The future of enterprise smartphones

Our survey shows huge interest in smartphones, and huge gaps in what's needed. If the big players can't do the job, others are queuing up to take their place

'Consumerisation' is an ugly word for a beautiful thing. It represents the breaking-down of barriers between consumer and enterprise technology — when the technology that's cheap enough for individuals and swish enough for the mass market becomes powerful enough for the enterprise.

That's more important than it might seem. Consumer tech has to be good enough to make us want to use it in our daily lives, whereas we have to use enterprise technology — which is why it is frequently ugly, brutish and inefficient. After all, why bother making it nice?

Yet enterprise IT regularly ignores the fact that tools which encourage use are more effective than those which inspire despair.

Smartphones are the leading example of modern consumer technology invading the enterprise, and the iPhone is the most spectacular case. But enterprise doesn't take well to invasion, so ZDNet UK was interested to discover what companies thought about smartphones: what they have, what they're missing — and where they're going next.

One of the most interesting messages in ZDNet UK's enterprise smartphone survey was that the consumer focus on features is, if anything, hindering the enterprise adoption of smartphones. What people want is access to enterprise applications, with the strongest call for proper office applications: an area severely neglected even by companies such as Microsoft. Despite that company's overwhelming presence in enterprise productivity software and its continued efforts to gain mobile share, it has yet to provide a good experience when dealing with Office data on the move. Yet that was by far the single biggest request from users.

The same lack was highlighted for the iPhone — "full integration with Microsoft environment", "Full MS email support" — but other issues weighed more heavily. Being locked to a single network is damaging enterprise take-up far more than it is for consumers: corporates have enough problems dealing with operators without having to be constrained by their choice of handset. Security and manageability are also high on the list of reasons not to go to the iPhone.

All this suggests that what the iPhone — and enterprise smartphones in general — needs is a new channel between vendors and organisations. The needs of enterprise are sufficiently different that they cannot be met by the current consumer-based approach. Apple may not wish for the distraction of building full support for the enterprise into its iPhone roadmap, but a smart third party could take that on, even to the extent of creating and managing the tools necessary to give companies the control they need to justify their uptake.

The trouble is that vendors and their partners in the networks are famously reluctant to cede any form of control, even in areas where they cannot or do not innovate. The trouble comes when the real needs of enterprise do not match the business plans of the vendors, as happens with smartphones. There, the only way forward is to allow others to take on the task of filling the needs, accepting that the growth in the market will do the vendors good even if it comes at the loss of complete power.

If this does not happen, then the risk to vendors is that brand-new ways of satisfying the pent-up demand for enterprise mobility will evolve, but in ways that are outside their control. It is already easier to envisage how a distributed, managed, mobile application suite could be built out of a combination of the Google applications and Android than it is to see how Microsoft will manage to merge the disparate strands of its Live environment, its Windows Mobile strategy and its established MS Office products.

But there is no way that any enterprise IT vendor should ignore smartphones. Even if this current generation of devices does not meet corporate needs, they are spearheading innovation. Convergent evolution is pulling them, netbooks and other more esoteric embedded IT together. Virtualisation is smoothing out the issues of different hardware and changing platforms.

The big problems of handling enterprise data securely under the constraints of screen size, battery power and input devices will have to be solved sooner or later. And sooner is better, given the big push from users for smartphone functionality. Areas of demand and growth are not to be ignored lightly, and if the big boys don't get there, their competitors — and successors — will.