Smartphones, Mobile Devices Transforming Corporate IT

We've been talking about the concept of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) for some time, so Microsoft Exchange Server admins are well aware of the security and management concerns that the explosion of personal mobile devices has wrought on the corporate network. Now we're beginning to see other effects of the smartphone revolution ricochet back into the PC world. Let's take a quick look at some of the things Exchange admins and other IT pros should be prepared for with this shift.

A prominent and much talked about example of the smartphone world coming to PCs is the forthcoming Windows 8 with its Metro interface, which is taken from the Windows Phone mobile OS. Although Windows 8 still includes the traditional desktop that we're all familiar with, Microsoft's focus is on the Metro tile-based UI and touch screen accessibility, which lends itself particularly well to tablets. Whatever you think of Windows 8 and what Paul Thurrott calls these "Dueling Desktops," clearly Microsoft is taking a cue from Apple's iPad success and the larger influence of the mobile market.

Microsoft isn't the only company moving with this trend, of course. Kerio Technologies recently released an update to its Kerio Connect cross-platform messaging server. The headline news with Kerio Connect 7.4 is that it's been optimized for management from iPads -- that is, you can use your iPad to run your Kerio messaging environment, and you can do it from wherever you have a connection to your corporate network. (Something tells me iPad optimization isn't a feature Microsoft will be introducing with Exchange 15.)

The Kerio announcement highlights an aspect of the mobile device shift, namely the desire -- or, indeed, the need -- to manage corporate systems from tablets or smartphones. In fact, this market isn't entirely new. A number of vendors have been addressing this need for a while. Last year, Eric B. Rux reviewed three such products in "Comparative Review: Smartphone-Capable Network Monitoring Solutions." Many other products are out there, and you can probably find something that's optimized for your particular mobile device or network management solution.

As an admin of Exchange Server or other systems, you might frequently find yourself needing to respond to requests or troubleshoot problems when you're not sitting at your workstation. Having mobile access to your systems is increasingly going to be a necessity rather than a nice-to-have. If you're looking at monitoring or management add-ons for Exchange, you might want to keep in mind which of those products will provide the best mobile access story. It might also help determine which smartphones or tablets your IT department purchases for its own use.

One of the most interesting developments I've seen for PCs that can be traced back directly to smartphones comes from Embarcadero Technologies. Taking a cue from mobile platform app stores, Embarcadero has launched the AppWave Store, which delivers apps to PCs in a fashion similar to the way that mobile devices download and run apps. The store launched last month with a wide array of familiar productivity and business apps ready to go. It also features plenty of well-known multimedia and entertainment apps (i.e., games) that smartphone addicts will no doubt be familiar with (e.g., Angry Birds).

"Essentially what we're doing is taking the Windows application and we're delivering it to the user as a pre-installed image," said Michael Swindell, senior vice president of marketing and product management for Embacadero. "So there's no installation process. Everything that's needed to run the application is pulled down in one image and cached locally on the user's machine. It acts and works as if it's installed. Really, the user wouldn't know any difference."

Swindell used a garden metaphor to explain how this works. In a thriving garden, trees and plants interact happily above ground while below ground their roots might be competing critically for resources. That below ground part is what happens at the OS level on the PC when you install and run multiple applications. With the AppWave Store model, you're able to put each app/plant in its own pot so its roots are completely self-contained and it doesn't have to compete for resources. Essentially, this model is what the mobile OSs have been able to do -- after seeing the difficulties and conflicts of running applications on PCs.

"For a long time you saw mobile devices trying to emulate a more traditional computer experience," Swindell said. "You see a divergence say in the last 5 to 6 years with iPhone and others trying to create a phone experience. In some ways, what we're doing is trying to manipulate that mobile experience and just simplify the discovery and acquisition of software for PCs." The AppWave Store requires you to download its own browser to manage the apps, but all the apps currently available are free -- and fun to try out.

So what about BYOD itself? Are you still struggling with managing employee-owned devices in your environment? Or have you locked everything down and have it under control? Paul Robichaux has a really interesting take on this problem, which essentially places it in the overall evolution of technology that is a constant that IT departments have had to deal with, and will continue to deal with. As Paul points out, you can find third-party products to help with mobile device management (MDM) if necessary.

It's important to remember what your workers, and therefore your business, gain by allowing employees to access corporate email and other resources via their mobile devices. "You've now turned your worker, who used to be 9 to 5, into someone that is proactively saying, 'Actually, you can reach me any time via email, or whatever the message type happens to be.' So you've got that productivity gain," said Martin Brewer, director of research and development for Wavelink, who makes the MDM solution Wavelink Avalanche.

Although I'm not an advocate for people working excessive hours or being on call 24-7, I can personally vouch for how having a smartphone with company email has changed my work habits and my personal expectations for how I should be available and respond to issues at work. As Brewer said, "You want to walk that fine line to ensure people want to proactively bring their device, use their device, and be more productive from a mobile standpoint, without trying to limit what they can do to an unnecessary degree."

All projections seem to point to continued growth in the smartphone market. Tablets are becoming the new PC for many people. So it's fair to say this amalgamation of platform types is only likely to continue. It's certainly worth keeping in mind how smartphones, tablets, and PCs interact when you consider how best to manage your environments, and take advantage of those changes that make sense.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
Follow Windows IT Pro on Twitter at @windowsitpro

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