone GPS receivers, building badges, television remote controls, MP3 players and those rugged mobile devices the UPS driver uses to scan packages and capture signatures will soon become obsolete. This consolidation into a single device – the smartphone – will also cause other products that we use in our daily lives to become more efficient and to work seamlessly with smartphones. We’re already seeing this in vehicles that read drivers’ Twitter and Facebook feeds and in smart appliances that allow homeowners to adjust the temperature or activate the alarm while on vacation.

And that innovation is not reserved for our personal lives – hardly. When CEOs think about computing and how employees will work in five years, they should envision one super powerful, personally owned device that’s always on, supplemented by a network of peripheral devices at home and at work that are just as agile. That’s the direction we’re headed. Fast. And the implications will be as profound in business as they will be in our personal lives, a line that continues to blur as we all become more connected.

BYOD is Not BS – It’s the Beginning
For businesses, the first step toward a mobile-first reality is ensuring that their employees are connected to the information they need — no matter where they work or what device they use. The Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) trend we’ve seen popping up in headlines is only the beginning of this shift. In a few years, a company not allowing employees to access company applications and content from their personal devices will be as unthinkable as a company not providing computers to their employees today.

The good news is that many businesses are seeing the light and are now encouraging employees to work from personal mobile devices. And those that have are already reaping the benefits, including fewer hardware costs and improved employee satisfaction and productivity. Take Pandora Media (P) as an example. The company’s CFO, Steve Cakebread, has noticed increased employee productivity and happiness by allowing Pandora employees to use the devices with which that they’re already familiar, while also saving the company on hardware and training costs. A win-win, indeed.

Of course, the shift to a mobile-first environment isn’t as simple as sending company-wide email or a relaying a directive from the CIO. There are security and compliance issues that come into play as organizations open up their access channels, with employees potentially being the weakest link.

Still, if the plan is built correctly and has the proper measures in place, the benefits organizations stand to see from fully embracing mobile far outweigh the risks or challenges in doing so. Companies that resist this shift will feel the pinch in the future. I’d compare it to the feeling of being stuck with a brand new typewriter when the first personal computers started rolling out in the 1980s.

Hitching Your Wagon – Betamax vs. VHS, Redux
Of course, hidden within all of this opportunity are the pitfalls we all hope to avoid. Right now, the biggest mistake to make would be hitching to the wrong wagon – or mobile platform, in this case. Today, it’s iOS vs. Android, with RIM slipping into irrelevance and Microsoft scrambling to catch up. To get an idea of which way the wind is blowing, company leaders must look at where the most popular apps are available and hedge toward that platform. This is important when buying packaged applications and services, and when you’re building your own internally. You don’t want to commit the company to the next Betamax or HD DVD.

In the not-so-distant future, nearly every job will be a mobile one. To take advantage of that mobile-first future, more companies need to build competency in mobile development. Money spent on customization has always dwarfed packaged software —and mobile will be no different. Companies need to aggressively invest in this future or risk irrelevance. That means either focusing on their own application development or working with forward-thinking partners who understand the mobile and cloud forces that are reshaping business. Companies won’t just be able to rely on legacy vendors, all of which have decades of pre-mobile inertia built into their products, to react swiftly enough.

The future’s within reach for any company willing to embrace and invest in mobile, instead of relying on yesterday’s software, no matter how comfortable it may seem today.

Todd McKinnon is the CEO of

, a company he co-founded in 2009 with the mission of empowering enterprises to realize the full benefits of their cloud-based applications.