Unchecked consumer tech a threat to IT shops

The consumerisation of IT is a trend that must be managed

How is your company handling the rising tide of consumer smartphones, like the iPhone?

I have asked that question of a lot of IT professionals over the past couple of years. Here is one response: "We're fully behind the iPhone at my company. We're replacing BlackBerries where and when we can. The iPhone user experience trumps [our IT] management concerns. We make it happen for the ones who want it." But I have also heard the contrasting view, the one you might sum up as, "We have our users so locked down, we don't worry about the iPhone or its ilk."

IT pros who answer either way underestimate their users or the degree of trouble multiple types of half-secured consumer devices can get them into. You may be handling it now, but how about when your employees dump their desktops for their own iPads or similar devices? How about when the numbers really mount? Have you kept pace with the number of smartphones being released? And many users have two or three of these devices.

The consumerisation of IT is becoming a landslide, big enough to have its own acronym -- I nominate "CoIT." But I am not sure many enterprises are all that aware of it.

There was a recent story about an Exchange ActiveSync issue that apparently causes Apple's iPhone 4, or any device running Apple's iOS 4 mobile operating system (the iPad will get it in September), to bang on the Exchange server if it can not get synched right away. Server admins are not going to like that. And I don't really need to lay out for you all of the more profound security and compliance issues.

So IT organisations need to think this through. Larger enterprises with thousands of employees are absolutely going to need help, whether it is homegrown or an enterprise application such as Sybase's iAnywhere or BoxTone's Mobile Service Management. The time to think about this is now. Mobile devices have matured and they offer significant advantages to their users. Have you even figured out what the potential dangers are for your company? Most IT organisations don't have a lot of information about the usage of consumer devices in their midst.

CoIT is being driven by the arrival of increasingly useful mobile technologies and the persistence of the economic downturn, which has pushed people to work longer hours and merge their professional and personal lives. But CoIT isn't just about mobile devices.

The rise of interest in Web 2.0-based social tools for business use (also known as Enterprise 2.0) is in many ways a sister trend. Business people are weary of complex, monolithic software. They want lightweight, web-based tools that echo the feel, and even sometimes the purpose, of social media apps like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. They want to blend personal and professional communications because it is all about multitasking. They want slick devices that unify all aspects of their lives. And they want to be able to use that software on their devices for business and personal needs wherever they go. No limits.

Think the iPad has no business use? I expected that to be so, but I was wrong. I am hearing that many enterprises have hundreds of iPads that they know about being used for business purposes. For example, the iPad is an excellent presentation tool: Hand it off to your prospective customer, and he is in control.

CoIT is an accidental revolution, a change in the way people work and the IT-related tools they use. After 20 or so years of iteration, smartphones have stopped being the product of too much compromise. At the same time, more and more business is conducted by simple apps running in the cloud or on your smartphone (or both). All this is potentially a lot less under your organisation's control than most business activities used to be.

Like many end users, I have an iPad and an iPhone 4, and I am not giving them up. There is a lot for IT to figure out.

Scot Finnie is editor in chief at Computerworld US

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