The technology powering business mobility

By Alan Morrison

When it comes to business mobility, many IT components are in play: devices, operating systems, security management tools, app development platforms, wireless networks, and so on. But as the old adage goes, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. That is, the real power lies in the convergence of the technologies and in how each organization applies them to redefine the way it works. While the chief information officer will lead the charge here, the rest of the leadership team will want to understand the choices and issues that pertain to the following technology building blocks.

Devices and operating systems

Mobile devices and their underlying operating systems sometimes create a dilemma for organizations: Do we supply every user with a standard device such as an Android, BlackBerry, or iPhone or let employees use what they already own—known as bring your own device (BYOD)? The first option gives the company the control it’s accustomed to having over corporate assets; BYOD offers greater flexibility and embraces the personal empowerment that has helped make those devices so pervasive in the first place.

For some organizations, BYOD is a good choice right now—for example, if the organization has user groups with distinct needs or is in a stage of experimentation. For others, the diffuse nature of BYOD— there are six major operating systems in play (Android, BlackBerry, iOS, Symbian, webOS, and Windows Mobile)—might require too many IT resources to manage, or it might slow down the organization’s ability to develop custom applications because custom applications must work with each mobile platform. Or, for security reasons, limited choice might be appropriate in areas where high degrees of rigor and consistency are required, such as in regulated environments, in the finance sector, for protected data, and for physical safety. At least for now, some organizations are limiting the choice of device, operating system, and applications in those circumstances.

New tools are making it possible to more easily manage devices that use a range of different operating systems. PwC research suggests that limited BYOD will become the rule more than the exception. Providing the devices at no cost to selected employees reduces clutter and ensures focus on a mobility strategy. A variation on BYOD that might work best for many organizations is to limit employee choice to a few of the popular consumer devices that can be more easily integrated and supported.

Security and mobile device management

For many companies, security is the primary barrier to pursuing mobility. And in a BYOD scenario, the business faces the challenge of managing access, usage, and security across different devices. The new mobile device management (MDM) tools not only allow cross-platform management, but also help protect corporate data. MDM tools such as the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, the Good for Enterprise suite, and the MobileIron server provide a central console for managing multiple devices with a common set of policies, thereby ensuring consistent policy enforcement and providing auditing capabilities as well. One important feature is remote wipe and lock, should the device be lost, stolen, or compromised. And for organizations using devices that run on Apple’s iOS or Research In Motion’s BlackBerry, the management products can selectively delete data—for example, erasing any corporate information but retaining a user’s personal data on an employee-owned device. Another approach being developed to address this issue is virtualization, which lets businesses create a partition between enterprise assets and employee assets.

Application development and integration

Defining the company’s mobile app development strategy is a crucial consideration. Organizations must decide how they will extend existing business applications to a mobile environment and how they’ll develop others that support new device capabilities and ways of working. Understanding the range of options is especially important for developing new apps. Even though many companies think that building so-called native apps—that is, apps designed to take advantage of a specific mobile operating system—is the best approach, they might discover that less-resource-intensive approaches can meet their needs. Following are the three primary approaches.

1. Web-based apps

Web-based apps, including cloud-based ones, have two primary advantages. First, they require no new technology on the mobile device, because mobile browsers currently support HTML and JavaScript. And second, businesses can adapt many of the Web applications created for desktop users, including front ends to enterprise– resource-planning applications, human resources applications, and order entry applications. To do so, however, they would need to redesign the user interfaces to fit the mobile screen and to accommodate the touch interface’s lack of fine input positioning of the cursor.

One important technology here is the forthcoming HTML5, the next generation of the widely used Web programming language that will support more featurerich mobile applications, such as those that take advantage of location data. While HTML5 will not be finalized for several years, major components have already been implemented in the most popular mobile and desktop browsers, thereby providing an opportunity for businesses to test and use the capabilities over time.

2. Virtualization

Virtualization allows a single version of an application to run on any mobile device. Several virtualization methods can be used for developing and deploying mobile apps, but the most promising currently is thin-client virtualization. It provides a high level of security, thanks to its ability to separate the application and its data from everything else on the device.

3. Native apps

Native app development lets organizations take advantage of the unique functional or interface capabilities that more-generic Web technologies cannot. In particular, that includes the ability to handle common sensor data from the devices—such as acceleration, spatial orientation, ambient light levels, and proximity detection—that could be used for new classes of services and applications. However, many organizations today are spending money developing mobile apps that are native but don’t need to be. If your company doesn’t need to develop an app that makes heavy use of the phone’s camera, for example, a native app might not be necessary at all. In many cases, either optimizing existing websites so that mobile device users can view them easily or developing a Web app is enough, especially in view of HTML5’s new capabilities. We believe that once HTML5 matures, mobilefriendly websites and Web-based apps will be able to address the majority of mobile enterprise needs. (See Figure 1.)

We see businesses choosing different development approaches depending on the specific application. In our view, it’s likely that the majority of corporate apps will be Web based, reserving native development for new (no computer-based equivalent was in place) or sensor-enabled applications. Examples of new applications are those that scan products’ bar codes to get more information or check pricing elsewhere, display the maintenance staff’s current status on work requests when they’re in the field, and serve as remote controls for Wi-Fi-enabled devices such as TVs, building automation systems, and security cameras. Examples of sensor applications are pedometers that calculate energy use, routing tools that direct drivers to their destinations based on current conditions, and visual heart-rate monitoring.

Wireless networks

Another technology-related consideration is the cost of wireless communications as more and more corporate data traffic moves to mobile devices. As they plan for increased mobile use, businesses may wish to begin service contract discussions with carriers, as well as to ensure that employees have access to their usage costs and can monitor them. In the meantime, to provide a direct incentive for cost control, many companies are reimbursing employees a fixed or capped rate for smartphone communication usage.

Some businesses are also preparing internal facilities to accommodate broader use of wireless within the organization, which can help control costs. For example, they are upgrading Wi-Fi networks in major offices so that a mobile device can automatically use the company’s own Wi-Fi when the Wi-Fi is in range rather than use the cellular network.

Another considerable challenge is the ability to accommodate greater input and output capabilities—like printing spreadsheets and presentations—than are possible with mobile devices. While more such features will come from mobile vendors, companies can do a great deal to prepare and enable that capability by choosing display and printing facilities that work wirelessly.