While advanced mobile devices are sizing up to be a valuable business tool, the task of keeping tabs on them is set to prove a huge headache for IT managers.
They will step into a security minefield by using such small and easily stolen devices to access and store corporate data, as well as struggle to support a seemingly infinite combination of WAP phones, Windows CE and Bluetooth devices.
As the synchronisation of data-enabled and intelligent devices improves, then the company is at greater risk if they are lost or stolen.
"There are going to be security breaches," said Nigel Deighton, research director at the Gartner Group. He added that while most people are concerned about the risk of data being intercepted over the line, the main concern should be theft.
"Thieves steal portables because of the value of the hardware. Now they will be stolen for the value of the information they contain," warned Deighton.
"The reality is, it's a difficult way of hacking. Modern digital encryption for GSM is pretty good," said Henry Harrison, senior consultant at telecoms consultancy Schema.
While the potential security risk with the next generation mobile devices is huge, it's nothing new. Many executives carry laptops with a dialup connection to corporate email or Intranet with little or no password protection or encryption.
"Lots of notebooks are used this way," said Harrison.
Security aside, the major concern is that most mobile devices today are bought not by the enterprise but by the end user, and their use of handhelds has already gone way beyond personal information management.
"It's a massive issue for industry," said Dilip Mistry, Windows CE marketing manager at Microsoft. "These devices are being bought on a Saturday and then on Monday are being used to hook up to corporate data. The primary usage was as a contacts manager, but then they added applications, access to the corporate network, and databases. Suddenly, they're not PIMs."
This is exactly what happened with PCs and notebooks. It took the IT department a long time to catch up with the different hardware and software being used.
"The problem that hit PCs years ago will re-emerge with these devices," said Deighton. "The headache for the enterprise will be far worse, however, as greater combinations of these next generation mobile devices will be used together."
"Mobile apathy will result in mobile anarchy," warned Mistry.
To combat this, the IT manager must put in place preferred applications and platforms, but often they are dictated to by the business managers.
"When corporates go about strategic procurement, it's the business people that decide to go with SAP, not the IT managers. The suppliers need to sell to the business managers because they understand the business value, but they must carry the IT department along with them," said Harrison.
Strategy and guidelines
Deighton warns companies to assess their remote access strategy and establish guidelines. "They need to look at their remote access needs generally and plan the architecture accordingly from day one, or they'll get ad hoc systems they can't support," he said.
This could result in the expensive exercise of removing devices already being used, and implementing new ones that comply.
"The last thing on the minds of IT managers is to support another operating system, but there's pressure on IT departments because of Y2K and ecommerce," said Mistry. However, he urges companies to act now to get guidelines in place, and to work with standards to establish a strict policy.
Interest in wireless access for the supply of corporate information is huge, with corporates expecting to deploy these devices right across the workforce. Some of the leading edge companies are, however, already aware of the problems.
"I can see the corporate use of mobile devices becoming an increasing trend because everything is getting smaller," said Steve Last, technical manager at Nissan Motors GB.
One security expert at a high street bank said the company always assesses the need for every new piece of equipment, and if there's a real need, then it will allow it.
This assessment is carried out with regard for the total cost of ownership (TCO) associated with all IT equipment. The bank will carefully "research the benefit over cost implications. A solution is only a solution if it can be given to everyone," he said.
No time like the present
Despite these issues, Harrison stressed that now is a good time for corporates to think about implementing a mobile data strategy. The big software houses such as Oracle, Microsoft and SAP are starting to pick up on mobile data now.
"Corporates tend to move away from developing their own applications and buy off-the-shelf solutions, but they haven't been available before now," he said. "Historically it has been difficult to manage mobile data projects because they're 'one-offs'. There have been no standards and no systems integrators, but WAP platform potentially provides the platform companies have been looking for."
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