It’s in your hands

“Check your humanity in [at the door]”. This is Stephen Fry’s verdict on business communications in a recent Guardian podcast. It’s harsh, but the man has a point. He’s talking about the fact that there’s something of a market split between consumer mobile devices and those aimed at businesses and somehow consumers become employees when they walk into work. It may seem slightly degrading to a man who is essentially self-employed, but in the classic business model people are pawns!

When phones were still tied to desks it was reasonable to have your own (at home) and another on your desk at work. When phones became portable, it was reasonable to get your company to pay for it – obviously. But now the device is much more than just a phone, it is an electronic companion which stores and organises your information – both personal and business. In fact, when loaded up with your favourite apps it is probably more yours than theirs.

You don’t have to be a genius to see where this is heading. In a few years time, your company won’t provide you with a mobile phone, perhaps not even with a phone at all. You will provide the device. This approach sounds like a bum deal for the individual, but maybe it isn’t. Many of us have already chosen to buy our own device because we have our own needs and desires, some of us carry two because we want to keep the two areas of our lives separate. For those who have no desire for a smartphone, there’s always the option of a £20 basic mobile.

What would be really, really nice is if you could choose your device based on your own needs, and then use it for work too – with usage recompensed – for all your businesses applications. Today it can be a battle to get that smartphone working effectively.

Will the business provide any recompense? Perhaps. It would be nice to see a “phone allowance” alongside the car allowance, and I fully expect a PC allowance and home-working allowance. But at least it’s likely that the SIM will be provided, which is a big part of the picture.

Here is the problem. Or problems. Standards. Security. Apps. You cannot just pick up the smartphone you like and expect it to work with your businesses systems. Is there a VPN requirement? MS Exchange or other mail servers? Security policy – is something enforced which your device doesn’t support, maybe even a security app is required? For telephony, can you go pure mobile or will you need wifi and a SIP or other client? Compatibility, compatibility, compatibility.

Companies have spent a lot of time and effort to find the right device or devices to provide to their workforce, it’s surprising how many small but irksome things the rest just won’t do. For instance, I bought a Motorola Milestone running Android. Guess what? It has an MS Exchange client! Great! But there’s a catch – it doesn’t correctly support MS Exchange security policies so no email, no calendar when the company enforces a policy (in my case the policy was that the device must support better than a 4 digit PIN, which it does, so it meets the policy but cannot confirm than to MS Exchange). The expensive new smartphone therefore only does one of the two business functions – the benchmark was that low – that its predecessor (a Nokia e61i) did. Namely the telephony. And whilst iPhone colleagues were able to trial a Cisco IP Phone softclient, an Android equivalent is still awaited.

Remember, here we’re talking about the mobile OS with the biggest potential market opportunity (it already has approaching the same market penetration as the iPhone). And the iPhone support isn’t perfect either.

So here comes the issue which always follows when people need to workaround things that don’t work. There is a third-party Android email app which works with Exchange. But the great thing about Android is that it’s got Google built-in, everything works well together. A separate email app for work, with a separate calendar, doesn’t seem the right way to go when we want a converged experience on our mobile.

It’s just extending the “employee vs free man” conundrum within the single device, rather than freeing the individual to be both.

There is also a Google calendar sync application for a PC desktop which will sync your Exchange and Google calendars. So all your work calendar items go into Google Calendar. It works well – but is it secure enough for your business? Probably it is, but I bet you’ll struggle to get your security folks to approve it. They won’t have the time to even look.

Right now I have a mix of Thunderbird/Lightning desktop solution for email and calendar (with a plugin for contacts sync) synced to Google Apps. If I accept a meeting invite in and email in Thunderbird then the invite gets resent back to everyone on the invite list. Oh great. So to get a good mobile experience, I have to suffer a worse desktop experience.

This sounds all doom and gloom, but it really isn’t because the solutions are coming. It’s clear that iPhone and Android OSs are the emerging standards, they are getting the features steadily (I haven’t had the opportunity to try Android 2.2 yet, I am keeping my fingers crossed for the Milestone update). With two clear winners to back, apps are appearing more quickly and those business apps should be easier to maintain.

I think the future is very bright indeed, and not very far off.

I’ve not mentioned Blackberry in all this, for a good reason. Blackberry is a puzzle. RIM have come from the opposite direction – they’ve built a business device and made it work for consumers, the others have built consumer devices and are making them work for business. Logic says that there are billions of consumers and only millions of businesses, and if the buying decision comes to rest with the consumer then RIM will be the poor cousin. Personally, I think there is ultimately only room for 2 or 3 smartphone OSs just as there is only room for 2 or 3 desktop OSs. RIM is better placed to stick in there than, say, Nokia.

As for Symbian… I’ve loved you since you were EPOC on my Psion 5mx. RIP.

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About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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