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The mobile office – from Soho to Noho

It’s difficult today to grasp that just 20 years ago most of us were stuck in the same office set-up that had ruled the business world for a century. In this first of a series of excerpts from my new book, The Mobile Office, the argument goes that even the internet was not the real office revolution …

From the 1880s to the 1980s pretty much the only thing that changed in the typical office was the shape and size of the furniture. Telephones, typewriters, “in” and “out” trays and filing cabinets were the order of the century. The concept of working from a home environment, whether in your own business or for a large organisation, was seen as both quaint and bizarre.

The computer was regarded as the domain of governments and giant corporations to the extent that, when modern computer giant IBM first decided to manufacture personal computers in the 1950s, an executive by the name of Cuthbert Hurd predicted that “he could find customers for as many as 30 machines”. Incidentally, that was never said by IBM boss Tom Watson Jr, as urban legend has it, nor did Watson ever say: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,” as some histories suggest.

And Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment, did say as late as 1977: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” It wasn’t that he didn’t believe it possible; he was just more interested in getting his technicians to focus on the company’s business computers than to be dabbling with personal technology.

It was left to hobbyists to make the computer personal — coincidentally also in 1977. That year, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, founders of Apple Computer, announced the Apple II, regarded as the first true personal computer. The concept really took off in 1981, when IBM announced the PC. For the next 20 years this device spread its footprint on to almost every working desktop in the world.

Suddenly, anyone could run an office without needing a human and logistical support system around them. Plug the PC into a printer, add a scanner, and you’re away. Communication, however, was still a problem as you were reliant on that same desk telephone that had kept the office tethered to one spot for a century.

In the mid-1990s, that began to change. Laptop computers became small enough, light enough and almost cost-effective enough to be viable for small-business owners who needed to be out of the office regularly.

At almost that same time the cellular phone became a standard communications tool and the internet arrived as the answer to long-distance teamwork and quick, easy and low-cost written communications. But as revolutionary as it was, it still could not liberate the office worker, even if it did make radically new business models possible.

But, while organisations held on to the traditional office structure, outside the corporate world and tradition-bound industries, the seeds of a mini-revolution were being sown. The office was moving into the home. The term “small office/home office” (Soho) was coined to describe what had overnight become a highly desirable target market for the computer industry.

However, while communications were now mobile, the office itself wasn’t. By the year 2000, the cellphone could act as a modem, but it was frustratingly slow. The portable office, as it was then, required mobile workers to connect a laptop modem to a telephone socket in the wall – and hope for an internet access “point of presence” – wherever they went.

It was a frustrating process, and a slow one.

The mobile-office revolution truly began in South Africa at the end of 2004, when Vodacom released the first 3G card on to the market and MTN followed shortly thereafter. The initial cost of 3G was absurdly high — R50 per megabyte of downloaded data — but in May 2005 it dropped to R2 per megabyte, igniting a fire of enthusiasm among corporate workers.

World Wide Worx research showed that a third of major South African corporations issued 3G cards to executives on the move that year. More than half of them issued cards in 2006, and more than 80% in 2007.

The small-business market was less enthusiastic, seeing mobile connectivity as a luxury. In 2006 only 5% of small and medium enterprises in South Africa issued 3G cards to staff members, although that grew dramatically to 35% in 2007.

But with the growing threat of power failures and loadshedding in 2008, the small entrepreneur could no longer survive without a laptop computer and a 3G card. The true mobile office had become not only a reality but also a necessity in South Africa.

With it came the realisation that you didn’t even need a physical office to run a business: it is possible to run a business from a table in a coffee shop. We at World Wide Worx have termed that phenomenon the Noho, for “no office/home office”.

  • Future excerpts from The Mobile Office will look at some of the tricks and pitfalls of setting up a Noho. The book, subtitled “The Essential Small Business Guide to Office Technology”, is published by Double Storey and is an easy read at 88 pages. It will be available at the end of November for about R80 at Exclusive Books, PNA, Estoril, Wordsworth, Adams, and Fogarty’s. For other stores, please ask for it to be ordered from the publisher.