The mobile work force is here. Wireless is here. IT managers who do not start taking proactive steps now, towards managing what is going to become an increasingly complex environment, will soon have to deal with a headache of mammoth proportions.
ICT needs to start preparing for the mobile future, and addressing the critical issues around mobile and wireless technologies and devices -- today.
"Organisations are going to see a lot of pressure from end-users to be able to use their wireless devices in the office," says Gary Cuthbert, technology specialist at Dimension Data Holdings.
"The cost of the devices and the technologies is coming down, and people are acquiring mobile/wirelessly enabled devices for personal use. The challenge is for organizations to recognize that people will be bringing in their own devices and plugging them into the network, and to set up an infrastructure that is secure, controlled and managed, or to force controls on a campus network that block external devices."
This, on the other hand, provides an opportunity for the organisation. Says Accenture's Bryan Nelson: "The cost of the devices has been a factor inhibiting corporate take-up of mobile technology. Today, many people are acquiring GPRS-capable devices on their own. Most new notebooks have either Bluetooth or wireless LAN capabilities. The organisation can use that technology and infrastructure, and rather spend money enabling the back end."
On that note, says Gartner Fellow and vice-president, Nick Jones: "In the future there will be hundreds of different wireless devices -- phones, PDAs, consumer electronics, laptops etc. You cannot predict which will be important, so you need an ICT architecture that separates core systems from client devices, and lets you support new devices quickly if your employees and customers demand them."
"There will also be lots of wireless networks in the future," he adds. "We already have 2.5G, 3G is being trailed by MTN and Vodacom locally this summer, there is Wi-Fi, and, in the future, WiMax, and probably more. If you think you might mobilize a system that will be around for a while, do not make too many assumptions about network characteristics and performance, because you do not know which network it will run on. Also, design for the worst cases, e.g. slow GPRS with high latency, then your application can work anywhere."
Nelson concurs, adding that: "You cannot predict every environment that a mobile user is going to be in. Solutions must be built with that in mind. You need to cater for the fact that the network will not always be available."
New security risks
A further factor demanding serious consideration is security. Say Jones: "Mobile and wireless technology definitely open up new security risks. However, do not be over-frightened by security. Security tools have improved a lot over the last few years. Mobile/wireless security is not trivial, you may have to buy products from multiple vendors, and you will certainly need procedures and training, as well as software. However, acceptable security can be achieved for a wide range of mobile applications."
Nelson concurs: "Security can be implemented poorly, and lead to security flaws, or it can be implemented very securely. There are reference sites out there in the market already - government, banks, insurance companies, that have secure environments."
"The security market in this space is maturing, but fragmented," comments Cuthbert. "There is no one solution that will fit all of an organization's requirements. You need to look at a number of aspects around security -- applications, hardware, do you have a multi-vendor environment, 802.11 support and the complexities of multi-user profiles."
"One of the biggest challenges for the ICT organization is nothing to do with ICT," cautions Jones. "When you mobilize a business process you almost always change the employees' working practices. Systems must be designed to be socially acceptable, as well as technically functional, and this is not always easy or obvious. For example, we know of one case where a company mobilized a field service organization, the engineers' assignments were sent to them by wireless, and they filled in their work sheets on a wireless device.
"This theoretically produced big productivity gains, because the engineers did not need to come into the office to pick up their assignments. But an unfortunate side effect was that attrition (rate of resignations) in the engineering force rose. Because the engineers did not come into the office they never talked to their colleagues or managers, they felt isolated and under-valued, so went to look for another job."
In conclusion, Jones says: "Try thinking out of the box. Do not assume that the goal is just to shrink an application onto a phone or a PDA. Ask whether there is a new way to implement a task when you mobilize it. For example, could you do data entry using a digitizing pen that talks by wireless via a phone? That way you might not need to train people to use a PDA. Explore technologies like GPS which let you deduce information from the user's location - why ask the user to enter the identity of the client's site if you know its location?"