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Function, features, features and functions

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Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

Mobile Clinic Choosing mobile handsets that keep the increasingly pushy and tech savvy user base in the organisation happy – without destroying the hard work put in to keep networks and data secure – is one of the most emotive issues we've had to deal with in this month's Mobile Clinic.

Fortunately, we once again have the old industry sages to steer you in the right direction. Hopefully there's a good few pointers below on striking the right balance. Let us know if you've got any better ideas.

Question: How do we strike the right balance between functionality and features when it comes to device selection for our business users?

Dale Vile, Freeform Dynamics Ltd

Mobile devices, like company cars, can be an emotive topic. What both of these have in common is that while they (usually) fulfil a useful business function, they also have a personal dimension to them and are often regarded as making a statement about the individual they "belong to". You see this in business meetings all the time as people pull up a chair at the table, get their device out of their pocket, and lay it down in front of them. There is then the surreptitious checking out of what other people have – as thoughts like "I'll raise your Pearl with my 8800" or "Is that really a first generation Windows Smartphone that guy's still using?" go through the heads of those superior beings with the latest kit. Then there's the unconvincing "I'd hate to be a slave to mobile email" comment as the only one in the room without a power gadget lays their old-fashioned Nokia candy stick phone on the table.

The fact is that while the IT department is continuously striving to ensure that everything connecting to the network is secure and manageable, users, the professional ones in any case, generally want the latest and greatest toys and status symbols, and the more unique and personal, the better.

In our experience, unless you are a very small organisation where you can get away with offering complete freedom of choice to users, it is necessary to come to some kind of compromise between the two opposing pulls, and this generally translates to one of two strategies.

Both of these start with assessing user requirements and preferences at a generic level – typically taking representative user input. Based on this, a limited range of devices is selected that meet the most common needs and wants of users and fulfil the IT department's criteria for security, manageability, software compatibility and so on. Factors such a company policy in relation to camera and multi-media capability can also be taken into account.

The only difference between the two strategies is then that the first essentially "prescribes" the device a user will receive in a particular role, while the second allows the user to choose between, say, two or three specific models according to their personal preference – e.g. a SmartPhone versus PDA form factor, QWERTY keyboard versus touch screen, etc.

A far less common approach, but one that can work if the IT department is willing to accept the additional overhead, is to define a list of criteria for an acceptable device then tell users they can select anything they want provided it meets the spec. The problem is, though, that IT must validate each unique individual choice in some way, otherwise it ends up as the equivalent of device anarchy, which invariably leads to a support headache as well as security and manageability issues. The uncontrolled procurement of mobile devices also means more capital outlay than is necessary.

Finally, when talking about device selection, we must not forget the requirements of so-called "blue collar" workers, e.g. in the areas of logistics and field service delivery. Generally speaking, the requirement here is to constrain the functionality as much as possible, providing locked down devices and applications that do only what they need to in the context of the relevant workflow, and no more. Of course, there are situations in which more "open" capability is required, similar to professional users, but these are relatively rare. More commonly, the requirement is for attributes such as touch screen control with resilient screen construction to take the beating of repetitive signature capture, the ability to attach peripherals like bar code scanners and printers, or suitable fixings to allow for the mounting of devices in the cabs of trucks or vans.

Then we have the big debate over ruggedisation, and the argument that you can afford to trash two or more commodity devices before it becomes as expensive as a single ruggedised one. Our research, however, clearly shows that regardless of the economic theory, the jury is out on this one, and an equal number of field service organisations go for ruggedised and commodity kit.

As a final word of caution, while we are obviously advocating a good degree of IT control over device selection and deployment for professional as well as blue collar workers, it is absolutely critical to involve the user community in the selection process regardless of the context and application. One of the most common sources of failure of mobile investments is the rollout of kit that is not fit for purpose, which basically means it doesn't get used and, therefore, that the business objectives of deploying mobile technology in the first place are never met. Getting a few representative users in to provide feedback on applications and devices at the beginning of the project can avoid a lot of expensive rework or replacement of kit down the line.

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