Becoming a handful

Between the Icelandic ash cloud, the record-breaking snowfall and the frequent industrial action on the London Underground, businesses had little choice but to support remote and mobile working in 2010.

Fortunately for them, doing so consistently ranks among the most effective strategies in the Effective IT Survey. In this year’s survey, it was both the most commonly adopted strategy (79.1% of respondents) and the most effective (judged so by 86.6% of adopters).

But while business’s enthusiasm for remote and mobile working remains unchanged, the technology used to support it is one of the fastest-moving areas in IT today.

Mobile devices are already a critical component of the communications infrastructure for most organisations, but as they grow in sophistication the line between communications and core IT infrastructure is blurring.

Significantly, the use of applications on smartphones is now commonplace. That the computer-like, mobile devices are becoming a bona fide component of application infrastructure was evident in SAP’s $6 billion purchase of database systems vendor Sybase. The acquired company’s Unwired technology will allow SAP customers to port their ERP applications to smartphones, the software giant said.

But smartphones are also posing challenges for IT departments. With the exception of Research In Motion’s BlackBerry, these devices are aimed primarily at the consumer market. And, as often as not, smartphones have found their way into the enterprise through the back door.

Ovum analyst Pauline Trotter says that business users, not IT-led initiatives, have provided the momentum for mobility. “There is a feeling that the pressure is coming particularly from executives, who tend to have an undue amount of influence over the IT department,” she says.

Trotter notes that a more mobile workforce is often a more productive one, but IT can struggle with the complexities of managing a disparate array of devices. “It’s not that they aren’t aware of the new opportunities these devices bring them,” she observes, “but they don’t want to be out of control when it comes to managing the cost and managing the risks.”

Waiting for a winner

The issue of managing all these devices has not been helped by the fragmented nature of the smartphone market, which at present has no one dominant platform.

According to Gartner figures, Nokia holds about 37% market share, with devices based on its Symbian OS. However, this market share lead is quickly being eaten away by Apple and Google’s Android, whose relative shares are 17% and 25% respectively.

In September, Nokia fired CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, replacing him with Microsoft’s business division head, Stephen Elop. This move was seen as an attempt by Nokia to turn its smartphone strategy around, although one analyst questioned Elop’s credentials. “Microsoft has many of the same problems as Nokia in terms of innovation, especially in the smartphone business,” Gartner’s Nick Jones wrote at the time.

Microsoft’s attempt to address that perception came in the form of Windows Phone 7, the latest version of its operating system for mobile devices. Although it was broadly well received, some observers dismissed the system as too little, too late.

“Gone are the days when Microsoft could be late to the market but, through immense resources, catch up and be relevant,” wrote David Hilal of investment bank FBR Capital Markets. “The vendors it is catching up today are much stronger, and the adoption curves are much greater, thereby exacerbating the problem of being late to market.”

Gartner predicts that the Android platform will experience significant gains in coming years. The analyst company has forecast that the market share for devices that use Android will rise to nearly 30% between now and the end of 2014.

This fluidity in smartphone platform poses a challenge for application developers. As it stands, developers must program software individually for each proprietary mobile platform, such as Apple’s iOS, Android and BlackBerry OS.

“It’s very different from the PC market, where [application developers] can pick Windows and know they’re going to get 80% or more of the addressable market,” Adam Leach, another Ovum analyst, told Information Age last year. “With smartphones, if they choose one or two platforms they’re still going to be missing out on a huge chunk of the market.”

A possible remedy for this may be HTML5, the latest version of the web mark-up language, which will allow greater application functionality to be delivered through mobile web browsers. However, as applications are a point of differentiation between mobile operating systems, HTML5 may not receive OS vendors’ full backing as a mobile application platform.

Taking the tablets

One of the few resounding technology success stories of 2010 was the launch of Apple’s iPad. The company sold one million of the touch-screen tablet PCs twice as fast as it had sold a million iPhones when that game-changing device was released, and analysts predicted rapid sales over Christmas.

Many business executives were among the iPad’s early adopters, and it was a common complaint among CIOs that their business chiefs were demanding that they support the devices. Some have kowtowed, while others have refused on security grounds.

Towards the end of the year, a number of IT executives told Information Age that they were waiting until more device-makers bring their iPad equivalents to market before they commit to one device or another. In particular, RIM’s forthcoming PlayBook, unveiled in September 2010, is eagerly anticipated as the company’s BlackBerry Enterprise Server device management system is already used and trusted by many organisations.

That device’s launch in March 2011 and subsequent reception will be keenly analysed: will RIM be able to leverage the success of the BlackBerry to provide a business-friendly counterpoint to the iPad, or will tablet technology continue to be driven primarily by consumer demand?

Given the increasing importance of mobile devices in business IT, the outcome of this may be surprisingly significant for enterprise IT departments.

Peter Done

Peter Done is managing director of Peninsula Business Services, the personnel and employment law consultancy he set up having already built a successful betting shop business.

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