The growing use of powerful and compact mobile devices for personal use makes their appearance in business IT development plans inevitable. Faced with the option of pocketing an ultraportable device or lugging around a hefty laptop and its associated power supply in a carrying case, most people would opt for the former. IT has to acknowledge this and start to plan for a broader range of devices connecting to the network in future.
Laptops already constitute the majority of new PCs deployed by businesses and as firms ask their staff to work from home, on the road and in the field more often, greater portability will only be accentuated whether it comes from smaller laptops, smartphones, wireless communications or new categories of product altogether.
Of particular interest at the moment is the status of smartphones in the enterprise. The challenge today is that the sheer range of devices and operating systems makes it difficult to cater for everything and everyone, and there is no real leader to narrow down the options. This makes the situation different from the days when laptops punched the first holes in corporate containment policies and IT managers had to start to think outside the confines of the corporate network. Although the arrival of mobile PCs was a challenge, at least they all had the same characteristics and nearly all were based on DOS or Windows.
Portable six pack
There are already at least six main operating systems in current smartphone ranges: Symbian, Windows Mobile, Research In Motion (RIM)’s BlackBerry OS, various Linux variants, Java and Apple iPhone. However none has gained a globally dominant position. This situation looks like getting worse before it gets better and there are other operating systems in the offing, notably Google’s Android platform.
Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, observes that because of the disparate nature of operating systems, the first decision made by managers should be around overall policy.
“The business strategy for now should be based on the fact that smartphones are still evolving and are not yet at the end point of their development,” he says. “The focus should be on reducing overall complexity to enable a company to anticipate and embrace change because the busines-ses that can take advantage of change will be those that move most quickly.”
Perhaps controversially, Enderle thinks that the best policy in an uncertain market is to support everything and give the users the freedom to select their own devices. For every person who loves the iPhone, for example, there are many who would prefer to use some other ultraportable device. Smartphones are much more ‘personal’ than personal computers, and comfort in the form of a device’s look and feel are of equal importance to the device’s features and functions.
LET THE TRAIN TAKE THE COMMUNICATIONS STRAIN
One of the most attractive features of ultraportable computing is the ability to take advantage of trains, planes, cafes and public areas in order to get work done, writes Martin Veitch.
However, the different technologies available offer very different experiences, advantages and disadvantages. To test them in the real world, I took the train from London King’s Cross to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. My task: to write up a 1000-word article from notes and send messages to colleagues and contacts using a variety of devices and communications systems.
With an hour to kill before boarding, a coffee shop provided Wi-Fi, albeit at the usual extortionate price. Logging on was fiddly but I was eventually able to get a good signal on my trusty old Dell Latitude X1 small-and-thin notebook. Sending email and checking facts on the internet were a cinch, thanks in part to the X1’s excellent format and responsive keyboard.
Once on board the train, I plugged in the DVD drive to watch a movie and then enjoyed the luxury of a fast Wi-Fi connection. Signing on for the service takes under a minute and the service ran uninterrupted even though I challenged it by tuning into internet radio coverage, downloading files over the internet and keeping several browser tabs open at the same time. Previously a paid-for option to all except First Class passengers, the service is now free to all passengers, thanks to National Express taking over the line from GNER. It is certainly a major bonus for regular travellers – many commuters spend the week in London before heading back north for the weekend. Despite taking a busy Friday afternoon train, the speed and availability of the service were excellent.
To act as a control, I logged off National Express Wi-Fi and plugged in another essential piece of kit for road warriors, a USB 3G data modem. The modem lost connection a few times over the course of an hour and struggled to download files or serve up media streams. However, it came into its own on arrival in Newcastle, providing the bandwidth to kill a 20-minute wait for a ride at the station bar. I had got most of my work done, had enjoyed the trip and had managed it all with just a shoulder bag’s worth of hardware that still left room for a change of clothes, sandwiches, fruit and snacks.
My rather basic Nokia mobile phone provided a simple way to answer text messages and provide voice updates on my journey’s progress and on the likelihood of my hitting deadlines.
