What to do about wireless ads on company equipment

Advertising has already started to appear on wireless devices. The question for workers is whether they will view the advertising, especially when the device and the air-time costs are supplied by the boss.

Research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan Ltd. predicts that about 35 million Americans will take part in some form of mobile advertising or marketing this year. In addition, nearly 90 percent of all major brands are making plans to market their products via mobile devices, said Mark Emery, director of strategic accounts at Air2Web Inc., a mobile software and applications vendor in Atlanta. He spoke at Frost & Sullivan's Mobile & Wireless Enterprise conference in Indian Wells, California.

Air2Web is already working with mobile devices and companies advertising their products, including Starbucks Corp., he said. A user can locate the nearest Starbucks coffee shop from a wireless device by inserting his ZIP code into a Starbucks application created by Air2Web. In the near future, wireless phones equipped with location-based technologies will locate the user and automatically display the closest coffee shop, he said.

In the Starbucks example, users are choosing to find the information, so there is no concern that users are getting information they didn't want, Emery said.

In addition, wireless carriers have been careful so far to make sure their customers are not getting advertising unless they consent to receive it. "Why would a carrier sacrifice their goodwill with a customer by giving away access to an advertiser?" Emery asked.

But the real question some IT managers raised at this conference was how strict they need to be with users who will be faced with an increasing amount of advertising.

"We don't know where this question is going to go," said George McQuillister, senior product manager at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in San Francisco. Some uses of company-issued cell phones and wireless devices that are not directly work-related are now permitted, he said. "It comes down to trust and accountability" with employees.

PG&E already has banned use of the Pearl by BlackBerry because its multimedia capabilities lead it to be considered as more of an entertainment device, he said. Also, to limit access to advertising, employers could employ filters similar to those used on desktop PCs that access the Internet to prevent workers from viewing pornography or other objectionable material.

McQuillister said he personally carries two BlackBerries, one for work and the other for personal use, and pays for the personal air-time minutes out of his own pocket.

But several IT managers said they will have to evaluate where to draw the line as more employees are asked to carry wireless devices for work with the expectation that they will be contacted late at night or on weekends.

Gerry Purdy, a Frost & Sullivan analyst, said advertising isn't close to the levels it will reach in coming years on wireless devices. He added that responding to a text message advertisement or clicking on an embedded advertising icon on a wireless device might be viewed as the same kind of problem as an employee using a wireless device to gain access to sports scores or other entertainment not directly tied to his job, he said.

"The question of how to deal with wireless advertising in workplaces is too new yet," Purdy said. "There's lots of new ground for policy issues coming from the world of mobile marketing."

At least one thing IT managers can do is to try to negotiate affordable cellular plans that charge a low rate for unlimited service. "It's a start," he said.

Bigger questions for companies that issue wireless devices to workers will revolve around how to prevent workers from gaining access to content that's questionable or that can compromise a company's values.

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