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Packing lighter on business travel

From Mobile Applications practice, MindTree

New mobile technology lets baggage-burdened business travelers lighten their load.

Few feel the impact of new technology quite like business travelers do. Just ask Ben Trowbridge, the CEO of consulting firm Alsbridge, who spends three of every four weeks on the road with a laptop, a smartphone, an iPod, a Bluetooth headset and a bird’s nest of accompanying chargers. “I was separating my shoulder from the weight of carrying that briefcase through airports,” he says.

Luckily, the same gadgets that seem to be multiplying in carry-ons now give executives more ways than ever before to cut back on the gear. “I’ll do a day trip without a laptop, depending on what I’m doing,” Trowbridge says. While he still prefers a keyboard for creating documents and writing detailed email, he and his staff of outsourcing and benchmarking experts have turned their iPhones, Droids, BlackBerries and even iPads into pocket-size workstations. Trowbridge’s firm also gives employees access to the company’s CRM, knowledge-management and message systems on their own mobile devices. By doing so, they’ve avoided the phenomenon common at larger companies where many employees carry both a company issued BlackBerry and their personal smartphone of choice.

“That’s something that I think is just waiting to be disrupted and consolidated,” says Chris Fleck, vice president of community and solutions development at Citrix. Between viruses and lost phones, corporations have good reason to restrict their data to company-issued devices. Fleck sees that changing, though, as mobile virtualization makes it easy to store files and software remotely. Since its introduction last year, the Citrix Receiver iPhone app, which pulls up a desktop or a program in the virtual environment popular on office networks, has been downloaded by more than half a million people. With the latest smartphones sporting slots for video cables, Fleck envisions workstations with monitors and wireless keyboards where frequently traveling employees can use their phones like CPUs. Tat said, he doesn’t see laptops disappearing entirely anytime soon: “Executives are just going to have more choice. It might be the iPhone, it might be the iPad, it might be a laptop. They’ll probably have all three, but they won’t need to lug all three.”

To some extent, that’s already true. By 2008, 71 percent of business travelers carried smartphones, says Norm Rose, president of Travel Technology Consulting, and he estimates that that number has risen to 90 percent today. While he thinks cheap, lightweight netbooks have “come and gone,” Rose predicts that the raft of tablet PCs manufacturers plan to introduce in the next year will earn the respect of business travelers. “Tablets will become a viable alternative for many replacing a laptop,” he says.

This is already the case for Sanju Bansal, the chief operating officer of MicroStrategy. His company decided to outfit 400 workers with iPads soon after the device came out, and nearly half the staff will have one by the end of this year. The selling point for Bansal was the way in which the device can share information. MicroStrategy staff working with clients often use the tablet to pull up documents, videos and interactive demonstrations of the firm’s business-intelligence software.

“The iPad feels like the first mobile device that is a reasonable substitute for paper,” Bansal says. He notes that it’s particularly useful for keeping up with the 50 to 100 approvals he has to review every day in his executive role. Using a program developed in-house, executives at MicroStrategy can sign off on purchase orders, hires, promotions and other routine management decisions while taking a taxi or waiting for an elevator. “We’ve found it dramatically speeds the decision cycles in business,” says Bansal.

Games and social networks may rank among the most popular downloads in Apple’s App Store, but developers have also scrambled in the past couple of years to show businesses that a well-equipped smartphone is more of a tool than a toy. As apps track inventory, legal approvals, purchases and other data, “many enterprise systems are now getting enabled on the smartphone,” says MindTree.

Over the past few years, Aralappanavar has watched the apps for travel become more intuitive and more integrated with each other. Beyond booking flights or managing an itinerary, he says, apps will soon know that a user is at the airport and will automatically provide him with fliight information and personally tailored promotions from airport merchants.

Within his own company, Aralappanavar points to web-based conferencing as another technology that has considerably improved coordination with employees on the road. “I think telepresence is making a lot of impact,” he says, and will continue to grow in popularity. He adds that MindTree has seen significant cost savings over the past two years by using Web services for large conference calls with employees spread across three continents.

Just as Internet voice services such as Skype threaten to change the way in which smartphones make calls, improvements to mobile browsers could challenge the dominance of the smartphone’s defining element: downloadable applications. When Mandarin Oriental hotels approached Siteworx to build an iPhone app, developers took a look at improvements made to Apple’s latest iPhone browser and convinced the hotel chain to add a mobile website instead. The resulting site functions just like an app, making use of the phone’s GPS and gesture functions—but with no download required.

For Siteworx president Tim McLaughlin, the technology that helps him travel has progressed as rapidly as the techniques used by his company’s programmers. These days, when he lands in an unfamiliar city he pulls up a digital map and nails down the logistical details of the trip in minutes on his phone. He still stows a laptop at the hotel on most trips to handle the inevitable lengthy contract or email. His latest computer, though, weighs less than three pounds and stays charged for 10 hours, creating a lighter burden and less incentive to leave it behind.

“I think the problem right now is that we’re still tied to keyboards until voice interaction gets better,” McLaughlin says. He tried the iPad but found that its interface and productivity software fell short of his needs. Still, frequent travelers spend more time away from the computer than ever before. As McLaughlin points out, “I can go days on my iPhone alone.”

The latest business software has finally caught up with the explosive advance of mobile technology, leaving sore-shouldered executives with better tools to do more work with less stuff.

Lighten up: Six tricks for easier travel

  • Untangle: Even the sleekest new device can still weigh you down if it comes with a bulky charger. Power up your phone, headset, MP3 player and other devices at the same time with a multicharger, such as the Chargepod. The $60 model can connect six mobile devices at once, and the more expensive version handles laptops as well.
  • Go (Geo) Local: Many cities vying for visitors now offer smartphone applications that take advantage of GPS technology. Singapore’s new app, for example, can give users custom directions to dozens of businesses, as well as perks such as priority reservations at restaurants.
  • Transcribe: Try trading paper notes for one of the steadily improving voice-to-text programs, such as Dragon Dictation or—for text messages—ShoutOUT.
  • Organize: Keep your flight, car and hotel reservations in one place with a digital itinerary manager such as TripIt, WorldMate or Rearden Personal Assistant.
  • Forget Receipts: Recording expenses is as easy as snapping a picture, now that a growing number of expense-reporting systems make use of smartphone cameras. Expense2GO and Expensify are two of the apps available to make travel spending less tedious to track.
  • Make like a Marine: If all else fails, Trowbridge recommends this tip he learned in the military: Take each item out of your laptop bag every few weeks and ask yourself if you absolutely need it. You’ll be surprised at what you leave behind.

PETER BARNES can hunt down an electrical outlet at an unfamiliar airport in two minutes flat.