Portability vs. Mobility: Is There a Difference?

May 31, 2022 | Blog

Three key takeaways:

  • Portability generally refers to remote work, while mobility refers to on-the-go work that incorporates hand-held devices and (often) new tasks
  • IT departments still approach device management with network and data security as the primary focus. But device mobility has created a new set of problems to be wrestled with.
  • Mobility management solutions can help, but business leaders must create new policy that takes into account the power of mobile 
Semantic arguments tend to be tedious, but in the case of portability versus mobility, it’s important to understand and acknowledge that the two terms are not interchangeable. In fact, portability and mobility have entirely different implications in our day and age, and particularly in this space. Here’s how they should be regarded:

  • Portability refers to the use of laptops and devices that allows once-tethered employees to work remotely, typically performing the same tasks, in much the same way, just in different spaces
  • Mobility involves the use of handheld devices, such as a smartphone or tablet, that provide the freedom to move from space to space, allowing employees to complete a wide variety of tasks while on the go 

When knowledge workers first became untethered from the office, laptops made it happen. Employees were able to perform the same functions and access the same tools from remote locations using a portable computer – whether that was at home, on the road or in the air. Their work, and how they accomplished it, became portable.

Still, those employees typically remained in one place, performing all their usual tasks from a static location. A fundamental shift occurred when handheld devices entered the picture, giving workers the tools to send email from the car, take pictures while walking a job site or check on a work order from the cab of a moving bulldozer – thus making their work mobile. Smartphones and similar hand-held devices brought the power and productivity of mobile computing to the workplace, wherever the location and whatever the task at a given moment.

Our interest here, of course, isn’t in the semantics. It’s reducing safety risks for employees. Consider that in a portable working world, IT could focus on the provisioning of laptops and securing network access (and, thus, company data) without affecting what an employee could do based on their location. The laptop was the worker’s singular tool, and IT could do its work within a single set of parameters. But with the introduction of the smartphone, workers were suddenly freed from the restraints of a single location. With a computer that fits in the palm of a hand, they have achieved not only greater portability – but also the mobility to perform tasks on the go that weren’t feasible from a laptop.

The challenge many companies are running into is that IT departments still approach network and data security as the primary goal for device management. A single workstation – even a portable one – is still a self-contained unit that can be managed with a singular approach. Mobile devices, however, introduce both new tech and new capabilities. That change has empowered employees and enhanced operations across industry. For deskless workers today, portability is no longer enough. And, for the IT department, mobility has created a new set of problems to be wrestled with.

The onus is on IT to do exactly that – and, in some ways, the tech pros have made strides. With the qualification of a wide variety of apps, IT determines which of them are safe to put on devices that access the company network. But that perspective can be limiting. Although security is a top priority, more thought needs to be put into how devices are being used by workers in the field. If certain apps or device functions are business-critical but a threat to worker safety if accessed in certain situations, what’s the workaround?

In most organizations, company policy hasn’t evolved to take into account new devices, technologies and all of the situations occurring around the device. Management and IT must understand not only the tech but also its practical function in the field to land on a policy that makes sense for this modern version of mobility.

Now that workers have this power in the palms of their hands, TRUCE can solve the situational impact on mobility. But business leaders must rethink the old approach to a mobile policy by acknowledging that workers (and their tools) are no longer just portable, but mobile. IT’s perspective is just one of many at a company. It’s time for organizations to formulate mobile usage policy that, while recognizing the power of the tech, also takes into account the needs of all its stakeholders.

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