First, it was the PC. Then, 20 years later, the BlackBerry. Today, it is the smartphone that is gradually making its way into the enterprise without the IT department’s consent.
The unsanctioned diffusion of consumer hardware into business infrastructure is nothing new, but each wave brings with it peculiar challenges and opportunities.
With their touch screen interfaces, high technical specifications and versatile operating systems, Apple’s iPhone and its ilk give employees access not only to information but also, potentially, to mobile business applications. This has many possible uses but it also creates a new, unfamiliar facet of the IT infrastructure to be procured, secured and managed.
Happily, many of the lessons learned during the evolution of business IT can, with a touch of extra knowledge, be ported across to smart mobile platforms.
But experts warn that such is the scope of these platforms, and so crucial to business operations might they prove in future, that IT departments must develop a centralised and strategic approach today. Otherwise, unchecked proliferation of devices, networks and applications will spawn a whole new generation of IT management headaches.
From on high
The ‘consumerisation’ of business IT is a much-discussed phenomenon. To hear some pundits, it would seem that employees are shipping in entire catalogues of high street electronics into the workplace, and demanding that their IT departments connect them all up and support them.
In the case of smartphones, at least, the story is in fact a little subtler. Most large organisations quite wisely have policies in place that prevent employees using unknown devices for work purposes.
“There’s a certain degree of pressure on companies to support smartphones,” explains Pauline Trotter, an enterprise communications analyst for Ovum, “but we see a lot of them, particularly larger organisations, resisting that pressure as much as they can.”
“However,” she adds, “they might be making exceptions for the board of directors, or for senior management.”
According to Jack Gold, a US enterprise mobility analyst, smartphones typically find their way into the business from the top. “In most conversations I hear about iPhones, it’s not about low-level people,” he says, “it’s about the executives who got one for their birthday and tell their CIO: ‘I like this thing, make it work.’”
When the CEO starts using their smartphone for work purposes, Gold explains, a familiar chain reaction soon follows. “Once you make it happen for the CEO, the people who report to them want it, and then the people who report to them want it, and so on and so on,” he says. “That’s the way BlackBerrys got into the organisation and PCs before that.”
In time, executives start having ideas about how the organisation as a whole might benefit from smartphone applications. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist at the C level to start thinking: ‘I want all my guys to have access to business intelligence dashboards on their iPhones,’” explains mobile enterprise consultant Kevin Benedict.
And so, even when corporate policy expressly forbids them, executive influence can force IT organisations to develop a strategy for supporting smartphones and the applications that run on them.
According to Ben Trewhella, chief technology officer of mobile applications development agency Mubaloo, the kinds of application that his clients want for internal use (rather than for marketing purposes) are usually quite simple.
“To date, clients have typically wanted systems at the simplest level,” he explains. “Light-touch stuff, like an application that allows the CEO to do a rallying cry to all his employees through an RSS feed.”
But as businesses wake up to the possibilities, he explains, their demands are becoming more sophisticated. “Now they are moving towards apps that let you do things like enter your expenses, things that you can do while you’re at a bus stop,” he says.
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Expectations also rise rapidly when mobile applications are built in-house, says Benedict. “Most mobile application software development projects have a limited tactical scope to begin with; the company might want a work order to be pushed out to a smartphone, for example,” he explains. “But very quickly the user starts saying: ‘Why can’t I look at the inventory? Why can’t I look at the CRM?’ Pretty soon, they want integration with a huge number of back-end systems and processes. This is how just about every mobile application project goes.”
So as expectations rise, so does the requirement for integration with back-end systems, such as server-based enterprise applications.
According to Trewhella, integrating smartphone applications with these systems is relatively simple as long as they support web services-based integration. “We find that most enterprises are very capable at web services architecture, and if they’re not already then they’re gearing up for it pretty quickly,” he explains.
He advises against hooking smartphone apps directly into the databases that sit underneath enterprise applications. “It makes more sense to put a web service layer over your business logic,” he says.
The enterprise application vendors, for their part, are beginning to make it easier for customers to deploy their own ERP systems on mobile platforms. SAP, for example, recently acquired database technology vendoo Sybase, giving it access to various tools that ease mobile application development and implementation.
Meanwhile, some software-as-a-service vendors such as Salesforce.com offer moblie versions of their online applicatoins. This may contribute to a decision to adopt SaaS.
Today the pressure to support smartphones may come from employees who possess their own, but as these devices become an integral part of business infrastructure (like PCs and BlackBerrys) before them, it might be necessary for companies to buy smartphones for their staff.
Choosing smartphones is rather more complex than choosing desktop PCs. In the desktop world, the predominance of Microsoft Windows has traditionally made desktop platform selection an easy choice. The smartphone market is fractured, however, and there are a number of viable alternatives.
