Prepare for the inevitable

Handheld devices are going to become ubiquitous, replacing laptop computers and mobile phones. IT managers need to start...

Handheld devices are going to become ubiquitous, replacing laptop computers and mobile phones. IT managers need to start preparing now for the mammoth task of supporting these mobile, remote, pocket-sized devices. Ross Bentley finds out just how big a job that will be.

Supporting IT is rarely fun and never easy. As IT devices shrink to the size of handhelds the task is getting trickier.

At customer relationship management supplier, Siebel, chief information officer (CIO)Mark Sunday has a highly mobile workforce. "About half of our 7,500 staff work out of the office in areas such as sales or professional services."

As CIO of an IT supplier, Sunday is glad to be able to say that, "Siebel is probably the most technically-enabled and integrated company I've come across - 84% of staff spend over an hour a day engaging with our corporate applications."

Increasingly they are doing so via handheld devices (personal digital assistants - PDAs). That means that the challenge for Sunday is, "How do I enable them to engage on the road?"

Siebel has already acclimatised to the first wave of mobile computing - laptops - but PDAs exacerbate the issues laptop support generates. One thing is certain, Sunday does not want to repeat the support and management learning curve that IT went through when PCs first arrived.

"My goal is to make PDAs an integral part of the company but not emulate the initial experience of introducing PCs to corporate computing," he says.

PDAs are not yet mass-deployed at Siebel as they are not seen as sufficiently robust to give end-users full spectrum access to corporate applications, but Sunday is preparing his support infrastructure already.

"The support load [for PDAs] will be more than for PCs or laptops if I'm not ahead of the game," he says. "So I need to be able to roll out PDAs with their support infrastructure in place.

"We have a highly automated way of managing [laptops] including single-image, automated discovery, knowing who has the machine, and so on," he says.

PDAs present several additional challenges in contrast to laptops (which they will inevitably replace) says Sunday. Because of their limited power, the amount of client support software they can run is limited, and their wireless capacity will, eventually, be always-on.

Also, they will evolve quickly, as technology and bandwidth improves, so there will be a lot of churn and replacement, which will complicate attempts to standardise on particular models. There will be little early progress on setting global standards, with different technologies predominating in different parts of the world, says Sunday.

There will inevitably be some convergence among the devices, believes Sunday, especially between computing and telephony functions, which will all have to be supported and managed by IT. "Whatever support you do it will have to be flexible because of the rapidly evolving marketplace," he warns.

PDAs are easy to lose, so they will need to be able to be remotely disabled if they go missing - essential if confidential corporate information is held on them - as it will inevitably be. "They're an order of magnitude more losable than laptops," he says.

Keeping the cost of support as low as possible will be a key issue. "The capital cost of the device is almost immaterial - next comes the wireless [connection] costs which are the most significant," says Sunday. "Then comes the hidden expense of helping the individual user and managing increasingly complex applications and transitions between [generations] of devices.

"We handle 16,000 calls per month with two staff," says Sunday. He expects calls to double when PDAs are rolled out. "PDA users will want them to always work, never fail, 24x7," he warns. Without a robust, automated user support strategy, PDAs could double call volume for support, he says.

Storms on the horizon
  • The technology is highly evolutionary - new devices are coming out all the time, but will not be taken up simultaneously around the world, so different generations will co-exist, with different global telephony and networking standards

  • Plan for convergence of telephony and computing - it is inevitable

  • Users will increasingly demand more capabilities to access and run major corporate applications - day and night

  • Users will demand constant support which is effortless for them to get hold of, but will not want to pay a lot of money for it

  • The volume of devices out in the field will be high, but numbers of laptops will probably diminish as PDAs become more powerful and versatile

  • The smaller the device, the easier to lose it - and the valuable corporate data it contains

  • Do not roll out PDAs unless you have a robust, but flexible support infrastructure in place or there will be chaos in the field.

Automating support is the key to success in maintaining mobile devices
Siebel is using SupportSoft's Web-based software for laptop support. Automated support for PDAs will need to:
  • Solve problems before they occur, such as upgrading data files before a virus hits

  • Automatically resolve problems, where the user does not even realise the device has self-healed

  • Provide self-service support, where the software is so easy to use or access via a portal that end-users can fix things themselves

  • Assist self-service, where the user calls IT, which then gets the problem fixed automatically

According to SupportSoft, companies face at least five main bugbears when supporting mobile devices:
  • Synchronisation - users want to ensure that data on all their devices is synchronised, to be able to restore to previous versions via the network if corrupted

  • Knowing how to use the devices - users need to have a knowledge base about both how to use the devices and the applications sited on the devices, and be able to access a remote base via the network

  • Forgotten passwords - end-users need to be able to dial in to find out their passwords

  • Updates - users need to receive software updates via the network

  • Always-on e-mail - this, together with voice telephony, will become a standard requirement to support as handheld computing and comms devices merge

  • One thing is clear: about a quarter to one third of the total cost of ownership of a PDA will be spent on support

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