The Peril and Promise of Enterprise Smartphones

Opinion: Are you ready for the age of mobile, cloud-based workers? Columnist Jeff Vance argues they'll be every bit as disruptive, and important, as the arrival of the Internet itself.

By Jeff Vance | Posted Nov 2, 2009
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Research firm ABI recently released a new mobile cloud computing report predicting that there will be nearly one billion end users accessing the "mobile cloud" by 2014.

I tend to be a skeptic when it comes to analyst reports. After all, if they don't predict billion-dollar markets, no one will buy their reports.

That said, this report isn't just hype. First off, the mobile cloud is already taking off from an application perspective.

"Consumers are very interested in the cloud. They just don't think of it in those terms," said Dana Gardner, president and principal analyst, Interarbor Solutions. "The iPhone App store and even iTunes are cloud offerings. Apple is one of biggest cloud providers, even if it doesn't refer to itself as a cloud company."

Secondly, the device driving mobile cloud adoption, the smartphone, is a gadget everyone loves. Mark Beccue, an analyst with ABI Research said, "Consumers are waking up to the idea of mobile apps. The dilemma is that they're limited to smartphones, which don't have the processing power and data storage capabilities to make the applications appealing."

Despite all the hype about next-generation BlackBerries and iPhones, ownership of these devices is far from saturation. The high cost of the handsets coupled with expensive data plans is keeping smartphones on the periphery of the mobile phone market--for now.

Beccue estimates that smartphone penetration stands at about 19% today in the U.S., although ABI expects it to grow to 40% or so in five years. Feature phones--basically lower-tier phones with fewer computing capabilities--still rule the day.

Feature phones may have a browser and, say, some gaming, but they're not mini-computers. The wrinkle here is the browser. Many feature phones do indeed have a fairly decent one, and this could be one way the mobile cloud grows on the cheap.

The browser is already being sized up as an OS and desktop alternative, so as more applications become truly cloud driven--protecting constrained devices from processing and storage requirements--even feature phones could become more and more cloud compatible.

Moving from consumers to the enterprise and back to consumers

When you shift your focus away from consumers, the market is much less advanced. Enterprises are interested in mobile applications delivered via the cloud, but few have adopted the requisite technologies.

As with many devices before--PCs, laptops, Wi-Fi routers, the first BlackBerries and iPhones--smartphones (and the mobile cloud) could well enter the enterprise through the back door. All it takes is a few bold developers or some restless IT workers to start the migration beneath management's radar.

Even for a proactive enterprise trying to stay ahead of the mobile cloud trend, issues such as multi-device support and security muddy the waters. OpenHealth, an Australian company that provides technical and business solutions for healthcare organizations, has been working with mobile applications forten years, starting with Palm PDAs.

"We were always frustrated by one thing--the need to commit to an OS manufacturer, for example, Palm, in order to build a solution," said Chris Hall, commercial director of OpenHealth.

"More devices equaled double or triple the code set to maintain and lots of other challenges. We have always hosted the backend for our service, so as far as our users were concerned, there was nothing to install. In reality, though, each client implementation involved case-by-case integration, which was troublesome and costly," he said.

To alleviate this problem as mobile apps move to the cloud, OpenHealth is working with Rhomobile, which provides "an open mobile framework."

Essentially, Rhomobile gives developers a framework, Rhodes, they can use to build native apps for major smartphone OSes, including iPhone, Windows Mobile, RIM, Symbian, and Android. Rhomobile also offers a synch/middleware solution for legacy apps.

OpenHealth is using Rhodes to build a cross-platform mobile solution for SugarCRM. SugarCRM already has built-in iPhone and BlackBerry compatibility, but that's it. Hall also notes that the mobile components of SugarCRM lack critical features even for the handsets it does support.

Using Rhodes, OpenHealth "will take advantage of Sugar's cloud approach using a standard means of connecting in to any client instance. It will operate off-line and provide synchronization services when required." The entire backend service will be hosted in the cloud and can be accessed as a pay-as-you-go service.

Returning to consumers...

Smaller, tech-aggressive companies like OpenHealth aside, the mobile cloud today is still a consumer play. The iPhone is the clearest example, but another case in point is Wikipedia. Wikipedia used Rhomobile's Rhodes to build a Wikipedia mobile app for the iPhone App Store. They plan on porting it to Android soon, as well.

Application provider Zoho is also taking a mobile cloud approach that, while it aspires to attract enterprise customers, is currently a consumer offering.

Zoho Mobile offers mobile, cloud-based versions of calendars, e-mail, document sharing and a few other productivity apps. For most people, these are work apps, but it is the individual who, according to Zoho's "Evangelist" Raju Vegesna, is purchasing Zoho Mobile.

Even more consumer-centric is INQ Mobile. A subsidiary of conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa, INQ Mobile is developing an inexpensive mobile handset that could well be dubbed the first social-networking smartphone.

The device comes pre-loaded with such popular social-networking applications as Facebook, Skype, and Windows Live Messenger. Twitter will be added soon.

According to Beccue, the INQ phone "presents a model for pushing communications-focused mobile-cloud applications into the mass market." The mobile versions of the apps are developed on Qualcomm's BREW. "'The social-networking applications' are deeply integrated into the core phone applications--integrating the partner application contacts into the phone's list, enabling a user to snap a photo and post it instantly to Facebook, inbox-message integration, and more," Beccue said. "But to keep the price of the mobile device inexpensive, the phone can handle only a few applications."

Is it a feature phone? Is it a smartphone? It doesn't fit neatly into either category, but it is certainly a mobile-cloud phone.

As of now, INQ phones are available only in Hutchison Telecom's networks in the UK, Ireland, Italy, Hong Kong, and Australia, but more countries will be added soon.

Larger handset manufacturers also see the potential of tight integration with social-networking applications. For instance, Samsung's Reclaim handset offers one-click access to Facebook.

Another headache for IT

From an IT perspective, the mobile cloud poses just as many risks as benefits. Data leaks, mobile porn, IP theft, and lost productivity could all result from unfettered mobile cloud access.

On the other hand, a boost in productivity, extra convenience and increased customer responsiveness will all be early stage benefits.

It's really not unlike when the Internet itself first entered the enterprise except for one key difference: most enterprises do not own or even subsidize smartphones. Thus, there's little they can do to monitor or control them.

Enterprises didn't own many of the early Internet connections either, of course, but they weren't trying to squeeze productivity out of them, either. Even if enterprises do purchase handsets for their workers, people will balk at too much corporate control.

The mobile phone is a highly personal object. Enterprises have to tread lightly. If they exercise too much control, consumers will just use their own devices. If they hide their heads in the sand and hope nothing bad happens, unfettered mobile cloud access will cause problems.

It's a dicey issue with no easy answers. This should worry IT pros, because they're the ones who will be asked to provide answers, easy or not.

Article courtesy of Datamation.

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