Quocirca's Straight Talking: The beauty and bother of mobile email

Is it worth the hassle?

Is it worth the hassle?

The beauty of mobile email lies in its ability to boost productivity. But it also presents quite a bother for the IT pros managing the devices and their supporting systems. Quocirca's Rob Bamforth looks at how to negotiate this two-faced technology.

The growth in new functionality for mobile phones, and the marked success of the BlackBerry in particular, has changed the perception of email access outside the office. It is no longer just the domain of laptop-toting road warriors and those employees supported by the IT department and connected with fiddly special purpose security tokens.

Email is becoming less complex and the display size necessary to view messages is shrinking. It is viewed as a vital means of communication and, according to recent Quocirca research, almost 95 per cent of IT professionals deem it important or critical. All this makes it an ideal application to put into the pocket - alongside, or on, the mobile phone.

The dream for users is to choose how to communicate depending on which mode is most convenient - shall I call, send a text message or email? That's good for individual time management and should be good for overall business productivity.

The dream, however, has a dark side.

The apparent ease with which messages can be sent and received, especially on small, smart handheld devices, needs to be tempered with the controls necessary to make it safe and effective. The various mobile email solutions might be getting easier and cheaper to deploy but there are other considerations to take into account which have particular impact on IT departments.

For instance, mobile devices are more susceptible to theft or loss than laptops or desktops, exposing the organisation to a potentially vulnerable communications link. While most businesses recognise the challenge, too many have a lax attitude to imposing security on the device itself. More than 70 per cent of IT professionals surveyed by Quocirca cited security as the major issue in starting a project to deploy smart handhelds, yet fewer than 38 per cent treated handheld security as seriously as laptop security, generally leaving it in the hands of users.

The impact on corporate security and governance is significant, and many respondents suggested that lack of care from users and disparity between devices makes the security challenges even worse.

Beyond the security of device and network, the content of an email, however it is sent, should also be examined. Emails are already recognised as documents to safeguard for good governance and are considered just as valid for formal or legal communication as faxes, and only slightly less valid than letters. All three are far ahead of telephone or face-to-face conversation, suggesting emails should be written and managed with due care and attention. 'This email was sent from my mobile' is not an excuse, and IT usage policies have to reflect the serious value now applied to email content.

Finally, mobile email has an additional adverse effect on the overloaded IT manager. Not only are there new devices to manage and backup, and new operating systems to secure but the use of mobile email highlights faults which might otherwise have been fixed behind the scenes. Quocirca research has found that more than 40 per cent of business managers were more sensitive to email downtime because of the deployment of mobile email, a situation which increased pressure on the beleaguered IT department. With mobile email, there is no respite, not only for recipients but also for the IT department.

The business productivity gains are sometimes difficult to quantify but mobile email is becoming increasingly easy to justify at an individual level, whether by executives wishing to impress colleagues or manage busy schedules, or anyone trying to keep on top of the information overload and time pressures of many jobs. Solutions are available through mobile operators or other traditional IT channels, with a widening choice of mobile devices and software to meet the needs of individuals and both large and small businesses.

Smart handheld devices appear cheap and easy to deploy but, while the devices are small and in some cases look just like phones, they should be treated with the same care and reverence as standard IT equipment such as laptops. This requires the right combination of people, process and technology to protect and safeguard the organisation, data and user. And just like any IT investment, smart handheld applications should fit in with the corporate business strategy.

A further discussion of the challenges and best practices for deploying and managing mobile devices is available in our recent report, called Mobile Devices and Users: Keep mobile working safe, secure and under control.