Why wireless devices can be an albatross

As more users demand portable devices such as personal digital assistants and smart phones, companies are facing additional hidden costs while IT managers scramble to keep their wireless services secure and available, recent research indicates.

ABI Research Inc., for example, forecasts companies worldwide will spend US$20 billion per year on managing and supporting mobile devices by 2013. In a report released this week, dubbed “Mobile Device Management for Business,” the Oyster Bay, N.Y. research firm forecasts the market for services such as asset management, billing audit and security will grow by 81 per cent per year.

“As mobile e-mail becomes more important to the company, it becomes considered as a necessary component of managing their business processes as well as staying competitive,” said Dan Shey, principal analyst for ABI Research who wrote the report. “There’s additional support services needed there.”

He added some large companies are seeking services from management firms – other than the manufacturers that make the devices or the wireless carriers that provide the wide-area connectivity – because enterprises want to reduce air time costs and get additional support for their applications.

“Say for instance that you have a particular application that the operator didn’t offer but was developed for your company,” Shey said. “You put this application on your phone, you need some help managing that. The management can sometimes come from the company that created the application for your phone, but many times what those (developers) do is they just go to a mobility management services firm and say, ‘Hey can you help me with the support of this mobility application that I just sold to this business?’”

With mobile applications, users are expecting to be able to do nearly the same things on their wireless devices that they can do on their desktops, said Steven Ostrowski, corporate public relations manager for the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) Inc., based in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.

“It puts a heavy burden on the IT department,” Ostrowski said. “If a company invests in this kind of device for their sales force or their senior management, those people are going to expect that they’re going to get as close to the same experience as when they’re sitting in their office and using a desktop or a laptop. If the CEO has a BlackBerry and wants access to the latest sales figures and you’re going to tell him he can’t have it, that’s going to be a tough thing for the IT guy to tell him.”

In a recent online poll conducted by CompTIA, 65.7 per cent of 816 respondents said their IT departments are spending more time and resources supporting the BlackBerry than any other comparable device.

Four per cent of respondents said their IT departments are supporting handheld computers, 0.5 per cent said they support smart phones, two per cent said they support laptop PCs and 4.5 per cent said they support digital music players. “We were surprised to see that,” said Ostrowski, said. “You’re bringing in MP3 players and iPods to work and expecting (IT managers) to do what? Fix it for you? Load music on it?”

Ostrowski added mobile devices can also make the IT infrastructure less secure.

“Each of these devices, when connected to the network, is a potential security vulnerability that has to be addressed,” he said. “Not only are you synching them, not only are you making sure that they’re connected to the network, but you’re making sure that all of this is happening in a secure environment.”

In fact, security is one of the mobile management services cited by ABI Research in its forecast. For example, Shey said, a management company could turn off devices that have been lost so someone who finds the device cannot access sensitive corporate information.

The biggest security problem caused by wireless devices is the data stored on them, said Shari Freeman, director of engineering and product management for the Afaria group of Sybase Inc.

“Even if a company is just pushing e-mail to their end user devices, e-mail can have a lot of confidential and important information in it, so what steps is a company taking to protect that data on the device in the event that it’s lost or stolen?” Freeman said.

Sybase announced last month it is adding security features from Afaria’s Security Manager software to its iAnywhere product, which lets administrators encrypt data on mobile devices and block unauthorized devices from accessing their Microsoft Exchange E-mail servers. In the future, some mobile devices may include biometric authentication hardware, said Allan Houpt, director of product management for Islandia, N.Y.-based CA Inc.

“If that became something that was doable and standard, then if the device gets lost, so what? You don’t have the same retina, you don’t have the same fingerprint (as the owner). That may obviate some of the security risks as well.”

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