As Mubaloo’s Trewhella explains, if it were up to employees, nine times out of ten they would plump for Apple’s iPhone. “There is a lot of pressure on companies to adopt iPhones both from the board level and from junior employees who expect to get what they want,” he explains. “One of the sticking factors is cost, though; they’re still not cheap even for an enterprise.”
Devices based on Google’s Android operating system may be a cheaper alternative. One advantage of Android is that it is open source and therefore highly customisable, Trewhella explains. “If you seriously want to commit to mobile, you can do whatever you want with Android, which is very attractive.”
Microsoft has yet to “get it together” when it comes to smartphone operating systems, says Trewhella. “The user interface is just horrific,” he says. However, the company claims that it has expressly addressed user interface issues in its forthcoming Windows Phone 7 operating system, due out later this year.
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Device maker Nokia has the greatest share of the smartphone market although it is falling, according to IT analyst company Gartner. Trewhella says that the Symbian operating system that Nokia’s smartphones have used to do date was originally designed for devices with keypads, and is therefore not ideal for applications. In June 2010, however, the company announced that it would move to a new operating system, Linux Meego, for its N-series high-end devices.
BlackBerry is, of course, already a popular mobile platform in business. “BlackBerry is a strong contender,” Trewhella notes, although he adds that beyond email, “applications haven’t really taken off on BlackBerry, because it wasn’t built for independent applications.” Again, the company claims it will improve this situation in the next version of its operating system.
In safe hands
Beyond its installed base, BlackBerry’s security provisions are another strong selling point – so strong, in fact, that it in some cases it limits the device’s commercial viability. In July 2010, authorities in Saudi Arabia threatened to ban the BlackBerry, as the encryption used on the device’s instant messaging function prevents them from intercepting messages.
“Generally, if you’re using a BlackBerry environment and you set it up properly then you’re well protected,” says Gold. This is not yet true of the other mainstream platforms, he adds.
In 2009, developer and forensics expert Jonathan Zdziarski lambasted the hardware encryption of Apple’s iPhone 3GS devices: “I don’t think any of us have ever seen encryption implemented so poorly before.” This may explain why, as revealed in parliament in June 2010, iPhones have not been given security clearance by UK government ministers.
However, the security of all devices is improving, Gold explains. “iPhones are much better for security than they were three years ago,” he says. “Android hasn’t addressed many of the security issues yet, but they will.”
Many of the remaining risks can be mitigated through device management, he adds. “Often companies allow iPhones as long as certain functions are limited.”
The applications that employees run on their smartphones may be more problematic, however. “Security is not solely the operating system’s responsibility,” says Benedict. “It also depends on how well the developers build their applications.”
He advises that IT organisations conduct their own checks to see whether the third-party applications employees are using meet corporate security guidelines – yet another security tip that calls for centralised device management.
Affordable 3G mobile Internet access is now quite widely available; indeed, smartphones have only really taken off since this was the case. But there are still a number of considerations when it comes to selecting a mobile telecommunications carrier.
“The mobile Internet market is still in a situation of flux and will be for some time,” explains Gold. “It is clearly not yet the commodity that wired broadband services have become.”
That means that mobile web connectivity can still be expensive, he says. “One reason that many companies haven’t gone to a mobile smartphone platform is that they don’t want to pay for any additional data cost on top of their voice bills.”
Another issue, says Gold, is coverage. This can inform carrier selection on a local level – some suppliers offer a better service in different parts of the same country – or on a global level. For multinational organisations, finding a mobile telecommunications provider that covers as many regions as possible can provide economies of scale.
These kinds of issues are not new to enterprise organisations as a whole; they have been buying and managing mobile phones for decades now. But to date, it has typically been in a decentralised and haphazard fashion.
That is beginning the change, however. Many organisations are now seeking to rationalise their mobile infrastructure, says Ovum analyst Evan Kirchheimer, and they are looking to IT to lead the initiative. “We’ve seen real a shift to the IT department taking over mobility,” he says.
“Once the IT director gets his hands on mobility, he’s going to check out the bills, he’s going to rationalise the plans, and if he can, he’s going to try to incorporate mobility into the existing IT governance and security framework,” Kirchheimer explains. “Mobile is now seen as part of IT; it’s not treated separately as it was three or four years ago.”
According to Kirchheimer and his colleague Pauline Trotter, this centralisation of mobile management must continue if smartphones are to become a viable platform for enterprise applications. “Organisations have got to start organising themselves better and start procuring centrally, because if they want to do mobile enterprise applications, they’ll need to be able to control them centrally,” says Trotter.