IDC: Mobile workforce growing but without support

Backing up workers in the field using mobile devices could become a headache, say analysts

The global mobile workforce is expected to grow by more than 20% in the next four years, with 878 million mobile workers toiling away on laptops, handhelds and cell phones by 2009, according to a recent study by analyst firm IDC.

However, as the number of mobile workers rises, the firm is sounding an alarm that IT staffers assigned to support them may not be ready.

IT managers today often don’t deal with the complexities associated with managing, securing and supporting handheld devices and applications for mobile workers. Current spending levels on software to provision mobile workers and support them once they are working has been less than robust, according to two analysts.

Ken Dulaney, chief mobile and wireless analyst at Gartner, says mobile management tools “have made sense for IT to deploy for many, many years ... but only a small portion of companies are using them, because they don’t want to spend the money”.

Tools to manage mobile devices remotely, ensure the software on them is updated and provide other support can cost US$50 (NZ$73) per user, he says. While installing the tools can “keep things operational and avoid unexpected costs with a bug or something else ... companies just wait until a train wreck before using them”.

As a result, companies such as iAnywhere (now a subsidiary of Sybase), Intellisync and dozens of smaller vendors that offer mobile solutions have often “languished in the market, waiting to be acquired”, he says.

One complicating factor, he says, is that virtual private networks (VPNs), which are offered by hundreds of vendors, are proprietary and inefficient, meaning few companies use them.

IDC analyst Kevin Burden, one of the authors of the study mentioned above, says interest in mobile support has increased as IT shops try to figure out what they should be doing.

“IT managers are starting to realise that mobile [technology] support is different from supporting a laptop in an office,” Burden says. “IT departments have traditionally just wanted it to be easy and have been building mobile solutions piecemeal.

“Cost is the biggest barrier to providing mobile IT resources, since IT managers have demands coming from all over,” he says. He argues that over-the-air support has to be given more consideration than it has received so far.

Sometimes, for instance, IT shops find that offering wireless email is easy, Burden says. But that doesn’t necessarily hold true for other functions mobile workers need. “Staying connected on the road through email and voice — now, that’s really easy. But, if IT’s talking about the process of taking data that runs inside the company and manipulating it and changing it from the road that’s not easy,” he says.

Despite these concerns some IT managers are already taking the issue seriously.

Irving Tyler, CIO at Quaker Chemicals, says “We have about 60% of our workforce not working at fixed offices, so [provisioning and support] is an important issue for us.”

Those workers use a VPN for remote email connections and have access to a web conferencing tool Quaker implemented for them. The company has also deployed authentication technology for users in the field and locks down their laptops so they can’t install unauthorised software.

“To be honest, this is all we’ve ever needed,” Tyler says. “We try to keep things simple and, in general, we really don’t have many problems.”

The IDC study not only looked at the overall growth in the number of mobile workers but also at an expected rise in the demands on those workers, such as a salesperson who might need to use a wireless device to check a corporate database for immediate availability of products.

Expectations for mobile workers and managers will be higher in the next few years for things such as how quickly an email is answered or how often, Burden says.

“Now you can no longer use certain excuses,” he says. “Lawyers have actually told me that they can no longer use the excuse ‘I was in court.’ Those kinds of excuses don’t fly anymore.”

The study looked at growth rates by regions of the world, indicating that the mobile worker population in the US will reach 113 million in 2009, growing nearly 3% in each of the next three years.

That growth could be stymied, however, by several factors including security measures that stifle mobile device use.

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