A blog about the new generation of work

The iPhone 3G & GPS: Tracking your employees wherever they go?

Being a giant Apple fanboy, I was pretty excited with all the iPhone news announced at Monday’s Worldwide Development Conference (WWDC). In addition to a wealth of new features — and availability in Canada, which I’m ridiculously happy about — the new iPhone also boasts GPS.

This isn’t a new feature for smart phones. Blackberry has it, as do some of the Windows Mobile models. But with the iPhone and Apple’s focus on entering the business market in a big way, I think we’re posed to see a real explosion of GPS-enabled employee smart phones across large businesses.

This is cool, of course, but it’s also kind of alarming for one big reason. Something that Steve Jobs himself mentioned in his keynote introduction of the GPS abilities: tracking.

Here’s Steve talking GPS:

The Big Brother Effect

Forgive me for getting a bit paranoid here. I’m not railing against the feature itself. It’s definitely not going to keep me from embracing the technology. But given that:

  • The iPhone is being heavily marketed to large corporate users
  • The iPhone has GPS that can do ‘live tracking’
  • Companies can write proprietary applications and ‘push’ them out to their employee’s iPhones
  • Those proprietary applications can use the iPhone SDK’s location services to access real-time GPS data

…doesn’t it seem possible that a company could rather easily create something that would allow them to see where all their employees are at any given time, assuming the employee had their phone on and was within satellite range?

Is this necessarily a bad thing?

If I were a person obsessed with privacy, this might bother me. But I tend to take a more open view on privacy matters in this age of facebook and social networking. Still, though, it has to be said that a situation where it would be rather trivial to create a real-time ‘employee’ tracker has far-reaching implications for how we model ‘work’ in the twenty-first century. Suddenly the boss can know if, say, Bob went directly to the meeting or — god forbid! — stopped for a long lunch, or if Joanne, who was supposedly ‘stuck in traffic’, actually just overslept.

Technology brings with it changes, some obvious and some more surprising. The iPhone and other smartphones are likely to bring with them a lot of positives, but there are some potential negatives. After all, how would you feel about your employer literally being able to ‘track’ you during work hours? Is that something you, as an employee, could feel comfortable with?

Tech Infrastructure for Successful Y Working

1533273897_1199f03693.jpgIn the short time since I started this blog, I’ve already talked fairly extensively about Generation Y’s tendency to want to be mobile in their work. (For more, see these posts.) I truly believe that one of the more immediate effects of Generation Y going to work will be the eradication of the long-standing ’9-to-5′ daily schedule, to be replaced with a far more fluid dynamic, where work is done (and, yes, it gets done) at the hours that make sense to the person doing it, as opposed to an arbitrary rigid structure.

And, of course, one of the big reasons that’s an option now is because of technology and web infrastructure. Everyone has computers and high-speed connections. E-mail accounts can be accessed anywhere in the world. Files can zoom around faster than they ever could through those old pneumatic tubes. Our laptops can now, for some reason, fit inside manilla envelopes. Technology is the key that’s unlocked the chains that were holding employees at their desk.

That said, developments like this drive me crazy.

Rogers already has a twisted idea of what constitutes reasonable internet use. Under their BlackBerry plans, they claim that 1.5 MB of data is “enough for tons of picture uploads,” and they ridiculously average web pages at a 4 KB maximum. That would be equivalent to a web page without any images, and consisting of less than 4,000 characters of text. Rogers justifies that measurement by only classifying those sites as ad hoc pages “optimized for mobile viewing.” Under the unlimited data plan, consumers can only visit Rogers-approved sites, like Lavalife Mobile, Yahoo! Search, and Canada.com, lest they encounter the good ol’ 5ยข/KB rate again. So, you can search for something on Google, but just don’t visit the link once you find it.

Rogers is the largest cellphone service provider in Canada. They are an awful company and largely the reason Canada lags so far behind the U.S. when it comes to mobile connectivity. Our data rates have been traditionally more expensive than those found in third-world countries. And this so-called ‘unlimited plan’ is just a smokescreen to disguise the fact that we still have less connectivity than Rwanda does.

This bothers me for so many different reasons.

First: governments need to realize that the internet for home users is NOT just another kind of entertainment, like a TV with a keyboard attached. Web connectivity is a utility, one that is rapidly becoming a bigger part of people’s lives than the phone. The internet is a utility, not an entertainment service bringing fun games, hilarious joke and graphic pornography (even if it does those things too) — giving telecom companies free reign to create expensive tiered pricing schemes for it is the equivalent of doing the same to the electric or water companies.

Second: even though Rogers and businesses may not realize this, schemes like this are actively hurting productivity in Canadian cities. Even with the Blackberry — which I would argue is not a very Y-friendly device to begin with, and exists largely through corporate accounts — they’ve created a barrier between users and true mobile messaging.

Third: they’re losing money on deals like this. All Rogers needs to do is offer a real, legitimate unlimited mobile data plan and whatever marginal per-megabyte losses they’ll lose out on will be quickly replaced with a massive influx of customers. They have the iPhone on their doorstep — a guaranteed million-seller in Canada — and they won’t release it because they’d rather charge consumers a dollar to click on a google link.

As testy as this issue can make me, at the very least I can remain confident that what we’re experiencing in Canada now is a mere speed bump before we hit true mobility. Telecoms in the US also balked at customer-friendly pricing schemes, but were eventually forced into it due to competition. We’ve got less competition in our mobile market here in Canada, but we also a government that looks to be getting involved, so hopefully we’re not too far away.

Generation Y is counting on it.

Photo by Blog Story. Licensed under Creative Commons