Rapid adoption of notebook PCs over the past decade made them an everyday fact of business life. Now, with the benefits of mobile data access well and truly taken for granted, the spectre of several false starts is finally far behind the market for smaller smartphone and PDA styled mobile devices.
Taken together -- and turbo-charged with the recent launch of high-bandwidth mobile data networks -- mobile devices offer unprecedented access to corporate information that's stored back in company databases and applications. No longer do staff have to lug procedure manuals into the field with them, and time-consuming phone calls back to dispatchers are a thing of the past.
Yes, self-empowerment is the name of the game when it comes to mobility these days: give employees the tools to get better access to corporate information, the theory goes, and their productivity will soar through the roof.
Gartner recently jumped on this perception, with research vice president Nick Jones encouraging attendees at a recent Gartner ITexpo event to consider establishing mobility competency centres charged with identifying business processes that would benefit from being mobilised. To prepare for this, Jones encourages companies to invest heavily in wireless LAN technologies as well as standardising on mobile device platforms like Windows Mobile 6 or the Nokia E Series.
But what happens when something goes wrong?
Mobile devices do have a horrible tendency to go missing, no matter whether they're the smallest smartphone or the largest laptop. A recent survey by security vendor Pointsec, for example, found that 12,000 smartphones, PDAs, mobiles, pocket PCs and laptops were left behind in taxis in two US cities alone. A similar 2005 Pointsec survey found the problem equally bad in Sydney, where extrapolated results suggest 13,280 devices were left behind during a six-month period alone.
Fortunately, the majority of devices do make their way back to their owners. But loss is only one of the problems that can befall mobile devices on the road: although most companies that have rolled out mobile devices eventually swear by them, the path to making mobile devices a part of everyday business is littered with broken screens, flat batteries, misconfigured virtual private networks, lost devices, and a thousand other problems.
And if fixing those problems when the computers are in the office wasn't already bad enough, any issue becomes an order of magnitude more difficult when the computers in question are a thousand kilometres away. The key here is to temper self-empowerment with a modicum of common sense -- and a carefully thought out technology plan to make sure your corporate data never ends up where it's not supposed to be.
Mobile backup solutions like Sprite Backup can make sure you always have a copy of the data on your remote Windows Mobile devices, while built-in management features in both Windows Mobile and Nokia environments offer features such as remote kill switches and data wiping.
Notebooks, which complicate the picture with full-sized hard drives just waiting to be filled with sensitive data, are being addressed by managed storage service providers, who use customised applications to incrementally back up data to secure data centres any time the device is online.
One of the biggest problems companies face when rolling out PDAs and other personal devices is getting past the idea that a man's phone is his castle, says Steve Riley, senior security strategist in Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing Group.
"Most people who receive a laptop from a company intrinsically understand that it's a business resource, but phones and PDAs are very personal devices," Riley explains. "Now that the organisation has taken over your phone, there's going to be a period of time where end users are going to have to become accustomed to the idea of even the telephone and PDA becoming business devices."
That requires careful training and evangelising, as well as a measure of handholding so that the business part of the mobile device happens as seamlessly as possible. Fortunately, increasingly sophisticated business mobility applications are taking over that process, intelligently synchronising data on an ongoing basis so it is less likely to get lost due to a mishap.
No doubt about it: mobile devices have more than grown up. For companies that are seriously interested in mobility but have held off due to concerns about data loss, there are now enough options to make stepping into the mobile world a quite manageable experience.