Why mobility matters even if you only focus on desktops

Just because you're the 'desktop guy' doesn't mean mobile technology is not your problem

It seems like everyone is talking about “enterprise mobility” and how important tablets and smartphones are. For years I just rolled my eyes at this notion.

“I’m a desktop guy,” I thought. “Those phones and tablets are not my concern.” Mind you, I wasn’t trying to say that tablets are just toys and not real work devices; rather, I just felt like they were someone else’s problem.

Phones are like BlackBerrys, and BlackBerrys are handled by the email team. So why should I care? I just do my thing delivering, maintaining, patching, and keeping my users’ desktops in good shape, and all should be well.

Unfortunately, I recently realised that even though I’m a desktop guy, my days of ignoring phones and tablets are over. I realised this for two reasons.

First is the iPhone. When they first entered the company I ignored them like everyone else. I knew that we could use Exchange ActiveSync for email and more, but what did they have to do with me? I had a VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) environment, so anything else the users wanted to do outside of email can be done via our VDI environment. Heck, that applies to iPads too, since Citrix and VMware marketed their desktop virtualisation solutions as solving the iPad challenge. From my standpoint as an IT pro, that solved the problem.

Unfortunately, from the users’ standpoint, that didn’t suffice. The problem is that accessing a Windows desktop environment from a phone or tablet is a great party trick, but it’s not particularly easy to use. Sure, Citrix and VMware did a great job with their remote access protocols and iOS and Android clients, but the fundamental problem is that the Windows desktop is meant to be used with a big screen, a keyboard, and a mouse.

Which Office?

After using a virtual desktop from an iPhone for a few days, a typical user would think “Hey, I have this great email client on the phone, but for my Office apps I have to use this kludgy VDI interface. Why don’t I just download Office for iPhone?”

So the user goes to the App Store and searches for “Office". Now we IT professionals know there is no Office for iPhone, but the users don’t know that. When they search for Office they get a slew of results, including Quick Office, Smart Office, Polaris Office and dozens of other apps. They download whichever one looks the most like “regular Office,” most likely not even realising that what they’re downloading is not the office Microsoft Office.

So, great! Now they have “Office” on their iPhone. Of course Office is pretty worthless without their documents and files, so they click the button in their new app to connect to a file source. When they do that, what options do they see? DropBox, Google Drive, Box, etc.

At this point the user is probably thinking “OK, so which one of these is my T: drive?” Then they shrug their shoulders and think “Well, whatever… I’ve been hearing a lot about this DropBox thing on the news so I’ll just go ahead and download that". And hey presto, they can install the DropBox agent on their Windows desktop, so they instantly have all their Office documents and files available to them on their phone or tablet. Problem solved, right?

Now let’s take a step back and look at what happened from my point of view in IT. I thought I was doing everything right. I used desktop virtualisation to deliver the corporate Windows environment to my users regardless of whatever device they used. The result? Not only did the user not use my system, the inconvenience of my system drove them to find ways around it and now all their files are in the cloud.

Defend and block

The traditional IT response is to “defend and block". I could block DropBox from the corporate network, but then the users would use Box. When I block Box, they’ll use Google Drive. When I block everything, they’ll email the files to themselves. When I add DLP (data loss prevention) software to the email servers, they’ll connect via 4G. It’s a constant game of “Whack-A-Mole” that I’ll never win.

So what’s the right approach?

We have to realise that it’s no longer about mobile computing “versus” desktop computing, rather, it’s about mobile computing “and” desktop computing

First, it’s pretty clear that we can’t ignore mobile devices. Sure, users can easily hook them into our email systems, but we also need to ensure we provide access to the apps they want in the way they want to use them.

Fortunately that’s easy enough to do. The same companies whose desktop virtualisation products we use – Citrix, VMware, Dell, etc – also sell software to manage our users’ mobile devices. And if you don’t like their offerings, there are dozens of other mobile management software options from companies such as Symantec, Good, MobileIron, Oracle, IBM and others.

All of these products – collectively called “enterprise mobility management” or EMM suites – provide simple ways to apply security policies to mobile devices, deliver mobile apps in encrypted, secure containers, and control how corporate and personal apps interact with each other.

At the end of the day we have to realise that it’s no longer about mobile computing “versus” desktop computing, rather, it’s about mobile computing “and” desktop computing. We collectively refer to this as “end-user computing", and it’s why even hardened “desktop folks” like me have to consider mobile devices as we’re building our desktop strategies.

Fortunately the software to do it exists and is easy to use, we just have to get started.

Brian Madden is editor of BrianMadden.com and an internationally recognised expert on desktop virtualisation.

If you’re interesting in digging deeper into VDI, Brian is hosting a forthcoming conference called “BriForum” in London from 20-21 May, 2014. BriForum is a vendor-neutral, highly technical conference dedicated to end-user computing technologies like VDI. This is the event’s fourth year in London, and will be attended by hundreds of geeks who will share their stories and lessons learned with VDI projects.

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