Conclusions? Wi-Fi is easily the best current option for travellers while 3G modems are handy when there is no Wi-Fi, or costs appear outrageous. Also, you can’t beat voice for messages of a personal nature. Finally, make sure you have a robust but lightweight laptop in order to save on shoulders, and an optical drive capability for some much-needed entertainment.
The problem with an all-embracing -policy is that applications have to be able to run on every system, and be supported. To have to rebuild and migrate a mature app-lications structure would spell disaster.
This is where cloud computing can be of use. All of the devices should have a web browser and can therefore be treated as thin clients capable of accessing web-based applications and services. This has distinct advantages because the security element is of even greater importance with these small and easily pocketed units. By transferring processing and data to the internet cloud, the security element is addressed because little or no data resides on the device and anti-malware measures can be applied. There is also the spin-off benefit that battery life will be extended by reducing loads on the local processor. The downside is that more data flows between the device and the network so telecoms and service provider contracts must be carefully chosen to minimise this expense.
The use of a browser does bring its own limitations because internet applications often have reduced functionality and not all of the features found in web sites are supported all of the time. Some phones, for example, do not support Adobe Flash so there may be an element of programming down to the lowest common denominator to ensure a trouble-free experience.
Mikko Hyppönen, chief research officer for security software firm F-Secure, sees problems with allowing employees to decide what they want to use, arguing that device management is restricted and complex with a disparate collection of phones.
“If you don’t actively manage these devices by deciding which ones you want to support and don’t actively buy them for your people, they will buy their own and you will be limited in deciding how things are done,” he warns.
“This has led to the situation where, although the policies and rules for using your company laptop are pretty good, policies to govern access to company networks and data may be non-existent. Even worse, when companies have passed the buck on making decisions regarding what kind of devices to get and what the rules are, [this] leads to the situation where the employees go their own way and buy their own iPhones, their own BlackBerries or their own PDAs for corporate use. The company is then in a position where it has no say on the policies because they don’t own the devices.”
SMARTPHONES: A NEW FRONTIER
“For a number of us, ultraportable devices represent the next big frontier for personal computing,” argues Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group.
“We are still at the phase we were in the 1980s with the PC when the market was very segmented. Penetration is comparatively low but we’re seeing the emergence of devices that show the potential for very high penetration. You’ve got the Apple [iPhone] product and the BlackBerry and then you’ve got what is likely to be a major entrant in the Google Android platform with its much more aggressive and creative pricing model.
“At some future point, the current majority of us that live and work off personal computers will likely be living and working off smartphones. Today, we may have a personal computer but when we are out and about we are starting to spend more time emailing, communicating and doing things with the smartphone.”
The market may be in its early stages but it is growing rapidly as each new model appears with more power and greater functionality.
“There are three vectors for these devices,” Enderle says. “One is communications and that includes voice, instant messaging and email. Another vector is information discovery which is the internet part and being able to plug into the World Wide Web. The third is entertainment: music, movies and gaming. If all of these things were to converge on a single device, much like they do on a PC, they would form the three legs of the stool that need to be completed before this device can displace the computer as the primary device we interface with.
“On the face of it, Windows may seem to be the best option because the PCs on the network are already running Windows but Windows Mobile is a Windows lookalike operating system and behind the screen it is a very different OS. This means that the smartphone element of the ultraportable device strategy is disruptive and cannot be easily integrated into existing IT structures. It is an open field.”
Hyppönen’s viewpoint is likely to be most strongly echoed in the policies of businesses such as the finance sector where watertight security is essential.
“RIM’s BlackBerry is worthy of praise because it’s very simple for the administrators to oversee and none of the users can install undesirable third-party products,” he notes. “If you want to restrict the use of unsanctioned software, and many companies do because they only want the devices to be used for reading company emails and making calls, then there is a lot to be said for BlackBerry. Also, when it comes to adding new applications, it’s one switch and then it’s on all the phones.”
