Smartphone management requires a smart IT shop

The proliferation of mobile devices is a challenge, says Jon Brodkin

Smartphones and mobile devices are becoming a nightmare for IT shops to manage, with users carrying multiple types of phones with different operating systems and expecting access to email, video-conferencing and various types of corporate applications.

Management was relatively simple when IT managers gave mobile employees a Dell Latitude laptop and a BlackBerry and told them "you're good to go", said Gartner wireless analyst Paul DeBeasi, who took part in a panel discussion at the recent Interop conference in Las Vegas on key issues in wireless and mobile technology.

But now phones are becoming like mini-computers, and to complicate matters there are six major platforms: BlackBerry, iPhone, Android, Palm, Windows Mobile and Symbian, said Michael Miller, who is a writer on technology as well as senior vice president for technology strategy at Ziff Brothers Investments.

"Suddenly, you've got six mobile platforms out there and you're going to have to decide what you're going to support," Miller said.

Giving everyone email is relatively easy, but customers are expecting access to all kinds of enterprise applications.

"What isn't easy is taking your corporate applications and suddenly running them on all these platforms," Miller said. "We are all used to writing applications that run on Windows desktops and laptops. What happens in a world that expects connectivity in their pocket at all time? You are not getting a device like [an iPhone or BlackBerry] that runs Windows 7, nor would you want one."

Mobile technology moves fast, with new smartphones hitting the market all the time and continuing development of new cellular standards such as 4G, and LTE.

As the mobile world becomes more complicated, enterprises can't just decide to support one device, said Lisa Phifer, president of Core Competence, a business technology consulting firm. An enterprise may focus more of its efforts on a few strategic platforms and applications, but IT executives will find it difficult to block certain mobile devices.

"Instead of looking at mobility as something that we do for just a few corporate standard devices … I think we need to change the way we think about this to 'how do we enable mobility on just about any device," she said.

Mobile phones are much more diverse than laptops, Phifer continued. To make her point, she showed the audience an HTC Droid phone she bought four months ago. It turned out the phone doesn't run an application she needed to test during the week of Interop, so she had to bring a Google Nexus phone with her as well. Some users may have a Droid phone and an iPod Touch, she noted.

Some of this is a matter of preference, but users also have legitimate work-related reasons for bringing multiple types of smartphones into the corporate network, she said.

While security is a big concern, mobile device management may be an even bigger one. A survey of 475 Interop attendees pegged mobile device management as the biggest mobile concern, with 200 people saying that is their top worry.

Ultimately, enterprises need new management platforms and policies that are inclusive of multiple types of devices, Phifer said.

If all mobile applications ran in web browsers, creating standard tools that can be used across mobile platforms would be somewhat simple. But the rise of the iPhone and Android has fuelled the rise of individual "apps," many of which work on one device but not another.

The Android platform is open and easy to write applications for, but that is not so with the iPhone, Miller said.

"Apple has this very locked-down application development process," Miller said. "You're not allowed to develop using any tool not sold by Apple. If you've got Adobe or .Net you're not allowed to use that, theoretically, to create an application that runs on the iPhone."

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