A smart(phone) way of doing business

Over the next few years, many mobile workers currently toting laptops will trade the weighty device for a corporate-issue smartphone that slips into their trouser pocket.

As new smartphones boast faster processor times, better Web connectivity and developer-friendly capabilities, more businesses will be rolling out handheld devices to their mobile workers, industry watchers say.

Apple’s iPhone has opened many eyes to just how much like a computer a smartphone can be – offering e-mail, Web browsing, custom business apps and built-in GPS – through a user interface that many find is very intuitive.

A mobile phone can leak data in many different ways. Courtesy of Trend Micro.

With the imminent launch of Blackberry Storm from Research in Motion (before year’s end), it’s likely that more companies will seriously consider touch screen interactive device for their workforce.

Businesses will also be pushed by their newer, younger workforce to adopt alternate devices, according to Patricia Wilkey, leader of global desktop and mobility with EDS Corp., now an HP company.

“Baby boomers live and breathe e-mail, while the younger generations use instant messaging and social networks,” she says. “My 13-year-old says e-mail is for old people.”

But it’s likely many companies won’t wait for Wilkey’s teenager to join the workforce before making the transition.

With the growth of the global mobile workforce – there will be more than 850 million mobile workers next year, representing more than one-quarter of all workers – the new “tools of the trade” will also grow phenomenally.

Smartphone shipments will grow at more than a 30 per cent compound annual growth rate over the next four years, according to analyst firm IDC in Framingham, Mass.  

Over that period, IDC says, smartphones sold will exceed the number of laptops.

That’s because many of those mobile workers will replace their laptop with a smartphone.

“If you have a field worker, they might have a rugged, thicker device that has the battery life and capacity needed to deal with corporate information,” Wilkey says.

She says the biggest challenge in moving to a smartphone business model is putting a product in place that’s secure, but doesn’t limit productivity.

The mobile business era will be defined by a balance between meeting worker needs while securing sensitive information.

Payoff – saved time, greater productivity

With EDS being a major IT services provider, the company is no stranger to mobile phones.

In fact it hosts 950,000 of them for its clients around the world. In a survey of about 15,000 users across 32 countries, EDS found using those handsets were saving employees time.

“We found users could gain an average of 50 minutes to an hour of additional processing or decision making time,” Wilkey says. “They were often able to get in two interactions with a customer instead of just having one meeting.”

In fact, the need to boost productivity is one of the main reasons companies are issuing their field workers smartphones instead of laptops.

But remember not every worker can give up their laptops.

“If workers need to create presentations or content, or make use of collaboration tools, they’ll have to come back to the larger terminal to do some work,” Wilkey says.

Those involved in creative tasks, for instance, would require more screen real estate to get the job done.

Pitfall – Death of “fixed perimeter” security

But those currently relying on a central firewall to protect corporate data, will be sorry to hear those days are coming to an end.

Companies must shift quickly to a new approach to security based on how data is used and who uses it, according to David Meizlik, product marketing manager for security solutions at San Diego, Calif.-based security products vendor, Websense Inc.

“There’s a misperception in the marketplace about how much information can be stored on a phone,” he says. It’s a transition that has to take place as organizations recognize the phone is a multi-use device, he says.

With microSD cards that can expand storage space on smartphones up to 8 GB, and internal memory on the devices also growing, there is real risk of company data leaving the security perimeter of an organization, experts say.

Smartphone users may think of their contacts’ list as the most sensitive information at risk, but IT managers recognize it’s the e-mails and attachments exchanged that need protection.

Data Loss Prevention (DLP) technologies on the market can help stem the flow of your sensitive information from these new endpoints, says Meizlik From Websense.

He says products can sit on your corporate e-mail server and pick out e-mails that might contain confidential information. Then, based on who the sender is and who the e-mail is being sent to, will decide on the best action to take.

“If someone sends out an e-mail with customer information on it, then you might want to encrypt it if it’s going to the boss. But if it’s going to your competitor, you might want to just block it.”

Payoff – can use existing network

Many companies have invested in a voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology for the office, running voice communications through the office data network.

Mobile handsets could be configured to take advantage of these same systems when in the building.

A cell phone can be smart enough to know whether it needs to connect to the wider area network via a carrier, or if its in the office building to connect to the local area network.

This sort of functionality has already been demonstrated in the consumer market, with Rogers offering cell phone customers Wi-Fi access in place of a home phone.

The goal is to use what you’ve already created, so you’re not using the bandwidth of a provider, but your own infrastructure, Wilkey says.

This sort of use is still in its infancy, but this is the direction business providers want to move in.

Pitfall – easy to lose

Sure that smaller form factor is convenient to slip into your pocket, but Meizlik notes that it’s also a lot easier to slip out of your hands. Not only are phones easier to lose than laptops, they may pose more risks for data leaks.

“When you have a laptop, there’s always a login with a password that’s enforced by the company, but most organizations don’t do that with their phones,” the Websense exec says. “If I find your phone, I can pick it up and see all your contacts, see all your e-mail and the files you’ve downloaded.”

He says as mobile handsets have to be easy and quick to access, there tend to be lower security defenses set around them. Companies should make sure that any mobile phones they deploy have a kill ability to wipe out all data.

Payoff and pitfall – employees may supply hardware

Mobile phones have proven tremendously popular in the consumer market and the younger generation bases their live around their phones, Wilkey says.

Not just for making calls and checking e-mail, but planning social activities, conducting banking, being entertained and more.

Workers may volunteer to have those mobile devices enabled with the office to help with their workflow. That could save your organization some money and enable more workers to be flexible.

At the same time, if your employees own their devices, you won’t be able to control what applications are deployed on the handset.

Both Apple’s iTunes with the App Store and Research in Motion’s upcoming Blackberry Application Storefront allow IT managers to restrict what applications can be installed on enterprise devices. But those policies can’t be set if an employee owns the device.

The solution could be to keep your data stored in the cloud, and prevent it from being downloaded to a local storage place, Meizlik says.

“It goes beyond access controls to business controls,” he says. “Do you want your users to be storing data locally? Or is the fact that you’ve invested money into something like Salesforce.com sufficient?”

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