Mobility means synching up

If you’re an IT executive today, things pretty much work this way: so very often when you get a present from a family member, it’s the latest in mobile computing devices. In fact, most executives in this business are already carrying wireless handheld devices alongside a two-way pager and a cell phone.

Of course, I personally can’t wait to have my own version of a Dick Tracy watch, which means that just about anybody will be able to contact me whenever they take a notion to do so. But the fundamental problem with mobile computing is the need for such a concept – apart from existing IT services, that is.

To make matters worse, companies such as Verizon now are giving away free Internet-enabled phones to people willing to sign long-term contracts. L.M. Ericcson Telephone Co., meanwhile, is working with AT&T Corp. to create a new generation of wireless consumers by giving away wireless devices shaped like phones, allowing people to win prizes by interacting with the Who Wants to be a Millionaire television program.

The reason this represents such an immense problem for IT is that all these executives are sure they can’t live without such devices. Naturally, this means they want the devices connected to their work environments so that they can become ever more productive.

What most people don’t realize is that this presents a huge challenge for IT. Each mobile device on the market today comes with its own set of built-in services for e-mail and calendering. In order to integrate those services with existing corporate services built around Lotus Development Corp.’s Notes or Microsoft Corp.’s Exchange, IT organizations have to invest in synchronization software that can be purchased from more than a dozen different vendors today.

The problem is that every time one of the devices this software is intended to synchronize gets updated, the synchronization software needs to be updated. And of course anytime any of the core enterprise applications gets an upgrade, you’ll also need to update the synchronization software.

For IT people, this creates an infinite synchronization loop that diverts attention away from their real jobs: to make sure that their company has a working IT infrastructure. This loop exists because the concept of mobile computing has not yet sufficiently worked its way into our application development and Internet infrastructure psyche. Instead of having to purchase synchronization software to make the concept of mobile computing a reality, the technology needed to support mobile computing should be built directly into the applications we use and the services provided by ISPs.

Unfortunately, we’re a good two years away from seeing this approach become a reality, so in the meantime we can expect to see continued proliferation of mobile computing products that just add to the problem.

Alas, trying to put a lid on this phenomenon is roughly akin to the effort back in the 1980s of trying to stop the infiltration of PCs into corporate environments. The reality is that you can’t stop people when it comes to acquiring the latest gadget in an economy where people have far too much disposable income. And if you don’t try to support it, end-users will once again view the IT department as a behind-the-times bottleneck that prevents them from attaining data nirvana alongside their latest stock quotes.

So the best thing you can do for the moment is make a short-term investment in synchronization software because you will have some modicum of control. Nevertheless, IT organizations should also be putting a tremendous amount of pressure on ISVs and ISPs to create truly seamless mobile computing infrastructures.

After all, it’s in their interest to do so. Once we have such platforms, everybody can participate. Until then, mobile computing will just remain a troublesome niche application for those who can afford to pay for it.

The only question that remains is, how long are we going to have to live with mobile solutions that only take us part of the way there?

Michael Vizard is editor in chief at InfoWorld. Send him e-mail at michael_vizard@infoworld.com.