When it comes to selecting devices for the work force, IT directors are faced with as many choices as they would have on the menu at a typical Chinese restaurant. Some are overwhelmed, not knowing where to start the process of narrowing down the options.

Why are the so many choices? On the vendor side, the high-tech industry is fragemented for two reasons primarily.

The first is that, as Mary Meeker pointed out in her annual “Internet Trends” presentation at the D11 conference in May 2013, the market is adopting two new platforms simultaneously - smartphones and tablets. Within those two relatively new categories of device, IT directors can choose from three or four different operating systems, four or five different variations on form factor, and dozens of vendors.

The second reason IT directors are faced with so many choices has to do with consumerisation. Most professionals now use a smartphone for personal reasons, and have become increasingly savvy in what’s being offered in the consumer market. These same people come in to work with either their personal device, or at least with a strong set of preferences for what the consumer market has to offer. The upshot is that now IT departments have a whole new universe of platforms to evaluate - those that originally targetted consumers.

If that weren’t enough, IT directors have another challenge to face: A growing number of users bring their own devices without notifying IT. For example, Mac users tend to go unnoticed by the IT department, because they are usually self-supporting.

In fact, it’s not unheard of for Mac devices to enter into an enterprise as a bring-your-own device, that then becomes so common among users, it just becomes a standard. Traditionally Apple has ignored the enterprise market, but now they are starting to pay attention. That’s because iPad and iPhone are creeping up as standard work tools in an increasing number of organisations.

One final issue facing CIOs in their selection of hardware platforms is that the desktop PC is disappearing as a category. Given a choice, most users would opt for a notebook - or even a tablet in some cases - that they can use at their desk, but also carry around.

Let’s take a closer look at these challenges, and find out how some IT directors are dealing with them.

Recent movements on the supply side

To get a feel for what the market has to offer enterprise users, consider first what’s happening on the smartphone side. One only needs to look at the latest figures from IDC to see who’s winning. In terms of overall smartphone operating systems sales in Q2 2013, Android captured 79% of the market share. iOS came in second with a 13% share. Running a distant third is Windows Phone (4%), followed by BlackBerry OS (3%).

Manufacturers of Android-based devices and Apple have started out with strong market share in the consumer markets, and are using that momentum to nudge their way into the enterprise. By contrast, manufacturers of Windows Phone-based devices and BlackBerry have tended to pay closer attention to enterprises from the beginning.

The 2010 release of iOS 4 was perhaps the first big sign that Apple was interested in the enterprise market. That version of iOS, launched with iPhone 4, included a variety of mobile device management and security tools. Even though third-party management solutions were (and still are) required to provide the server and console functions, from 2010 on, IT departments had a good set of tools to enforce policy on iPhones. Using these tools, they could enroll, provision, and monitor the devices remotely.

Android, powering hundreds of devices by dozens of manufacturers, doesn’t offer the same level of security and management functions as iOS. But many device management platforms do support Android by adding their own client software. It’s a little trickier for them to do this with Android than with iOS, because the wide variety of hardware offerings running Android requires mobile device management (MDM) vendors to manage several slightly different versions of their client software.

Samsung, by far the leading vendor of Android-based smartphones, has gone a little further in addressing security and device management concerns of enterprise users through it’s SAFE (Samsung For Enteprise) framework. SAFE includes on-device encryption; and similarly to Apple, Samsung relies on partners to provide VPN and MDM functions on the server side.

But more importantly for CIOs, in February 2013, Samsung released a new featured called KNOX, which provides dual personna - one for work, and the other personal. BlackBerry offers a similar feature, called BlackBerry Balance, but since consumers aren’t flocking towards BlackBerry, containerisation is not high on the priority list of IT departments managing BlackBerry devices.

What might such lack of presence in the consumer space mean for the future of the Canadian-based smartphone vendor? At least one CIO predicts a near-term demise of BlackBerry.

Adam Gerrard, former CTO of LateRooms, says: “While they had the best device in the market for a very long time, they have been slow to adapt to consumer trends. RIM may still exist in the future as a software company but that would most likely be in the enterprise device management space rather than as a provider of an OS that powers devices.”

