Is there any hope left for IT departments battling Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, and Windows phones?
There's a big fat mess on the doorstep of any IT shop that needs to support users on mobile devices these days. You know what I'm talking about if you've struggled to figure out which mobile platform is the best choice for your business in terms of security and manageability. You know what I'm talking about if you've had executives dictate which type of mobile dervices their workforces should use, regardless of cost or current IT policies for device procurement. You know what I'm talking about if you've had users ask to have their personal smartphones connected to the corporate Microsoft Exchange server.
So as an IT pro, you're looking at that flaming bag on the doorstep and you know it's your job to stomp on it to put out the fire—even though that's likely just to create a bigger mess. As Brian C. Reed of BoxTone said with regard to the mobility support space, "Pandora's box is open." And that's a fairly apt metaphor. Let's take a look at the trends in enterprise smartphones, see how we got where we are, and figure out where we're headed.
What Is a Smartphone—and Why?
To start, it might be useful to think about what exactly the term smartphone really means. “In the past, it was essentially a phone that had PDA functionality and maybe some form of Internet connection or web browsing and email,” said Paul Thurrott, senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. “I think a modern smartphone—and this would apply to the ones that are being used in enterprises—is really that stuff but also the apps platform—a formalized application platform.” In other words, it’s not enough anymore to get your email and even browse the web—along with, oh yeah, that’s right, actually make phone calls—on your smartphone: Users want or need to run applications on the device as well.
Whether or not you accept that as a useful definition, there’s no denying the impact Apple’s iPhone has had on the development of the smartphone market. From Apple’s initial announcement of the iPhone back in 2007, it’s been a must-have device among consumers, and although no one necessarily expected it to move into the enterprise, it has done just that. Various reports place iPhone market share at 25 percent or higher. As Thurrott said, “The iPhone is a force of nature. Apple, thus, is responsible for how we define what a smartphone is these days. You have to have that stuff that the iPhone has essentially because that’s what a smartphone is.” Thurrott went on to say that “the iPhone has been so popular that these consumer-oriented devices suddenly are being allowed into the business.”
And it's not just the iPhone; certainly phones using Google's Android OS have benefited from the trend the iPhone started, and even Windows Mobile and RIM BlackBerry devices have released more consumer-oriented devices—smartphones with full touch screens tied to some form of app store. "Enterprises used to be very restrictive about which phones their users could get and what features they had to have," Thurrott said. "And as these things have gained in acceptance, that \\[restrictiveness\\] has gone away."
It's not just that consumer-oriented smartphones are being allowed into the enterprise: Users are choosing the phones that IT departments need to support. "Users feel they have the right to demand which devices they use," said Reed, who is the chief marketing officer for BoxTone, makers of mobile service management software. "Users feel like they're in charge, especially the executives, so IT is being forced to react. . . . I've never seen a wave like this before in my 20 years of tech, where the users were in so much control."
Where We Are: A Snapshot
It might seem strange to start off looking at where we are by talking about predictions for the future, but I do have a point. So, back in February, BoxTone released forecasts for the mobility space by 2015. You can see the full list of BoxTone's predictions on the company's website. First among these predictions is an expected rise in employees with mobile devices connected to the enterprise from 10 to 15 percent today up to 60 to 80 percent by 2015. However, in speaking with its customers about their current mobility plans, that progression might be moving much faster than BoxTone expected. "There's a tremendous growth in terms of adoption rate of mobile connected employees," Reed said. "We have customers who floated at 10, 20 percent, 30 percent of their employees connected to the enterprise from a mobile device who are expecting to double that this year."
As a secondary point to its prediction about the rise in the number of connected mobile devices, BoxTone goes on to say that employee-owned devices will be a big part of this number. This is where end users are asking—or demanding—that they be allowed to connect their personal iPhone, or Droid, or whatever smartphone they've fallen in love with, to the corporate email server. "The only way an organization is going to rapidly mobilize in that period of time at a low cost is going to be by allowing employee-owned devices to connect to the enterprise," Reed said.
This point was echoed by Mark Gentile, president and CEO of Odyssey Software, makers of the mobile management solution Athena. "For mobile messaging, for corporate email access, we've definitely seen the trend to let employees buy their phone, maybe subsidize part of their plan, and let them hook it up to Exchange or their email servers," Gentile said. So businesses are getting cost-savings by not supplying the mobile device or the connection plan—unless they choose to offer some sort of subsidy—but the down side is the additional complexity in management to the IT department.