The Rapidly Changing World of Enterprise Mobility

Enterprise Mobility

Few spaces have been as dynamic and volatile as “Enterprise Mobility”. Over the past two years, we have seen a huge number of trends and ‘technology’ flower briefly only to be supplanted by something else.

The trend began, as with all things mobile, in 2008. As the iPhone became popular, employees and executives began pushing their corporate IT departments to provide support. The iPhone, and smartphones in general, are great productivity tools. It just made so much sense to connect those devices to corporate networks. Thus began the “BYOD” or Bring Your Own Device trend. This term is still with us, but it is so vague as to cover considerable territory without describing any of the many pieces needed to make it work.

The first wave was connecting corporate e-mail, calendars and contacts. This caused all sorts of security issues and as IT departments looked to manage those the model they followed first was that of the Blackberry which was already a (limited) enterprise mobility tool. The one thing a Blackberry could do that an iPhone cannot is to be controlled remotely. IT teams can lock down and remotely erase lost Blackberries.

This trend became known as Mobile Device Management or MDM. For a year MDM was a hot topic. Several private companies began offering this function: including Good Technology (who had been doing this for a long time already), AirWatch, Mobile Iron and others. MDM, however, had a big problem: Apple’s iOS did not allow most of MDM’s key functions. To this day, no one can really remotely erase an iPhone.

This began a process which continues to this day. Each successive wave of enterprise mobility technology had to balance the limitations of the key smartphone operating systems (OS) Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The two OS have widely divergent options when it comes to interfacing with other apps and corporate networks. Apple controls the OS to such a degree that many enterprise mobility features cannot work. In this case, Android is the opposite extreme – it allows too much. The Android kernel is so flexible that it presents a major security flaw, one which most corporate IT departments are reluctant to support. And to keep things fluid, both OS’s are always changing the features they allow, in many cases adopting some of the key tools provided by the private third parties.

The MDM companies were the first to market and the first to encounter these problems. Because of this they were able to build somewhat sizable businesses and raise considerable venture funding. That has kept them in the market even as many who came later with better technology have struggled. That being said, the technology is changing so fast, that many of this early companies lag considerably on key features.

Recognizing the OS-imposed limitations on MDM, the industry next turned to secure enterprise apps. In this model, users open a corporate app on their personal device which provides secure access to the network behind their enterprise firewall. This is the model still used by many companies today, but it comes with its own limitations. Users still often have to cut from inside their secure app and paste to their smartphone calendar app. And often cut/paste are blocked by enterprise IT policies.

This in turn gave rise to the idea of dual persona devices. Devices were flashed with some highly restrictive security software that firmly segregated the personal and work side of a device. Again, this idea ran into OS-related limitations. Many users also balked at the crippled functionality on their devices.

Again, companies returned to the idea of apps. Today there are many companies working on various implementations of Mobile App Management (MAM). Our guess is that eventually some form of this model will become the commonplace standard way that we live with BYOD. However, the actual model here remains highly in flux. Some companies are trying to build app stores and app building tools that either help enterprises build mobile apps or make it easier for them to plug third-party apps into their networks securely. Privately-held Apperian is one example in this space, although its model is far more developed than I describe here.

It is important to keep in mind, that all of this change took place in under five years, with much of that change happening in just the last three. Even by the standards of the Internet and Smartphones, this is an incredibly rapid series of transitions. Despite that rapidity, it has proven enough time for many of the large enterprise software vendors to get their houses in order. Big companies like Oracle, Citrix and VMware all have large enterprise salesforces and ‘locks’ on portions of corporate networks. While they could initially dismiss MDM, they are now fully aware of the importance of mobile and have developed mobile strategies.

My best guess is that we are approaching a period of consolidation as the big vendors start acquiring the private companies to fill gaps in their mobile plans.

I think this speaks to a major shift in computing. By now it is clear that smartphones and tablets are replacing the PC as workhorse tools of business. As much as I lug around a Windows laptop today, the only reason I still need it is to muck about in Excel. In theory, Microsoft could still win me over with a great tablet, but their recent $900 million Surface write-down makes me think that day will never come.

In the not-too-distant future, smartphones could very well replace PCs in the office. Plug your mobile device into power and a large monitor, connect your Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, you have all the computing power you need in the office. Unplug it and take it with you, to a similar work station at home, at your client, or in the airport. That is the future, and it is not ten years away, probably not even five.

IT departments cope with this by pushing software from the desktop PC to the cloud. Smartphones will serve as access keys and identity tools. Yes, people who do heavy graphical work will still need powerful desktop computers, but the portion of the workforce to which that applies will steadily shrink as smartphones become ever more capable and cloud offerings multiply.

Enterprise mobility has gone through successive waves, and is now poised to be swallowed by larger software entities. Apps will be federated to work with corporate access tools tuned into smartphone identity management. And we will move from a world in which we had the network control the device to the opposite one in which the device will control, or at least access, the network.

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