Sunday, April 14, 2013


The seldom-discussed productivity factor

by Larry Geller

There are many reasons why users might choose to do their work (or play) on one computer platform or another. One factor that I have not seen researched is the effect of new computing platforms on productivity.

The release of Visicalc for the Apple II was the beginning of a productivity revolution, and changed the personal computer from a toy or hobby device into an indispensible business machine.

We now have a variety of tools to choose from, according to our needs. Smartphones are popular because they greatly increase our ability to do things at any time at any location. While they have a “phone” aspect to them, these devices are basically wearable computers. They go with us everywhere. We can check our calendars, our email, and carry out a variety of personal or work functions using these little marvels.

It’s no wonder that desktop sales have plummeted. While the Windows PC is no buggy whip or Model T, there will be a sorting out in the market over a relatively short period of time.

But let’s return to productivity for a moment. The smartphone and tablet revolution has increased personal productivity in many ways, and has at the same time both helped and hurt business.

First of all, when “productivity” is discussed by economists, they are talking about boosting work product per employee—and it is for the increased profit of the business. Productivity is continually rising but salaries are declining in real terms and have done so since the ‘70s.

Buying a smartphone and filling it with apps is to experience something totally new to most people—a sudden and significant increase in personal productivity that is realized for one’s own benefit. That’s right, we can eliminate shopping lists because the phone not only does that, but it coordinates the list with family members seamlessly. It’s possible to monitor the baby and the sitter while out to dinner. There’s a camera on it that is usually quite good, replacing that other thing we used to carry around. A smartphone is a pretty good GPS navigator. And so forth.

If you have one, you know what I am talking about.

Whatever you want it to do, it seems there is an app for that.

Business is actually threatened by the attention we pay to our smartphones and tablets.

When new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned employees from telecommuting, her action raised a firestorm of debate up and down and across the Internet. When I first read about it, I felt that it was very reasonable. Of course, I don’t know Mayer’s thinking on the subject, but mine was that the existence of smartphones and tablets have destroyed the option of telecommuting. Why?

Because while they have increased personal productivity, they can and have drastically decreased business productivity.

I base my observation on the number of people I see with their noses stuck firmly in the device on elevators, buses, while walking, in restaurants, and even (ugh!) while driving cars. Basically, a person on company time but far from the boss cannot be counted on to be working any longer.

Sure, that was always the case, but I contend that these new options have demonstrated that users, perhaps unused to having 24/7 fingertip access to this kind of productive computer power, can’t put the devices aside to sit down to do what they are paid for. While it was always possible for an employee working at home to spend significant time surfing the web or checking Facebook on company time, they can still do that—and at other times, glue themselves to their smartphone or tablet screen. It’s a new and powerful distraction that seems irresistible to too many people.

I recall, while crossing the Pali near the YMCA, watching as a car stopped at the red light in the turn lane crept slowly forward well into the crosswalk as I watched. I was afraid to walk in front of the car. Sure enough, as I approached, I could see the driver peering down at her smartphone as the car crept forward, out of her conscious control.

Can such a person be trusted to telecommute? I rest my case.

Smartphones are competing for our attention, and as of now, they are winning a large chunk of it.

Mayer is right, IMHO. And we ought to take a good look at computers, operating systems, and both personal and business productivity.

It’s a bright new world out there with all sorts of possibilities at our fingertips—literally—and some new concerns as well. Microsoft is the company to watch. While it brings productivity (except for the virus plague that accompanies its products), it may also lose in the current attention war.


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