Ross Cofer, a partner at Burnett + Company, had been waiting patiently for a client at a crowded restaurant when his phone buzzed with a new text message: “Another ‘fire’ at the office! Sorry, but we’ll have to reschedule.”
This message appeared on Cofer’s smartphone, a BlackBerry Bold 9000  that let him call the client to reschedule, update his calendar in Outlook, e-mail his assistant to tell her he would be back in the office in a half-hour and check a project update from the company server. And now, because it appeared as though rain might foil a little league game set for later that evening, Cofer checked the local weather forecast on the Internet before rushing out the door and stowing his phone in his shirt pocket.
Smartphones have so transformed the work lives of employees at Burnett + Company, a public accounting firm in Rancho Cordova, Calif., that IT Manager Aaron Gray even remembers the day the first new phones arrived: Aug. 22, 2007.
“Everybody likes a shiny new toy, and this toy has absolutely revolutionized our business in terms of the efficiency and mobility that it has given us, especially when we’re serving our clients outside of the office,” Gray says. “You’d pretty much have to torture me to get rid of them because we cannot offer our clients the same availability without them.”
Such boundless enthusiasm for smartphones is growing among small and medium-size businesses, which are using them for nearly as many office functions as their personal computers — only conveniently untethered by power cords and power strips.
As more businesses embrace real-time document repositories and on-call Internet applications, smartphones deliver a seamless sense of efficiency between the office and anyplace else an employee might be, and all at a cost that most businesses find well worth the investment. (Figure about $200 for the phone itself and about $1,500 per year, per employee, for Internet service, says Chris Hazelton, research director at The 451 Group in Boston.)
The 24x7 nature of communication comes as music to the ears of the clients of Skjold-Barthel, a seven-person law firm in Minneapolis that uses Sprint HTC Pro  smartphones. Because of the often stressful nature of their cases, legal clients especially appreciate timely communication, says firm partner Ben Skjold.
“Being responsive to our clients is critical, so even if we e-mail them and say, ‘I’ll be in touch with you tomorrow,’ we put their minds at ease because they know they’ve connected with us,” he says. “To respond in such an immediate fashion, without being tied to the office, gives us an invaluable competitive advantage. And besides, we can get more work done too.”
Almost equally valuable to the firm: unified messaging with voicemail from the office. In this case, the phones pick up .wav files attached to e-mails, thereby eliminating the need for lawyers to dial into the firm’s voicemail system.
“Certain applications, like getting directions, obviously make life easier,” Skjold says. “But the integration to our office systems, including Excel and Word, is key to making the most of these devices.”
If employees at SMBs are coming to prize the ease and mobility of cell phones, one needs only to speak to Dana Marlowe, principal partner with Accessibility Partners in Washington, D.C., to learn how the phones are making a real difference for people with disabilities.
Which type of mobile device do you consider the most critical to day-to-day operations at your business?
1% Tablet PCs
SOURCE: CDW poll of 390 BizTech readers
Marlowe works as an advocate before federal agencies and Fortune 500 companies, encouraging them to make technology and consumer electronics accessible to people who are blind, deaf, or physically or mentally disabled.
In addition to being “practically glued” to her BlackBerry Curve  as she communicates with six colleagues around the country, Marlowe says smartphones give people with disabilities a newfound sense of autonomy and independence.
“Let’s say Joe Smith lives four hours out of Chicago in a rural area. Joe is blind, but he has a college degree, is computer savvy and has a computer that reads out loud for him,” she explains. “With a smartphone, Joe has global accessibility; he can work anywhere in the world and no one even has to know he has a disability. He has his independence and can take pride in having a job. It’s huge.”
And, from all indications, always-on connectivity will continue to grow in influence. Gray’s accounting firm, for example, eventually would like to access client tax returns via smartphones.
For now, Gray has what may be considered more domestic interests: He would like his smartphone to function as a garage-door opener and universal remote control.
And if it can someday do all that, he suggests that it might not be long before it puts out fires, too — both real and metaphorical.