Despite Hyppönen’s support for the one-model approach, he admits that many of the security issues can be handed off to the cloud. However, localised security is still important, he warns.
“With smartphones you may want to put it in the cloud because it makes the handset’s load lighter and it’s much easier to update,” he says.
“Some things can’t be done in the cloud, however: Bluetooth access security, for -instance, or someone giving you a memory card. If you use Wi-Fi, your IP address is naked because there’s no firewall at Starbucks and no firewall on the phone.”
Even if ultraportables prove to be totally fireproof, the growing e-mafia in industrial espionage will find easy access if they can inveigle an employee to access sensitive company data on their behalf. An essential element will be auditing software to record access histories.
One of the unknowns in the ultraportable access equation for laptops, smartphones and other devices is how access will be achieved. At the moment there is a choice between relatively expensive but widespread GSM/GPRS/3G or sometimes-free Wi-Fi access. Later this year or early next year we will see the roll-out of WiMax networks that promise faster links over greater distances. The ideal would be for WiMax providers to form an alliance similar to the current wireless telephony companies to allow access to any nearby WiMax network. Even if this is the case, it will be some time before coverage using WiMax is available in all metropolitan areas.
Enderle is hopeful that only good will come from the roll-out.
“WiMax is going to help a lot because it will probably be the next big thing to drive down the cost of data access and, if they can maintain little latency, it could drive down the cost of voice access as well,” Enderle predicts.
“Some companies you will likely see pop up are those that can take and integ-rate cellphones with the new corporate -infrastructure and allow users to move seamlessly between the range of environments. This is where Cisco is probably going to play a major role.”
The ability to roam between cellular, WiMax and Wi-Fi networks without losing connections will be hard enough, but -developing the supporting infrastructure to evaluate the cheapest and best of the available connections and juggle the billing issues will be the true Holy Grail.
While a lot of attention has been given to smartphones, the PC remains the most powerful end-user device for most business users and the PC world is not giving up on ultraportables. Lenovo recently announced that its latest laptops will have Vodafone SIM card modules and management software built in, rather than being a separately charged-for accessory.
Also, the nature of the PC is changing. Low-cost ultra-thin and small-format PCs are becoming widely available while Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs) or Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs, pen/touch-enabled computers that sit between the PDA and notebook PC in size) are becoming common. In February, Intel released a concept specification for a format called the Netbook.
In his blog, Paul Bergevin, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Communication Group, described the Netbook category as “small laptops that are designed for wireless communication and access to the internet”.
“They cost about $250 (£134), making Netbooks a potentially disruptive and high-volume market segment,” he explained. “Even though Netbooks won’t be confused with full-featured laptops, my hunch is that tons of people around the world will be attracted to a low-cost machine that plugs them in. The Netbook will expand the -global PC market. By how much is a matter of conjecture.”
The Netbook category is arguably a -retro-announcement because such mach-ines already exist in the shape of the very successful Eee PC from Asus – or even the old Psion Netbook from the 1990s. The Eee PC is a minimalist’s dream in the PC world – a machine with no bells or whistles. The sub-notebook has a screen typically around nine inches or less, uses up to 20GB of solid--state memory rather than a disk drive, and is suited to accessing internet-based applications. It is available in a very memory--efficient Linux version or a somewhat ‘fatter’ Windows XP version.
Analyst Enderle says: “The emerging devices you’ve got to watch are the Netbooks and the MIDs. These are devices that have potentially a full-on PC capability and are portable. The current models are likely to define the capability but not the size of the devices we’re going to have in the future. These devices could be useful as a proxy for future smartphone devices and probably cut your costs rather dramatically in terms of notebook purchases and deployment because these devices can be substantially less expensive. These are the products that may define where the market is going. They are far more capable than smartphones and, when WiMax turns up, will provide a far more effective way to deploy a PC-like experience than an existing PC.”
As more staff go mobile, the emphasis will be on small-format devices that can link to the internet and come close to replicating the experience of wired, desktop computing. Ultraportability of computing and communications may then emerge as the norm rather than a niche.