Smartphones in business: 'Don't spend too much on something that might get run over by a truck'

While consumers will always want the latest devices, the priorities for businesses are slightly different.
Written by Toby Wolpe, Contributor

While consumers are obsessed with getting hold of the latest and greatest smartphone, businesses would be quite happy if the rate of innovation slowed down just a little bit.

That's because much of their effort is going into internal apps to improve business processes rather than to engage with customers.

Seven out of 10 organisations are putting money into creating business apps for employees, according to new research — outstripping the 59 percent making business software for customers.

Delivering a flexible workforce comes out far ahead of gaining a competitive advantage, with 83 percent of organisations citing staff flexibility as a main driver for mobility compared with 42 percent for business edge, the study of UK firms by enterprise apps company IFS also shows.

Integrated Water Services managing director Peter Aspley takes a firm line on setting goals for his company's mobile strategy.

"We look at it primarily from a business need perspective. So, 'What does the business need?' as opposed to 'What does the individual want?'," Aspley told an IFS mobility round-table in London.

"Our focus is very much on putting the kit out there that does the job the business needs it to. Without being too harsh, if someone needs an iPhone for their personal interaction with Facebook, they can buy one," he said.

Aspley's company provides services to the water industry, local authorities and hospitals, including managing plant and equipment on their behalf.

"Water industry, local authorities and government agencies are all feeling the squeeze, so we have to stay one step ahead of the game in trying to help to solve the client's problem." he said.

Integrated Water Services' work in Legionella control, for example, requires a lot of daily data collection, so the firm first developed a mobile strategy in 2005 to gather information and feed it back to customers and business systems via the web.

Aspley's mobile strategy takes account of a range of devices, from iPhones at the management level to access business data and Motorola ES400 smartphones for the field engineers.

"That's where the challenge is — with the device interfaces with those field workers. Because you don't want to be spending a disproportionate amount of money on a device that is going to get dropped down a borehole, dropped in a tank, run over by the van," Aspley said.

"The attrition rate with those field-based devices at the sharp end is far higher than you would see in the office and the managerial environment."

Three-quarters of firms have now invested in an enterprise mobility scheme. Of the 24 percent that haven't, three out of four say it's because it isn't business critical.

Security issues remain the top concern for companies without mobile strategies, cited by 86 percent of respondents, followed by data loss on 56 percent.

The cost of integration comes next, with a figure of 42 percent. However, software development is an issue even for companies that have been running a strategy for some time.

Aspley said keeping applications up to date in the face of the short life-spans and rapid development of mobile devices represents an ongoing problem.

"It's been a real challenge for us in terms of the iteration of devices that we've gone through. We've never had across all our operations one device that we've been able to standardise on," he said.

"Because as soon as you've deployed, by the time you've gone through that replacement cycle with all the staff, actually that [device] is no longer in production."

His company's IT team invests a lot of effort in trying to second-guess the longevity of devices.

"You try to put your application on the right platform that gives you the agility within the inherent system that you're operating to interface with as many devices as possible," Aspley said.

"We stick all our stuff at the moment in a SQL Server database, so we can interface with most things but you can't stand still. The device industry indicates, 'This is the future'. In 12 months' time, it's old hat. It's gathering dust."

Mark Austin, CIO at Bedford NHS Trust, said his route round issues created by the short life of mobile devices is to deliver services via a browser.

"We've strived towards getting applications to be more web front-ended, rather than leading on the device," Austin said.

"I don't profess that that will completely future-proof things but it gives us a little bit of longevity and then in the background we virtualise everything."

The IFS research study polled 200 CIOs and IT managers at UK-based companies with more than 1,000 employees.

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