Ontario’s in-car cell phone ban vs. anytime, anywhere computing

Over breakfast this morning, my wife asked me if we were writing or publishing anything about the Ontario government’s plan to ban cell phone use while driving.

“No,” I said reflexively. “It’s not really our area. It’s not like IT managers are there in the car with the drivers, or that they set up the phones that are used in the cars. And it’s not like those phones are being connected to some back-end system that IT departments are managing.”

It was only when I got to work that I realized everything I had told her was wrong. If IT managers support any of the applications that work on that cell phone, they are in the car with those drivers, however indirectly. If they helped enable those phones to access the corporate network, those devices are de facto enterprise clients. And if those phones are able to access Web-based software programs, they are connected to back-end systems that IT departments are managing.

This doesn’t meant that IT departments should be storming Transportation Minister Jim Bradley’s office to put a stop to his proposed legislation. Far from it. If the experts are right – that sending or checking e-mail, managing SMS or (God forbid) playing a portable video game while driving puts lives in jeopardy – there’s no reason for users to be active on their devices once they’re behind the wheel. But IT managers should study the impact of this ban as an object lesson in how to manage expectations, productivity and perhaps even return on investment for mobile technology.

The thing is, checking e-mail or SMS are among the lowest-level data tasks users can perform on a cell phone today. As technology evolves, handsets will be used as much for information search and retrieval as they are two-way communication. This includes everything from mobile services to access Yellow Pages or similar public directories to enterprise information repositories up to and including a data warehouse. It’s one thing to get a call from a loved one while you’re in traffic or to read an e-mail message from a friend, but business intelligence reports? Talk about distracted drivers.

Right now the ban would not apply to handfree devices, but that misses the point. As I wrote yesterday, carriers and ISVs are collaborating on services that allow voice commands to navigate the Web or obtain information from a data source. These services will eventually allow users to not only get surface information such as the weather or movie times, but actionable items pertaining to their business. Users need to make decisions before they actually take action, however, and if you’re making business decisions while trying to change lanes, you end up having problems.

A ban of any kind flies in the face of mobile computing’s promise of anytime, anywhere access. But perhaps the car is only one of the places where users should not be trying to manage information. If we try to access mission-critical systems and data while referring a fight between the kids at home, how sure are we that we’ll make the best decisions? How long before companies use analytics to track not only who made what decisions, but where they were when they made it and amid what external factors? Mobility means you can take work with you. It doesn’t mean you’ll work as well as you would in the office.

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