The big problem with mobility

Tuesday - 9/24/2013, 4:24am EDT

Commentary By Tom Temin
Federal News Radio

Something's been bugging me about all of the contemporary discussion on mobility, mobile devices, and the federal mobility strategy. A star of federal mobility, Rick Holgate of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, gave me a clue some months ago. I'd been using my two iOS devices and found them extremely resistant to the function of editing documents. Rick showed me a small technique I hadn't known: Simply holding your finger on a word for a moment causes that area of the screen to magnify. You can then move the cursor to the middle of a word just by sliding it. I'm certain I was the last person in the world to learn that trick. Since then I've shown it to a couple of other people and surprised them. It's absolutely necessary since iOS doesn't support a mouse, and in any case iPads don't have USB ports, God forbid.

Tom Temin, Federal News Radio

Say what you will about Windows 8, but at least you can punch your forefinger into the middle of the word and the cursor will go there.

Also, relative to now, the mobile versions of applications like WordPress and Google Docs were buggy and erratic as late as a few months ago. The most recent updates have eliminated many of the bugs that prevented you from editing documents more easily.

At last week's Mobility Summit, put on by the Mobile Work Exchange, the thing that's been bugging me got a name, courtesy of George Jakabcin, the CIO of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. We were co-moderating a wrap-up session at the summit. His word was, "content." Mobile devices are primarily designed to consume and display, but not create, content.

Duh! Why couldn't I articulate that earlier? By "content" I mean written documents. Others mean business grade spreadsheets, or presentations. If by "written" you mean tweets or text messages, then fine. But if you mean field reports, white papers, investigations, detailed memorandums, or policy statements, you'd be crazy to try and originate them on a mobile device.

Of course this seems obvious. I do a lot of white papers, speeches and ghost-written pieces for a number of Beltway companies. Writing, I like to tell people, is easy. You sit in front of your screen — it used to be your typewriter — and wait for the blood drops to form on your forehead. The writing I do requires a lot of research, and therefore lots of open Web sites and source documents. At my main setup I have 475 square inches of display space, and wish I had half again more. Plus a mouse and full-sized, full travel keyboard. Even trying to do this sort of work on a large notebook is a pain, with only one screen. As for Android or iOS mobile devices, forget about it. In some ways, these are basically TSR — terminate-and-stay-resident — operating systems like CP/M (kids, look it up).

At this point in the mobile revolution, most federal use is confined to e-mail, text messaging, SharePoint for the more advanced, and of course making phone calls. A few agencies, like the Agriculture Department and FEMA, have mobile apps for specific tasks. Most haven't yet mobile-ized their Web applications. But largely missing from the discussions is the basic distinction between creating and viewing content. As telework, which generally means using a remote PC hooked up through a VPN, transforms into mobile work, which means certain types of devices used anywhere, the create-consume distinction needs to be acknowledged.

As does the fact that content creation on mobile devices is mostly a nightmare.

The mobility crowd will have a stronger sell if it refrains from overselling what professionals can reasonably do on mobile devices. I've heard the stories of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanding that everything be served up to her on an iPad. I'm willing to bet her speech writers and presentation-makers didn't originate any of her content on one.

I'm as addicted to my iPhone as anyone. Mine brings in three e-mail accounts for various pieces of my life, a library of YouTube music videos to practice along with for the cover band I'm in, do Instagram, Twitter and all the rest. Just the other night, I'd forgotten my recording kit for a radio interview. When I got to the wi-fi equipped restaurant where the guest was waiting, I downloaded a competent — and free — voice-recording app that was good enough for broadcast. (Hear it here; it's the interview with RSA's Mike Brown.)

But the heavy, professional, highly paid-for stuff? That still takes a conventional computer.


Tom Temin is host of The Federal Drive, which airs 6-10 a.m. on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog, Temin on Tech.