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Make the right call

The mobile phone market is evolving so rapidly that managing the ever-growing fleets of devices is now a major headache for CIOs.

Last year, there was plenty of conjecture about whether Barack Obama, who was then United States president-elect, would be allowed to keep his BlackBerry, a constant companion during the election campaign of 2008. Obama used the web as a powerful campaign medium and took full advantage of tools such as email. He was clearly a fan, but there were worries in Washington about what might happen if someone intercepted presidential email that had been sent on the go. Around the world, the Obama-BlackBerry saga had corporate heads shaking - executives in shared frustration and technology professionals in appreciation of what was at stake.

Although it may not occupy the same rarefied space as presidential communications, the workaday world of managing a fleet of handsets has become increasingly difficult. Most chief information officers have a strategy for dealing with mobiles, but some say they are taking up a growing amount of their time and budget.

Allens Arthur Robinson information chief Chris Holmes says the law firm had 200 BlackBerrys on its books 18 months ago; today he has 650 to contend with.

Holmes acknowledges that the cost of using mobile networks for data has come down, but falling rates have not been enough to offset increased usage. "Sure, the per-unit usage cost is going down, but the overall expense is increasing."

Allens staff can now bring in their own devices to connect to the company's service. "Staff that wouldn't normally qualify can join the program and more than a few have taken that up," Holmes says.

"BlackBerry is manageable and deployable - it can be controlled and secured." He reports having had few problems with the device, and those that had occurred could mostly be traced to the carrier network.

BlackBerrys may have become an institution in firms like Allens, but a growing array of handsets from rival suppliers is challenging their dominance. Big names such as Apple and Google are determined to grab a slice of the mobile space. They are more than prepared to challenge established players like Microsoft, Research In Motion (RIM) and Nokia.

Research director at analyst group Gartner, Robin Simpson, has seen a sea change in the mobile phone world.

"In the past 12 months, the composition of the top six vendors has changed dramatically," he says. Apple and RIM have "charged in and Motorola has fallen away", and Nokia has also experienced previously unheard-of declines in its global market share of smartphones.

Although the market has been changing rapidly, it's not something that companies necessarily welcome, having spent time and effort crafting policies, investing in back-end systems and carefully selecting network plans.

"The last thing that enterprises want is change. They are used to the desktop environment, where you can buy something and it will last for at least four or five years," Simpson says. "But that's never been the case in mobiles and it's only getting worse. Most of the innovation and the devices that are available to them are coming from the consumer world."

Google made a belated play in the mobiles space with the open-source Android operating system. Although Android remains in its infancy, fellow latecomer Apple made a huge splash in the global market with a single handset, the iPhone, which quickly grabbed a double-digit share of the worldwide smartphone market. The innovative touch screen interface and web browser have set rivals scrambling to come up with something similar.

It also comes with an email client based on Microsoft's Exchange platform, a feature that has more than a few fashion-conscious executives asking to get their new Apple toys connected to the corporate network. Yet as sleek as the iPhone is, it doesn't have the track records of Microsoft and RIM, particularly on the key issue of security. But its sheer popularity has forced many companies to evaluate it, even if it has yet to become a mainstream business device.

Energy group Jemena's CIO, Cathy Bibby, has a highly mobile workforce to cater for. Jemena runs hundreds of BlackBerrys, but recently these have been joined by a handful of iPhones, which are mainly owned by contractors. And connecting them to systems such as Jemena's email was easy, thanks to their compatibility with Exchange. "It took five minutes," Bibby says.

Microsoft's own efforts in the mobile space have never matched the company's lofty ambitions, yet it's not through lack of trying. In February, chief executive Steve Ballmer told investors the company was again accelerating its mobile development. Like Google, Microsoft offers a generic operating system that can be used across a range of devices.

"People ask me, 'Will you build your own phone?'," Ballmer says. "It's not our strategy to build our own phone, it's our strategy to sell software that we can use and support across a wide range of devices."

He expects that handset software will eventually be sold separately from the device, just as it is in the PC world. Nevertheless, he concedes that Apple and RIM, which have both closely tied proprietary hardware and software, are where "all of the consumer-market mojo is" at present.

For organisations that want to develop specific software for mobile applications, Windows Mobile can tap into the rich array of development tools that Microsoft offers for its other products. It can also be managed from Microsoft's System Centre management suite, which many big Microsoft shops already have in place. One of its IT services partners, Dimension Data, is in the process of gradually swapping its fleet of 500 BlackBerrys for Windows Mobile devices. The company's national Microsoft practice manager, Brian Walshe, says the idea that Windows Mobile uses more data on email than other comparable systems is "an absolute myth".

In contrast to the locked systems of Apple and RIM, Windows Mobile has the advantage of greater device choice, although "not every device is equal", Walshe says. He cautions that the constant stream of new mobiles should make businesses tread warily when selecting new models.

"At the moment, the very short life cycle of phones means they are probably being released without the level of testing we would have seen in the past," he says.

But it is the consumer who drives mainstream mobile development and funds the research that keeps it rolling. "Clearly, in the smartphone market you have to succeed in the consumer world to give you the revenue and the margin to continue [research and development] and to continue to make innovations," Gartner's Simpson says.

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Tags mobilitytelephonySMART PHONE

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