Beyond the iPhone: A buyer's guide to smartphones in the enterprise

Consumer phones are flooding the enterprise, from the low-level employee to CEOs. Here's how to manage the influx.

Once ugly, slow and purely functional, the smartphone has become sleek, fast and at the forefront of technology. And the devices aren’t just for the enterprise — ever since Apple released it's ever-popular iPhone in 2007, more and more consumers have forgone their candybar phones in favour of mobile computers.

Apple isn't alone; Google's open-source Android platform has a similar user interface to the iPhone and you could be forgiven for thinking Microsoft is targeting the average consumer rather than C-level executives with its recently unveiled Windows Phone 7. Despite traditionally focussed on the enterprise, even RIM Communications — maker of the BlackBerry — has turned its hand to the consumer market with the release of the touch-based Storm and Storm2. The success of the Storm products is debatable (Computerworld Australia’s sister publication, GoodGearGuide, labelled the original attempt ‘clunky" and ‘full of issues’), but the move shows how the lines between the consumer and enterprise have blurred when it comes to mobile phones.

In what has become known as the "consumerisation of IT," consumer phones are making their way into the enterprise.

The consumer smartphone

It doesn’t help that consumer-focussed smartphones are more alluring; they’re light with large touchscreens and offer an extensive set of third-party applications that increase the phones' functionality.

"It sounds cliché but business people are consumer people as well," says director of device management and operations at Telstra, Richard Finkley. Smartphones cater to this segment of users, providing both social networking features and a fully-fledged email interface. Users can transition between their personal life and the nine-to-five grind with the flick of a switch.

Functionality is overlapping, particularly as companies begin to utilise social networking to promote brand awareness. Large companies are flocking to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Foursquare to directly interact with customers, sell products or services and provide another forum for product support. And it can all be done from the smartphone, thanks to third and even first-party applications.

Naturally, there are concerns about whether consumer smartphones hamper productivity. Touchscreens are attractive, but they don't offer the tactility of a traditional keyboard and, on some devices, there is noticeable lag between pressing a key and seeing the letter on the screen. Nevertheless, some power users remain fans.

Telstra has been experimenting “with some text entry applications which make text entry better on touch tablets”, according to Finkley.

“For example with Swipe, instead of typing letter by letter, you just swipe your finger across from one letter to the next."

As smartphone aficionado, Finkley carries two smartphones; the full QWERTY BlackBerry Bold 9700 and HTC’s recently announced model, Desire. "I really rely on a QWERTY style keypad for email, messaging, and a number of corporate business customers still do that," Finkley says. "Some C-Level executives may have a simple candybar voice-only mobile phone — they're always on the phone — and a PDA because they're on email at the same time. It's really about choice."

Smartphone diversification

The blend of consumer and enterprise smartphones is, to an extent, a two-way flow.

"We're seeing young graduates coming into new roles from university asking to have their BlackBerry connected," says RIM Communications Australia and New Zealand managing director, Adele Beachley. The company's BlackBerry platform has for some time been the industry standard among companies looking for email and instant messaging functions. RIM offers clear security and device management advantages over other platforms, including a converged control panel for the company's entire fleet and the ability to lock down granular aspects of the smartphone.

While some consumers have picked up the BlackBerry, however, the influx of iPhones and other consumer-targeted smartphones into the enterprise is forcing IT managers to rethink their smartphone policy.

"If you insist on a 'one size fits all' policy, then people in the business units will just go around you," says Gartner analyst, Robin Simpson. "It's very hard to stop employees from hooking up their own device into the enterprise infrastructure."

There are arguments in favour of a single platform approach. The iconic Sydney Opera House provides BlackBerry devices to 110 of its 600 full-time staff and plans to increase to a fleet of 200 over the coming months. The IT staff appreciated the larger screen and usability of the iPhone and Android-based devices, but information systems operations manager, Daniel Johnson, found that the ability to manage the organisation's sensitive information through the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) outweighed the devices' frustrations.

"We have had staff who do bring in their [personal] phones, but we lock things down so that they can't easily access email... things that actually stop the user from being able to connect to the systems that are on our network."