Now let’s look at what’s happening with the second category of new platforms Mary Meeker refers to: tablets. More often than not, tablets are introduced into the enterprise by executives who bring their own in, giving IT little choice but to accept these devices and support them as best they can.

The tablet form factor seems to be here to stay, but it’s not yet clear what role it will play in the enterprise in the near future. At least Gartner’s Leslie Fiering reckons so. She said: “There will always be some percentage of users willing to accept tablet compromises in order to avoid carrying a full-size notebook. However, in most cases, these devices are used as notebook companions rather than full notebook replacements. Windows 8 tablets certainly come closer to providing full notebook functionality than iPads and other media tablets, but there are still trade-offs with the Windows 8 tablets.”

Implications of device type selection

The choice of device type has implications when it comes time to select mobile platforms, such as MDM and mobile application management. It also plays into which applications enterprises bet on for their mobile workforce.

JLT Group CIO Ian Cohen (right) discusses mobile strategy

As for securing information in a multi-device environment, Ian Cohen, JLT Group CIO (right) says: “If you focus on securing the information properly - by access (who), location (where) and adding the temporal element (for how long) - the the number and variety of device types should not be an issue. Assume that people will have many devices and expect consistent information across all of them.”

As for tablet applications, given that Android now dominates the market, you can expect to see more apps running on Android-powered tablets. “Developers can and will quickly switch their priorities as different opportunities evolve and improve,” said Canalys senior analyst Tim Shepherd. “We expect to see a substantial increase in the quantity, as well as the quality, of apps built or optimised for Android tablets over the next 12 months, as Google brings more attention to them through improvements to the Play store, and as the addressable base of devices continues to soar.”

But when it comes to making device choices for B2C apps, Gerrard, former CTO of LateRooms warns to take a different perspective. He says: “Even though Android is now taking the greatest market share, Apple users still spend more via their devices than all other mobile device users. Commercially they are an extremely important sector.”

CIO strategies

Any medium- to large-sized company has to support multiple device types simply because different users have different needs. With a large enough employee population, it’s unlikely  one device will suit all user cases. And one should take care not to try forcing a fit.

According to Leslie Fiering, research vice president in the mobile and client computing team at Gartner, “force-fitting the wrong devices to a user population can lead to reduced operational productivity, declining user satisfaction and even outright refusal to use the device (or finding work-arounds).”

Ian Cohen reckons: “Certain CIOs may think that limiting device types and numbers is a solution but I suggest that it would be short sighted.

“BYOD in some form or another is here to stay and securing devices is a bit like perimeter security - you need it as a hygiene factor but it should never be your only defence. The key is to appropriately secure and control access to the information itself.”

Adam Gerrard agrees that users should be given choice, and even thinks CIOs should encourage BYOD. “Engaging with people in your organisation that use their own devices provides great insight into what consumers are thinking and instills confidence that the CIO wants to leverage technology in the workplace,” he says. “By being inclusive, granting access to non-critical applications and developing policies to inform, or in some cases to enforce basic rules, the CIO can create a much greater uptake in good device discipline as opposed to subversion and risk taking by end users.”

“If you’re managing a variety of device types,” Gerrard says, “self service, self help, FAQs and other end-user enablers are very important to get right. Beyond the usage of the actual device, the main focus needs to be on the development of applications and the content that is to be delivered to the devices. Device detection and content-layering content management systems that can push the right amount of content to match the form factor of the device will lead to personalised end-user experience.”

“Usability will be very important as employer-to-employee apps take off and I believe this will be a big enabler of workforce productivity in the next couple of years.”

But for now, the industry hasn’t settled on a platform, so application developers aren’t yet sure where the sweet spot lies. Given the number of options in the marketplace, what’s a CIO to do?

Perhaps the best strategy for IT directors is to apply the approach one might take at a Chinese restaurant. Try a little of this, a little of that. Let your users sample the selection.

Over time, you’ll develop a preference for a few choice dishes you can season to your taste.