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Libertarian IT

July 7, 2012

Something new is in the wind for IT departments to handle.  It’s led by executives and administrators who want to use their shiny new toys for access to corporate applications and data.  It’s called BYOD or `bring your own devices’.  These are mobile devices like telephones and tablets.  Employees want to use them in the corporate environment just like they use them at home.  They are free to choose which devices they want to use, with no control from the IT department.

Mobile devices are the new computing platform for the masses.  They are single user devices, sold for entertainment by several major companies.  Because they are generally closed platforms, all of the applications that run on them must be obtained from the company store.  They have a small screen that’s touch-sensitive and either a minimal keyboard or one that appears on the screen when needed.

The IT department must now support fixed, portable, and mobile devices.  These are a mixture of desktops, laptops, tables, and phones, purchased from many different vendors.  How can the IT department handle such a thing?  Some have pushed standardization to the extreme, with all computing equipment coming from a single vendor.  They imposed restrictions on users, such as not being permitted to install or use their own software.  They built an extensive array of central services to be accessed from user’s desktops.  All of this must now be discarded or redesigned to accomodate the new computing devices.

The only central services that can be used are the type already provided by ISPs or by the companies that sell the new mobile devices.  E-mail is a good example of such a service.  They have to be available on all devices, regardless of the vendor, with built-in applications or ones available at the vendor’s application store.

The IT department won’t be able to install their own applications on these devices.  They also won’t be able to impose a central configuration on them;  all they can do is to make recommendations.  Host-based authentication schemes where users begin by logging in to their desktop computer also won’t work on these mobile devices.  Where authentication is required, it must happen on the first connection to the server.

The corporate help desk must change completely.  It has to expand its support to include all devices that people might bring to the corporate environment.  It may also have to change from advising on an imposed configuration to only making a series of recommendations.

Most corporate users spend most of their computing time with a small number of applications.  Typically these would be a web browser, an e-mail reader, a calendar, a word processor, and a spreadsheet.  These, at the least, have to work on equipment ranging from fixed to portable to mobile devices.  Of course, some of these functions don’t work well on small devices.  I’m often offended by those one-line e-mail messages from mobile phone users.  I don’t care how difficult it was for them to type the message;  I wish it were impossible.  I also can’t imagine how people could analyze enormous amounts corporate data on a small device.

How can BYOD people gain access to corporate applications and data?  In some cases, there may already be an application for the device that does it.  Some of these applications may be tied to the vendor’s service, and won’t work with a similar service from the company they work for.  Web-based services are a good alternative, as all mobile devices include a web browser.  Virtual desktops are another option.  With these, the desktop computer actually resides in the company’s computer room, with remote access to it from the mobile device.

Regardless of how it’s done, the service has to be designed to suit mobile devices.  The display must be usable on small screens.  It must work without a keyboard.  It must respond to finger pokes and gestures.  Something that works well on a normal desktop computer may be awkward and confusing on a mobile device.

The corporate calendar has some unique requirements.  To be able to schedule meetings together, all employees need to be in the same calendar database.  Even though new mobile devices have calendar applications, they are likely tied to calendar services provided by the device vendors.  This is an area that cries out for standards, so that any calendar application can access any calendar service, including the one mandated by the company.  As well, people expect calendars to be integrated with e-mail and contacts services to make the whole scheduling process more natural.

New mobile devices and the BYOD concept provide a major challenge for IT departments, akin to a revolution.  There’s more yet to come.  Prepare for a wild ride.

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