IT managers must learn to cope with consumer innovation

As the mobile market continues to move from a technology to a services focus, IT directors will have to tread a fine line between managing an influx of difficult-to-manage consumer-based devices without stifling innovation.

As the mobile market continues to move from a technology to a services focus, IT directors will have to tread a fine line between managing an influx of difficult-to-manage consumer-based devices without stifling innovation.

Therefore, according to Nick Jones, vice-president and analyst at Gartner, simply outlawing such devices will not be the answer.

Speaking ahead of the researcher's Wireless and Mobile Summit in London, he said the most interesting applications were bound to appear in the consumer space over the next few years because "there's more money there and it's where the next chunk of money is likely to come from as the enterprise only accounts for about 10 per cent of the market". This means that network operators and handset manufacturers are less likely to focus on supporting the needs of business directly.

But it also means that, as staff spot business uses for new services ranging from mobile photo blogging to location and collaboration-based applications, they will not take kindly to blanket bans resulting from IT directors' fears over security and manageability.

"Just saying no gives a false sense of security anyway," says Jones. "Is anyone really going to stop sending SMS messages or [Google's] Gmail from their mobile 'phone just because you tell them to? Banning things gives you the illusion that things are under control, but all it means is that it's gone below the radar."

As a result, unless organisations take the radical step of installing metal detectors in the office hallway, they will find that most prohibitions are destined to fail.

Moreover, says Jones, "If CIOs say no, they could cut off significant business improvements and new ways of dealing with customers. But by the same token, they don't want to open the business up to massive security risks and the like."

One alternative, however, is to deliver selective thin client applications to consumer devices from central servers in order to reduce the likelihood of the network being compromised.

But this under-the-radar dynamic is already occurring in the realm of mobile e-mail. According to a recent global survey, about 300 million people sent mobile e-mails over a month, but this figure is 10 times higher than the number of subscribers to corporate e-mail systems such as Microsoft's Exchange.

"People aren't clamouring for things like mobile payment. After voice, the key applications are messaging and e-mail so there's latent demand. Prices are now falling as things like flat rate tariffs have been introduced so it's now more affordable to provide these services to larger swathes of the organisation. And the issue is that, if corporates don't provide them, people will do it themselves," says Jones.

Despite this situation, he believes that mobile is now "a mainstream part of IT". More than 20 per cent of European businesses now have more than 1,000 mobile users and, therefore, are starting to focus on how to manage and control this scenario.

As a result, activities such as device management and selection are starting to rise up priority lists. Jones explains: "If you've only got 50 mobile devices, management isn't such a problem because you can deal with problems manually. But once you've got several hundred, the process has to be automated and professionalised."

The challenge at the moment, however, is that, although mobile device, PC and security management sit naturally together and the three markets are beginning to converge, no single vendor is currently able to provide a suite of tools to deal with all of these areas at the same time.

Therefore, organisations are having to introduce tactical mix-and-match solutions, which will need to be replaced as suites become available over the next three to five years in the wake of market consolidation.

At the same time, however, enterprises are also starting to rationalise a host of what have been tactical, often departmental deployments by retiring some initiatives and standardising on one or two platforms in others.

Yet another trend, meanwhile, involves moving to "a more multi-channel phase, where people think of mobile as one of a range of channels". This is leading some companies to develop a multi-channel architecture, which enables them to build applications for the web, set top boxes, mobile and the like in parallel.

Despite the growing maturity of the market, however, Jones is seeing little evidence that mobile technology is currently being used to drive new business models. "It's mostly talk. People have done little pilot projects in areas like telemetry in cars for insurance purposes, but they're absolutely tiny," he says.

Instead the spotlight is on mainstream initiatives to harvest low-hanging fruit because "there are still enough opportunities to improve worker productivity and mobile has not absorbed enough into the mainstream yet to do high risk things with business information," Jones explains.

He is also not seeing indications of cost-cutting either in spite of widespread fears over the state of the global economy - although he indicates that discussions here are beginning to take place.

As to the potential impact of a worsening economic situation, Jones believes that organisations would be most likely to delay those projects where it is difficult to measure a hard return on investment (ROI) such as mobile e-mail and unified communications.

"When times are hard, organisation tend to focus on projects with a measurable ROI such as field force automation and move away from nice-to-haves. But I'm not seeing any evidence of this at the moment. Clients are talking about cost-cutting and saving money, but I've not seen it have a huge impact on the mobile space yet," he concludes.

Read more on IT project management