Keeping the smart in smartphones

By Martin Brewer, mbrewer@wavelink.com

According to most estimates, the number of people in the United States who own smartphones is rapidly approaching 80 million. What used to be viewed as just a cell phone has evolved to a robust palm-size computing device that has the potential to make employees more productive when outside of the office. Workers can be connected to the office around the clock; However, this leaves the IT department scrambling with how to properly secure and provision the various types of smartphones that can access the corporate network and carry sensitive data.

No one will argue that smartphones have altered productivity for both consumers and business professionals. In fact for retailers, it has opened up an entirely new method of communication with customers. With new mobile applications for smartphones, retailers can push out coupons and allow customers to check inventory and compare prices, all before or while shopping in their store.

With all the new makes and models of smartphones coming out everyday, how does an organization manage, secure and keep track of such devices? In today’s business environment, employees are showing up with their own personal smartphone, and it is the job of the IT department to determine how to effectively integrate a hodgepodge of BlackBerrys, Androids, iPhones and Windows Mobile phones into the company’s infrastructure. Combine that with the strong potential of iPad-like devices gaining traction in the business environment and odds are that the mobile landscape will only get muddier as more and more devices are introduced.

If a smartphone is not properly secured, it could mean an organization is liable if sensitive customer or proprietary data is found on a device that is left at a restaurant or at an airport. Security is a real concern as cell phones are the most common electronic devices that are lost or stolen. Sensitive information can be found on the phone or on the removable memory card. Data can also be exposed if a phone is sold or sent in for repairs without its memory first being erased properly. There is also the risk of VPN-connected devices that could expose corporate networks to hackers and malware intrusions. And there’s a growing potential for viruses to attack the phones themselves through SMS hacks.

Traditionally, CIOs managed smartphones and other mobile devices by keeping users on a short leash, but that approach will simply no longer be viable as technology has changed. Organizations have historically strictly controlled the products and applications that staff members could use. Many companies have tried to take control by purchasing standard phones on a Windows Mobile platform for employees so IT only needs to support a single operating system. But the growth of smartphones and the advances in technology has made that option much more difficult to enforce.

Despite all the security concerns, providing associates with better tools remains a key priority for retailers. The retail IT community clearly recognizes that a successful store experience goes beyond having great tools. There is a critical relationship between the tools themselves and the ability for them to be accessed and utilized properly. A recent survey from IHL Group found that a significant portion of retailers see the potential for Apple mobile products to play a key role in accessing information and delivering actionable customer service within the store. For example, customers at a restaurant could view its menu on an iPad, they could see additional color/style combinations at a soft goods retailer, or they can be shown digital photographers of what a room would like look like with particular paint. All of these examples provide a better customer experience to drive revenue and loyalty.

As IT managers are tasked with provisioning, updating and securing the wireless network and managing the variety of smartphones, IT administrators need the proper tools in place along with a strong network policy to streamline and simplify its management of its wireless ecosystem. 

When looking at a mobile device management solution there are a few things that retailers should consider:

Support for a wide range of devices. Find a solution that will support all of your wireless assets. Some solutions don’t support all makes or models and are limited in what they manage.

Think beyond just smartphones. Look for a solution that manages all of your wireless devices including rugged handhelds and printers.

Security Settings. Allow the IT department to provision different settings and set and enforce wireless parameters for the device.

Device Locator. Using GPS technology you can track the wireless device and see where it has been to help maintain security.

Data Protection and Wipe. Make sure the system can remotely encrypt the data and wipe the device if it becomes lost or stolen. With this remote capability, users can return the device to factory settings.

Hardware and Software Control. Find a solution that has hardware and software controls so you can turnoff the phone’s camera and disenable the browser and any games.

Helpdesk Support. For your helpdesk support find a solution that does remote screen capture and can track battery life to help eliminate downtime for the user.

Customer Base. Find a provider that has a strong customer base, and don’t be afraid to ask for references.

Smartphones are everywhere and will only continue to gain in popularity as technology evolves. With devices like the iPad and other smartphones, the possibilities are even greater for mobile computing and productivity. It is critical that IT administrators address the challenge of integrating these devices into the network infrastructure and find a way to secure the data and easily maintain such devices.

Martin Brewer is director of research and development at Wavelink Corp., a provider of multi-vendor mobile device management, wireless infrastructure management, terminal emulation and voice-enabling software. Brewer has 20 years experience with technologies including data networking, security, network management, wireless and device management, specializing in software and its application into data communications. He can be reached at mbrewer@wavelink.com.