Buyer's Guide to Mobile computing

Part one of four

Part one of  four

In less than a couple of decades, the mobile phone has moved from a clunky accessory for city types -and then for certain, self-employed groups - to a ubiquitous communications tool. The power of voice communication, information consumption and decision-making on the move enables more flexible working patterns and immediacy of response, benefitting individuals and the organisations they work for alike.

Although devices are cheaper and smaller than ever, they are becoming more capable and 'smarter', running applications that would once have required a PC. So they need to be managed as a full IT client, and increased usage of both personal and business applications drives up airtime costs which can escalate while roaming. Consumer influences are rising, and with handsets so easy to buy and use, employees are fully mobile-aware so, for business in particular, keeping users happy while maintaining control is an issue.

Accelerating change

In a short space of time, smart mobile devices have changed the way many work. Executives are in instant touch via e-mail, sales people communicate with the office while en route to or returning from appointments, and field service workers check and access information to speed the delivery of spare parts. Rather than limited to a fortunate or powerful few, a huge range of devices and price points have allowed some form of access on the move to become ubiquitous, and relative to more expensive and cumbersome laptops, affordable.

The appetite for smartphones among mobile employees has grown, partly fuelled by a consumer boom in usage of devices like the iPhone. No longer the preserve of a handful of ambitious executives or a limited crew of field service engineers, but now the default aspirational mobile device for anyone.

As the numbers and variety of smartphones have soared, their management has become more complex. The consolidation into one or two platforms, hoped for by many IT managers, has not materialised - if anything diversity has increased, making management tasks harder. In many cases users are now wanting to choose their own device type.

As the number of mobile users has grown, so has the diversity of roles and types of workers. Some are focused, careful and self motivated; others are easily distracted, careless and need more management direction. Keeping corporate assets - devices and information - safe and secure in a mobile smartphone environment is an even greater challenge, creating human resources issues as well as technical ones.

Costly extras

The headline cost of simple mobile devices may have been falling, but new advanced features such as brighter touchscreens, more powerful processors and sophisticated usability features have pushed up the average costs of high-end devices. Added to this, the increasing use of their network connectivity for intensive data as well as telephony functions means that overall airtime costs have increased. In many organisations these costs may not be visible or aggregated for the business or users, being spread or hidden across diverse cost centres or departments, making actual costs and values difficult to determine.

(For further details download Quocirca's report "Mobile expense management - taking the big picture view")

Users' high levels of familiarity with a mobile device's capability as consumers, coupled with equally high levels of familiarity with the internet - in particular social networking - means that smart mobile devices can easily become a distraction, undermining expected increases in productivity and flexibility.

Both aspects of mobile costs can be controlled, and the first step for most organisations is to understand what benefits they are trying to gain from the use of mobile technology and ensure that they have a suitable strategy to deliver that, backed up by workable policies.

In doing this, care must be taken not to undermine the goodwill of the employee. Not only do supportive employees look after their mobile devices better, reducing maintenance costs and the risk of loss or theft; they will also be more willing to accept the often unstated productivity bonus of allowing themselves to be contacted while out of the office and out of regular office hours.

The smartphone intertwines the communications requirements of both 'work' and 'life', and both organisations and individuals must show some understanding about the need to balance these fairly.

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