The mobile enterprise: When choice is too much

The current state of mobile communications reminds me of the immortal lyrics from the pop group Devo: Freedom of choice/Is what you got/Freedom from choice/Is what you want.

For IT executives plotting their companies' mobile strategies, in other words, the problem isn't having enough options. It's managing the expectations of users -- including senior executives and the management team -- in the context of a vast, ever-changing array of choices. Take the iPhone, which even cynical reviewers are calling "the coolest product on the planet." When your CEO asks when IT's planning to support this whizzy new device, what are you going to say?

The question's far from hypothetical because IT departments constantly are getting told that if they don't step up to the plate and start supporting the latest and greatest gizmos and apps, lines of business will do so themselves. And they are: Nearly half of the organizations we work with at Nemertes say that individual departments are funding cellular/mobile costs, in large part because they don't believe IT understands the customized needs of their groups.

The problem with this approach is that it's costing enterprise organizations -- big time. The typical enterprise company is spending a whopping $2500 per mobile user, per year. Keep in mind that the typical enterprise spends something like $10,000 per user, per year on IT costs overall. (Disclaimer: The figure varies widely by vertical industry and geography; your mileage may vary.) That makes mobility one of the most expensive line-items in the budget.

Part of the reason is the fact that when it comes to devices, services and features, mobile users want choice. Unfortunately, enabling all those choices is expensive -- and getting more so by the minute. Enterprises tell me they're planning to increase -- anywhere from doubling to quadrupling -- the number of mobile users over the next 12 to 18 months.

Hmmm. If one of the most expensive line-items in the IT budget is set to double, who do you think's gonna feel the heat?

You guessed it: As soon as companies realize exactly how much they're spending to mobile-enable users, they're going to ask IT to clamp down on costs. We saw the same dynamic with data centers in the 1990s -- by the end of the decade, every two-person department had its own data center. In the recession, however, CIOs were asked to cut costs by consolidating data centers -- which meant that servers went from being controlled by individual departments to being controlled by IT. The same thing's likely to occur with mobility.

The gotcha, of course, is that to control costs, IT departments will need to limit the options they will choose to support. Instead of three or more wireless providers, they'll standardize on one (plus a backup, perhaps). And instead of an infinite array of products and devices, they might support, say, two.

And as for the CEO's iPhone? In their response, IT execs might try repeating another famous Devo line: "Sorry, boss . . . but we're through being cool."

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