Next year could well be the year that many IT leaders finally start to get their mobile computing management house in order.
The process of integrating consumer smartphones, tablets and other devices into the workplace has been chaotic for many organizations, although there have been some notable accomplishments. Or at least, there have been some accomplishments in setting strategy, if not actual practice.
Nobody in IT boasts they have figured out the world of mobile computing with its constant influx of new smartphones and tablets that raise security and other management worries and pose the long-term potential need for storing data in the cloud.
IT shops have by now been wresting with the demands of the bring your own device (BYOD)-demand for several years, at least back to the introduction of the iPhone five years ago.
As with most complex technologies, it has taken more technology -- in the form of Mobile Device Management (MDM) or, more recently, Mobile Application Management,(MAM) for example -- to help organize the complexity.
"IT is still challenged by BYOD and MDM," Gartner analyst Phillip Redman told Computerworld. "They don't see any clear way to do that. They are trying to figure out policy, device strategies and app strategies. Devices also change so frequently -- just look at the iPad. There are still a lot of questions in the marketplace around all of this."
Redman predicted it will be several more years before a majority of enterprises have a better grip on BYOD and related demands. "It's a whole change in the way enterprises think about devices -- and PCs too," he said.
Redman said it's not so much that there's confusion when picking among more than 100 device management vendors, with some recently attaching application management capabilities. The bigger issue is how the enterprise and the device management vendor, once selected, plan to keep up with changes in mobile operating systems and architectures.
"If a new OS is popular, then MDM's ability can be pushed back," he said. "If Windows 8 grows or a thin client like Chrome grows or there's a new version of iPhone that's difficult for IT to support, who knows how effective the MDM will be?"
The effectiveness of device management, even with 10 top vendors selling 80% of the software, "could be moving backwards and forwards," as time progresses, Redman said, based on those market changes in OSes and devices.
One thing that could make things simpler for IT decisionmakers in 2013 is consolidation among MDM vendors that is expected to accelerate as time goes on.
Citrix announced in December plans to buy Zenprise to round out its mobile management offering, following Research in Motion's purchase of Ubitexx in May for iOS and Android device management. Likewise, traditional systems management vendor BMC Software in January announced plans to purchase Numara Software, Redman noted.
Theoretically, fewer device management vendors could make is easier to sort through their software offerings, but there is also the possibility that existing customers for a smaller vendor could see major changes with a new buyer in charge, analysts noted.
Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, called the Citrix purchase of Zenprise "the beginning of the end for standalone device management vendors. With more acquisitions to come, those left behind will fade away."
He pointed to Symantec's purchase of Odyssey Software in May as an example of a large, established company enlarging its mobile management portfolio.
Aside from assessing MDM, IT shops will probably want to consider mobile application management in tandem with MDM. Some vendors argue that it makes more sense to manage applications than to manage devices, but Citrix and others seem to have decided it will provide management software for both.
As a result, the pathway for making IT decisions could suddenly grow much more complex -- and confusing.
How long will the confusion last? Longer than 2013, but not forever, some think.
"In five to 10 years, IT may no longer have to think about the consumerization of IT," Redman said. "In the future, IT will change the way they distribute data, with more of it in the cloud, so that the emphasis will be less on devices. Over the next few years, IT will not be needing to have to deal with these problems."
Redman does have some more concrete predictions for 2013, including growth in dual personalities on smartphones and tablets that separate corporate from personal data. With the two kinds of data separated, IT shops can wipe off the corporate data without affecting personal information.
Some end users balk at such an approach, requiring their consent before IT can move ahead. "But dual personalities on phones add more value to the user, protecting the personal side of a device," Redman said.
BlackBerry is expected to add the dual personality technology to BlackBerry 10 smartphones coming Jan. 30. Even with that capability added, there will still be concerns about BlackBerry's health overall. Redman predicted BlackBerry will "remain relevant for its security and physical keyboard, but will still decline [in popularity] over the next two years."
Also on the radar for 2013 will be more demands by enterprises for buying up buckets of data from carriers to be used across many different wireless devices, Redman said. Most carriers that sell sharing plans still don't allow an open-ended data sharing plan that works like a water utility, where customers are just charged for what they use, something Redman favors.
"We're getting to the point where you can use data for all the devices you have out there, but you still have to buy 4 GB, when the 1 GB plan wasn't enough and you end up using only 3 GB," he said. "Why can't we pay for actual usage?"
Some larger enterprises do pool data with carriers for data running on specific models of devices, but not for diverse devices, such as tablets as well as smartphones. And the rates enterprises pay the carriers for data are still too high, not generally that much less than what consumers pay, Redman said.
A recent discussion by executives at AT&T and Verizon Wireless indicated they are separately considering ways for application providers to offer their wireless apps for free, but Redman said that consideration will be an involved one, since carriers have to figure out the billing process.
"Free app data uses to the end user are possible, since short messaging already can do some of that," Redman said.
What might be the biggest worry for some IT shops is how much more the next generation of workers in their businesses will favor smartphones, especially over traditional laptops. A recent poll of 1,800 Generation Y adults (from age 18 to 30) in 18 countries, found smartphones were favored about as much as laptops.
In the U.S., the survey, conducted by Cisco, found that young adults favored a smartphone by 41% over a laptop (39%) when asked, "If you had just one device to own, which would it be?"
Tablets and desktops trailed well behind, another indication of the IT manager's mobile management conundrum.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.