Mobile devices have been around for more than a decade now. In the beginning, they primarily provided the functionality of telephony, as well as contact, email and calendar management. Soon after, these devices started offering access to the worldwide web. Even at that time, it was felt that they would become pervasive within the enterprise and would be used by the workforce in multiple ways. However, this did not happen in a significant way for many years.
Blackberry was the first mobile device to penetrate the enterprise to any real extent, but employees used it primarily for email and calendaring capabilities.With the advent of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android platforms, the landscape is changing. These devices have rapidly started becoming pervasive in enterprise communications. This article explains the reasons for the quick entry of mobile devices into the business environment and the factors that enterprises are considering while incorporating a broad spectrum of mobility capabilities into the workplace.
When mobile devices were initially introduced, carriers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and others made a significant investment in infrastructure for providing the cellular phone service. The devices were provided by non-computer electronics companies like Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and others. They had a mix of proprietary operating systems including Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Palm OS, which, in turn, came with development tools that were hard to use. These early mobile devices also used other mechanisms like BREW, J2ME for enabling application developers to write applications for these devices.
Considering that the carriers owned the subscribers and they had made huge initial investments, they called the shots in terms of what applications, ring tones, and phone options were provided to the users of these devices. The carriers controlled email by putting their own email servers in between enterprise email servers and the user. The carriers controlled which web sites users could access by showing a limited set of menus when users tried to access the web. The carriers also had control over which applications users could download onto their devices. In fact, the carriers also dictated what the device manufacturer was allowed to pre-load onto any device that was offered by that carrier to its customers.
In addition, software developers had to establish a business relationship with the carriers before they could make their applications available on the devices offered by that carrier. As a result, independent software development vendors (ISVs) did not develop many applications for these devices since the carriers are large companies and it is time consuming and cumbersome for small ISVs to establish relationships with them. There were a limited number of ISVs that came into existence (such as Antenna software, Mobilieum, Rocket Mobile and others); and these companies struggled to grow for the above reasons. Blackberry was able to break this model. It gradually established that it handles emails extremely well and that it has much better reliability than what most carriers offered through their own email servers. Therefore, the carriers had to cede control of email specifically for Blackberry devices. The email to Blackberry devices is handled either by RIM, the manufacturer of the device, or by individual enterprises who install a Blackberry server within the enterprise.
The real change in this carrier-controlled model happened with the advent of the iPhone. Apple had established a strong brand name and credibility that whatever it designs is always the best in its class. With that credibility, Apple introduced the iPhone as a device that can handle phone, email, calendar, Internet browsing, native applications, music, videos and more. The device was immediately adopted by iPod users as they saw the benefits of merging their music and phone into a single device. As a bonus, these users got unlimited access to the world-wide web in the same way as they did on their desktops. With the iPhone, irrespective of the carrier, the user is able to browse to any URL.
Apple also designed the iPhone with business users in mind. Even in its first generation phone, Apple had a rich set of built-in security mechanisms such as SSL, Digital certificates, VPN, etc. In addition, they offered their distribution channel—Apple App Store—directly to developers and ISVs who could register their applications in the Apple App store by just signing up for the developers partnership and getting their applications approved by Apple. Yes, this mechanism is also a control in a way, but they needed to ensure a level of scrutiny of the applications in terms of standard development techniques, suitability of the application for the general public etc. Apple made sure that the process was simple. The developer studio license and Apple’s application approval process is straight forward and can be completed by even a single person development house without any hurdles. In addition, Apple kept the subscription fees for the program and access to the development tools very nominal. The development tools are easy to install and use and developers could develop their first native applications within a one- or two-week learning period.
The result was an influx of new applications into the Apple App store. The number of mobile application development companies grew multifold across the world. The phenomenon was repeated with the introduction of Google’s Android platform. By the time the Android platform was introduced, the carriers had already ceded control to the operating system/device company. Android has the backing of Google – another company with high brand equity. The primary difference between Google’s strategy and Apple’s is that in the case of Google’s Android, the operating system is offered to multiple device manufacturers who are encouraged to create a variety of mobile devices that leverage the capabilities of the Android mobile operating system. It is easy to develop and distribute applications on Android devices in similar fashion as with the iPhone platform. Android also has a similar application marketplace for users to download these Android applications.
With the success of the iPhone and Android platforms, consumer interest in smart phones has expanded and the market is consolidating around these two platforms. Given that these devices offer an easy to use mobile application platform as well as security capabilities required before the devices can be connected to enterprise systems, these devices also started entering into businesses in a rapid way. This posed a challenge for the enterprise IT as they had not defined the business processes for preparing, distributing, and managing these devices. IT enterprises usually have standard laptops that they give to their employees and there are standard policies and platforms to distribute and manage the laptops. However, mobile devices are different types of devices and require a different way to manage them. IT enterprises are therefore scrambling to put together the infrastructure and plans for mobile devices.
There are companies like Sybase, Antenna software etc. who offer platforms to make this job easier, though they are still evolving.
With the incorporation of security and access controls, the availability of mobile device management software, and the sheer prevalence of mobiles phones and productivity benefits of a mobile-enabled workforce, enterprise mobility is becoming a reality. Within the next 1 to 2 years, the enterprise will learn to manage these devices as a standard part of their IT architectures, and will develop a plethora of mobile applications to provide access to their backend systems.
A mobile workforce holds promise for direct and indirect business benefits:
We have worked with customers across industries to incorporate mobility solutions into their infrastructures to both enable greater productivity of the workforce who can access their applications at any time, from any place; and to extend their reach to customers via the mobile channel. The benefits are clear and the opportunity is tremendous. It’s only a matter of time before mobile-based transactions will be considered part and parcel to a business ongoing success.