There are equally as many problems for companies which don't provide phones to employees. Computerworld Australia publisher, IDG Communications, has experienced an influx of personal mobile phones in the workplace, forcing IT staff to provide personalised instructions to set up the company's Lotus Domino mail server for a variety of smartphone platforms. IT manager, Andrew Glassock, found it impossible to impose a single smartphone platform on employees, but had to wait until IBM released a compatible version of Lotus Notes Traveler. Glassock says he found it "pretty straightforward" to setup employees' iPhones, as well as Windows Mobile and some Nokia devices, once he had installed the update.

Managing platform diversity

The pressure to introduce consumer-focussed smartphones into the enterprise can almost be expected from the 80-odd per cent of employees who don’t have company-bought devices. Senior executives, however, are also joining the onslaught. There's a good chance IT managers will have to break some rules and reconfigure email servers in order to accommodate the CEO's new toy, whether or not the enterprise has a single-platform policy.

"Most organisations already have diversity," says Gartner’s Simpson. "They just don't have a policy to support it."

As RIM Communication's BlackBerry, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, Google's Android, Apple's iPhone and Nokia's Symbian all vie for attention, it may not be a matter of simply choosing one platorm, but rather accommodating several. It's all about "managed diversity" according to Gartner.

The analyst firm has, since 2007, pushed a three-tiered approach to smartphone management in the enterprise, focussing on how to manage security and governance among all employees, rather than simply those who have company-bought devices.

The three categories are designed to bridge the variety of platforms available, with differing levels of support and services depending on what the enterprise can afford to provide. This might mean that the two lower levels of devices require additional IT staff, infrastructure or software; costs which are then passed onto the department or even the employee.

"It's all about being realistic and accepting that these consumer devices are already in there," Simpson explains. "It's better to know about them and support them at least partially, because then at least you've got some opportunity to control the security and governance."

It may be easy to fold in a "tolerated" device like the iPhone into an enterprise's existing Exchange ActiveSync server, but companies that have traditionally relied on the closed BlackBerry Enterprise Server infrastructure may find it more difficult to adjust to a variety of platforms. With employees likely to counteract existing IT policies for their personal phones, however, smartphone policies like Gartner's are about accomodation without sacrificing sensitive information.

Mobile device management

Even with a ‘managed diversity’ policy in place, IT managers will require software that allows them to centrally manage multiple platforms with similar levels of support, governance and security. Third parties such as Zenprise, Sybase, Fancyfon and Mobile Iron are already providing such a service, and more startups are joining the emerging mobile device management market.

These device management solutions are by no means perfect; while some offer remote lock-down of applications on the iPhone, the solutions offer nothing that cannot already be enabled through local settings on the smartphone itself. However, the ability to remotely manage even basic security policies centrally will make it easier for enterprises to accept and support multiple platforms in some cases.

Sensitive information counts

Despite the consumerisation of smartphones, Simpson says that BlackBerry will continue to rule where data is particularly sensitive.

"Because of the nature of the data that [some employees] deal with, you have to insist that they use a platform that the enterprise has a much greater degree of control over. BlackBerry is one of the ways you can do that."

Email is one of the risks, particularly as it is the primary form of communication within companies. BlackBerry maintains its foothold, with access to more than 400 managed permissions and secure encryption. While other platforms offer basic remote wipe functionality and some level of encryption, it's these security measures that have stopped organisations such as the Sydney Opera House from considering other platforms.

Mobilising the desktop

Mobile device management will become more prominent, particularly as smartphones evolve into mini-computers, beyond basic mobiles with email. Finkley says that as IP telephony grows and enterprises wake up to the productivity benefits of the smartphone, the mobilisation of the desktop to the handset will only increase. As it does, IT managers will be forced to reconsider what services are offered to smartphones, what support mechanisms are in place, and how they deploy and control various platforms across the entire company, rather than just executives’ phones.

"The industry is just starting to get to grips with it," Finkley says. "IT managers obviously want to standardise their SOE [Standard Operating Environment] and get the smallest possible range, accountants want to limit the range of handsets available as well. But the world is exploding and people will find a way."

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