01:15 PM

Mobile Devices Are Ready To Take Their Place Alongside PCs In Businesses

Eighty-five percent of companies will provide more access to applications via mobile devices next year, and three out of four will increase spending on devices such as smartphones and other handhelds.

For the past two decades, the connection between the IT department and most employees was the PC. That's the device IT chose software for, integrated into networks, and fretted to keep secure. But as businesses embrace mobile devices and applications, they're driving one of the biggest shifts in client computing since PCs were connected to the Internet.

Fancy graphics and wireless networks don't mix for Elizaitis

Fancy graphics and wireless networks don't mix for Elizaitis

Photo by Sacha Lecca
Companies now are ready to push applications other than e-mail onto mobile devices. Eighty-five percent of businesses anticipate that the number of their employees accessing enterprise apps via mobile devices will increase next year, according to an InformationWeek Research survey this month of 527 business technology professionals. The number giving employees access to supply chain, human resources, and financial apps from mobile devices will more than double in two years. Companies allowing access to supply chain apps, for example, will rise from 19% today to 44%.

Three out of four businesses will increase spending next year on mobile devices such as smartphones, rugged handhelds, and Pocket PCs. Just 1% of respondents say they'll spend less on the stuff.

Not surprisingly, more than eight of 10 respondents cite improved productivity and access to critical information as the biggest benefits of mobile computing. More than one out of three cite increased sales.

But mobile devices bring a whole new set of problems for which IT departments must be ready. Unlike their Windows-based brethren, the devices run various operating systems. They're also still hindered by limited memory and fledgling wireless "broadband" services, and come with a unique set of security problems. Businesses, meanwhile, have to consider whether they have the expertise to develop and support mobile technologies--and whether they need a separate support team. Are they ready for this complexity and investment?

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At Emcor Group, a $4.7 billion-a-year mechanical and electrical construction company with 26,000 employees, business developers and project managers use BlackBerrys to stay in touch with their teams and clients via wireless e-mail, while field technicians use an array of Windows Mobile-based smartphones for receiving work orders and closing out service calls through a dispatch application. The company now has an IT group dedicated to overseeing acquisition, deployment, and support of BlackBerrys and a Windows Mobile support group for the field technicians, says CIO Joseph Puglisi. Such a division is necessary: Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices differ in terms of capabilities, management requirements, and how they interact with back-end systems, Puglisi says.

What's holding back mobile access to enterprise applications? Most survey respondents cite cost, followed by security and integration. Yet it's a cost many are willing to stomach, as two out of three respondents say they'll spend more on mobile applications next year than they will in 2006.

Rollins, a pest control service, plans to increase spending on mobile applications by about 50% in the next 12 months, says Alan Ariel, assistant VP of networks. Field-service technicians today work offline on rugged, data-only handheld devices. Rollins plans to roll out smartphones--still deciding which one--that include an internally developed customer-service ticket application, replacing a paper form. The smartphones will let technicians wirelessly post and update data on the company intranet throughout the day. As a bonus, they eliminate the need for separate cell phones.

Mobile software development comes with its own set of challenges. Do you develop apps that run locally on each device? That can be a costly investment in time, development, talent, supporting technologies, and integration. The alternative approach, Web-browser-based software, can make it difficult to exchange information with back-end servers because of the lack of an intelligent client.

Real estate firm Grubb & Ellis took the thin-client tack, piloting a Web-based app for independent agents to search for properties when they're with potential buyers. The company's apps are accessed from any device with a browser. But when users access the intranet from handhelds, they're directed to a special series of pages designed for the small screen and slower network speeds. "The applications that we've chosen are all view-only, so brokers are just querying the system to get information back but not creating anything," says Stephen Huston, Web services manager. Grubb & Ellis also is leaving the choice of devices up to the real estate agents, another reason to use the browser-based approach. That's unusual. More than half of survey respondents say mobile device purchases and services are highly centralized, while 37% say they're somewhat centralized (some are bought by the company and some by employees).

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