The Perils and Promises of Mobility

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If 2008 will be remembered as the year when mobile technologies finally hit critical mass for most mainstream businesses, then 2009 could be the year when many of these same businesses learn some painful lessons about how not to implement mobility.

For all their promise, wireless devices and services demand more forethought than simply distributing gadgets to employees. Companies that focus on the hardware without also considering the related workflow, operational management and integration implications are in for a rude awakening.

In the past, organizations often coped with massive change such as this by ignoring the problem. More risk-averse firms typically banned the use of disruptive new technologies while leadership figured out how to implement them effectively. It’s an attitude that continues to this day. In some organizations, for example, employees aren’t allowed to install instant messaging applications or visit social networking sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook. Road warriors at companies such as these either do without mobile devices or use their own equipment and accounts outside the corporate infrastructure.

It’s a strategy as quaint — and obsolete — as using typewriters in the Internet age. Companies worried about the implications of mobility can’t afford to sit on the sidelines; the world is already cutting the cord. Worldwide mobile handset sales blew through 1 billion in 2007 and continued to grow at double-digit rates through 2008. A new report from Portio Research confirms global mobile penetration exceeded the 50 percent milestone in 2008, while total mobile industry revenues are set to top $1 trillion — all within an industry that didn’t exist a generation ago.

Yet, despite the unstoppable wave of mobility sweeping the planet, the risks can be significant. Security tops them all. Whether employees are losing data-laden devices in taxis, getting them stolen in airports or having their unencrypted traffic picked up at public hotspots, the privacy implications of using these devices for sensitive tasks have never been greater.

Growing regulatory oversight raises the stakes even higher for organizations that have suffered losses of confidential data. It’s a lesson that the makers of the iPhone game “Aurora Feint” learned all too well. They included a feature that copied the contact databases of unwitting users — unencrypted, of course — to the developer’s own servers. The goal? To build a community feature that let players know when their friends were online. Although the intent was far from malicious, the resulting outcry prompted Apple to pull the application from its online store.

The incident serves as a warning to IT decision makers considering mobile deployments of their own: Never assume your platform is secure, and never assume every developer plays by the same rules.

Support costs also are a large gray area. A mobile device isn’t just a fancy phone. It’s a new platform that, like PCs and laptops, demands a certain degree of care if it’s going to get the job done. You wouldn’t dream of upgrading the operating system on your laptop fleet without properly training your end users and help-desk staff. But few shops invest in similar rigidity when deploying new or replacement wireless devices and services. They should.

This gap also extends to business goals. Most companies fail to identify the business outcomes they hope to achieve by implementing mobile technology. Or they identify these goals but fail to monitor whether they are being met. This is unfortunate because, as the economy continues to spin downward, mobile tools have the potential to reduce costs, improve efficiencies and drive agility. For example, employees in post-layoff companies can increase productivity by getting more done outside the office. Additionally, companies with mobile-enabled employees can hold the line on real estate and fixed infrastructure costs.

Operationally, mobile-enabled applications drive automation by eliminating the need for labor-intensive manual processes. For example, a location-enabled device and service might obviate the need for human dispatchers to call service technicians on the road. Similarly, workflow applications such as sales-force automation tools reduce the need for double entry of data and allow more work to get done on-site.

Next-generation mobile services such as these can reduce friction by encouraging more frequent and deeper collaboration — both internally and with external stakeholders — and by removing low-value activities and resources from the loop. While worries about security, cost and complexity are as valid now as they’ve ever been, mobile technologies have become mainstream, and companies that freeze mobile deployments out of fear risk being left behind by more agile competitors.

The bottom line: It’s OK to worry, but the answers to these concerns are already out there. 

Carmi Levy is a technology journalist and analyst with experience launching help desks and managing projects for major financial services institutions. He offers consulting advice on enterprise infrastructure, mobility and emerging social media. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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