Tech Smart: Electronics ecosystems

March 21, 2012
Noah Levine
Noah Levine

Issue 6

For good and ill, taking your work home with you has never been easier. The Internet makes it possible to connect to just about everything from anywhere, and connecting to the Internet often is as simple as pulling your smartphone from your pocket or a tablet computer from your bag.

For good and ill, taking your work home with you has never been easier. The Internet makes it possible to connect to just about everything from anywhere, and connecting to the Internet often is as simple as pulling your smartphone from your pocket or a tablet computer from your bag.

According to numbers compiled by research firm comScore, as of April 32% of U.S. mobile phone users had smartphones capable of mobile Internet access and running a range of applications. Additionally there are millions of people who have added an iPad or other tablet computer to their mobile computing arsenal.

If you’re among this growing segment of the population did you choose your phone or tablet with business uses in mind? If you didn’t have you found business uses creeping into the way you use your new technology? If you did make the purchase with business uses as a high priority, did you consider how it would integrate with your current business technology before making the purchase?

These powerful mobile computers can keep you connected to your lab from your home, the golf course, while travelling to a conference or just about anywhere else you happen to wander. This connectivity means problems can be addressed immediately and numerous aspects of operating your business can be handled while you’re not physically in the office. Leveraged correctly, mobile computing via smartphone or tablet can mean you can address a dentist’s concerns about a case on a moments notice, or update the lab’s financial books while waiting for an inevitably delayed flight.

Of course for all of his to work, your smartphone or tablet needs to be able to speak the same language as the systems you use in your office. With some systems this can be an almost seamless operation, but for others this can be a little trickier to set up, and unfortunately that is the way the companies creating these technologies want things.

What constitutes an ecosystem

Just as in nature, a technology ecosystem is made up of a number of independent parts that interact with each other. A healthy ecosystem allows its various technological components to perform their individual functions and to work as a group when necessary. A computer network with automatic back up, and software applications that work together would be one example.

Getting files from different ecosystems to talk to each other can often involve file conversions or other workarounds. When you set up a computer system for you lab it is likely you chose for all of the computers to run on Microsoft’s Windows or Apple’s OS X so that they could talk to each other and files that work on one computer would work on the others. Years ago transferring files between a PC and a Mac was much more difficult, but just as dental technology companies are migrating to open architectures and common file formats, demand and cross-platform software titles have made working between the two major desktop operating systems fairly simple.

For the most part adding a mobile computer to the mix will work well with any of these desktop environments, but that will not always be the case. If the mobile system will be used just for handling phone calls, checking emails and possibly connecting a calendar you should have no problem regardless of the type of smartphone or tablet you choose. However, if you plan to work with documents, access your lab’s computers to remotely access case files and basically run your lab from wherever, knowing that machines can work together well should be a consideration from the start.

Buying in wholesale

The easiest way to make sure this is the case is the purchase mobile technologies running on companion software to the systems in your lab. This can work quite well for a Mac-based lab as the iPhone and iPad are proven technologies with a wide array of available applications, some of which are even dental lab specific. If the lab uses Apple’s iWork software package, there are mobile versions available and many other desktop applications have mobile incarnations.

Apple is the company most dedicated to providing a fully interconnected ecosystem of traditional desktops, portable laptops, and fully mobile smart phones and tablets. Everything is designed to work together ever more seamlessly and the company has been proactive in designing its software titles to work well with files from other systems such as opening a Microsoft Word document in Apple’s Pages. Of course, some people feel penned in by Apple’s closed loop approach and overbearing control.

For a PC-based lab to take a similar approach that would mean adopting a Windows Phone 7 smartphone and playing wait and see to determine if the company ever plans to move into the tablet arena. Of course software developers have not flocked to Windows Phone 7 and there are far fewer applications available for those smartphones. For now Windows seems to be behind the times in the smartphone arena and the former leader of mobile business technology, BlackBerry maker RIM, has been in a steep decline.

Working around the edges

The current leader in the mobile operating system market is none of the above. Google’s Android is the most widely adopted smartphone platform and it is mounting a challenge to Apple’s iPad tablet as well. The Android devices have a large number of available applications as well, but even though Google recently launched a cloud-based Chrome operating system for laptops, there really isn’t a desktop system that is set up for seamless integration with Android’s mobile devices.

Google has pushed for remote data storage (more on cloud computing in next month’s column) but Android users can find many ways to use their mobile devices in conjunction with their desktop systems. In fact Android is probably the easiest to work with in terms of seamless and automatic integration. Whether you use a Windows system or a Mac, Google has made it easy to set things up so your phone’s calendar, contacts and other data will automatically sync back to your desktop system.

Even if your mobile devices don’t match up completely with your desktop system, applications such as Applications To Go (available for both Android and iPhone) can let you access documents. An iPad or an Android tablet have both the screen size and web browser to access any computer systems you might log into from your home computer, and services such as LogMeIn and GoToMyPC allow remote control of any computer set up for the system. The former works with almost any mobile platform while the later is currently only available for iPad, with iPhone and Android support in the works. With such software you could even log into your lab’s design system and work on a CAD/CAM case from anywhere.

Accessing your office via your mobile devices can be a great tool, but if you plan to really use your system to do any of your work remotely, you also need to think about the mobile network you will be signing up with. The technology today would allow you to take a phone call from a dentist, pull up the details on the cases he has at your lab, and even send him pictures of the case and possibly even capture and send a short video of work being done on the case via a webcam. But such a scenario could actually play out if Verizon is your mobile carrier.

While AT&T’s network is often derided for poor service when compared with Verizon’s, they operate on different technologies, and the Verizon network doesn’t have the capability to handle both a phone call and data services at the same time. This will change in a year or two when both network move to the same platform for their 4G networks, but for now Verizon might be less useful to a lab looking to maximize mobile technology for work purposes.

All of this connectivity and interoperability can be a wonderful thing in terms of efficiency and jumping at opportunities as soon as they present themselves, but there’s plenty to be said for getting away from the office once in a while. It’s important to remember that just because you can do work anytime and anywhere, it doesn’t mean you have to jump into lab mode every time there’s a buzz from your pocket or a ding from your briefcase. These mobile technologies all come with buttons to their power off, and from time to time those buttons can be more useful than any other function these devices can perform.