Time to get smart about smartphones

If you didn't get the message with the release of the iPhone or the subsequent arrival of Android, then Windows Phone 7 has to be your wake-up call. Mobile is no longer just the future; its time is now.

Smartphone technology is accelerating the consumerization of IT and transforming personal and business life, blending one into the other. The recession has done nothing to slow that trend; if anything, it has spurred it on. Employees who survived layoffs were left worrying about their own continued employment even as they coped with increased workloads. Needing to stretch the business day to stay on top of things and demonstrate their commitment to the job, people turned to a tool that lets them read that urgent e-mail, text that much-needed answer or grab that important phone call late into the evening. You can't take a notebook PC to the opera or to your kid's soccer game. But you can take a smartphone and stay connected -- and employed. And when you're spending more and more time on the job, a smartphone becomes a handy way to keep up with your personal life.

IDC predicts 20.9% growth in smartphone sales from 2009 through 2013. Symbian and Research In Motion remain the market leaders, but competition is sure to intensify now that three of the most important end-user tech companies -- Microsoft, Google and Apple -- have entered the market. That's a beautiful thing.

After all, we're starting from a low point. Today's smartphone is seriously wanting. Virtual keyboards are barely passable. Data transfer rates are pathetic (in the U.S., at least). Call quality is still only marginal. The smartphone is a jack of all trades and a master of none. There's clearly room for improvement, which explains why there's so much pent-up demand for a better user experience. Some people fall in love for six months at a time with models that offer only minor functionality gains over their predecessors -- and then they go looking for the next incremental upgrade. That's a sign of an immature product technology serving an engaged, demanding customer base.

For IT managers, such rapid change in a class of devices about which people have strong personal preferences can be a nightmare. At my company, a recent iPhone operating system upgrade killed the account-authentication process for corporate e-mail. Unable to access their e-mail, many iPhone users went out and purchased BlackBerries because they didn't have time to wait for the fix.

How do you support this huge shift to smartphones and the accompanying rapid churn of models and platforms? How do you secure the connections to corporate servers? How do you protect the devices themselves? How do you safeguard your company from apps? What is going to happen when, inevitably, mobile operating systems start being targeted in earnest by the bad guys? What about the mixture of company-owned and personal devices?

When PCs were becoming serious business tools, IT managers let pundits, analysts and the media steer the conversation. This time, IT needs a seat at the table. Companies like RIM and Microsoft know how to play that game. But Apple and Google may not make IT issues a priority. It's up to IT to make sure they see the importance of it.

IT shops that start working out solutions to mobile problems will avoid the pitfalls. Clamping down on smartphones is not the way to go. You're not likely to thwart the will of your entire user base. Embrace the inevitable, but institute policies and processes that protect your enterprise. Becoming informed about how devices are being used is probably Step 1.

I'm interested in how different IT shops are handling this issue, so please drop me an e-mail and let me know how it's done at your company.

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. You can catch him on Twitter, where he tweets as @scotfinnie, or you can e-mail him at sfinnie@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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