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Which mobile OS will IT support?

Like it or not, mobile device management means supporting multiple systems. But CIOs don't have to get tangled in a web of unmanageable devices.

The mobile device market is diversifying -- fast. It won't be about the BlackBerry forever.

And if CIOs don't build a comprehensive plan for management and security, they risk a mess of splintered mobile phone operating systems and an unmanageable network of devices, Forrester Research Inc. analysts say.

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BlackBerry remains the market leader and will hold that spot for at least another five years, according to Benjamin Gray, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester. But Windows Mobile is fast becoming a favorite of IT leaders and CIOs. The iPhone, run on Mac OS X, is becoming a right-hand product for many Apple devotees.

Meanwhile, there are still a high number of Palm OS users out there and even a few working with phones running the Symbian OS. The use of a Linux OS is also expected to rise.

"Quite honestly, this is going to be a very interesting market to watch," Gray said. He predicted that what Forrester calls "tech populism" will accelerate and shift the way in which companies use and manage mobile devices.

A recent Forrester survey shows that during the next five years, IT decision makers plan to support more mobile OSes. The days of setting up a BlackBerry server or outfitting only a handful of higher-ranking users with Palm Treos are rapidly disappearing.

Today, 73% of businesses manage and support BlackBerry. Fifty-four percent support Windows Mobile. But 83% of survey respondents are at least "somewhat likely" to support BlackBerry five years from now. And 87% of respondents are "somewhat likely" to support Windows Mobile in 2013.

Those are the heavy-hitters, but by no means the only winners. Palm OS support is expected to jump from 40% to as much as 51%, even as Palm tries to align itself with Windows Mobile; iPhone support is expected to jump as high as 43% by 2013, up from only 12% right now. Linux, on which Google may eventually release a phone, will jump from 7% support to as high as 50%.

Tech populism equals more mobile device support

In short, the question is not which mobile OS IT will support, but how many.

With tech populism permeating the workplace, employees have become more tech-savvy and want more say concerning the devices and programs they use.

"It's a huge shift," Gray said. "We're starting to see some organizations embrace it. It's still an emerging trend.

"The way I see it, it's pretty much inevitable for a majority of these companies," he said.

Take the iPhone. Forrester, as well as analysts at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., came out strongly against the use of the flat white thing in businesses when it was released last year. Earlier this year, Apple Inc. introduced an updated iPhone and began to take business needs into account.

That included a remote-wipe feature and support for Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync. But it wasn't enough, Gray said. The device still lacks a remote-lock feature, and he said he hears concerns from clients about the lack of data encryption. And while iTunes is still the prevailing software distribution method, some CIOs are wary of it. Repairs must be handled by Apple technicians, the employees stationed behind the "genius bar" at Apple's retail stores.

"For a dead battery, these are the kind of things IT is used to doing themselves," Gray said. "To have to actually schedule an appointment with a genius and have to physically bring a device to a retail outlet, it's just not efficient."

But all that aside doesn't mean IT workers can afford to ignore the iPhone and refuse support for Mac OS X. Gray recommends drafting a security and management plan for all mobile OSes an IT department may be forced to support.

"The way we see it, if the CEO walks into the IT ops room or the help desk and says, 'I want an iPhone, here's my iPhone, support me.' IT doesn't really have the right to say no," Gray said.

My staff can only support so much and if I start opening the doors to support every smart phone out there then I have to train my staff to support any phone
out there.

Humberto Quntanar
CIOAntelope Valley Healthcare District
BlackBerry and Windows Mobile platforms will both hold down heavy spots as well, Gray said. In fact, he said he sees Windows Mobile eventually taking BlackBerry's spot as the most popular mobile OS. He credited Windows' growing popularity with the ability to take on applications and its symbiotic relationship with Microsoft's marquee Office software products.

At Antelope Valley Healthcare District in Lancaster, Calif., CIO Humberto Quintanar has a mobile strategy that involves supporting only a few smartphones while developing mobile projects to improve communication within the hospital.

"My staff can only support so much, and if I start opening the doors to support every smartphone out there, then I have to train my staff to support any phone out there," he said. "And I can't afford to do that."

Right now, Quintanar supports only BlackBerrys. But physicians at the hospital have asked for iPhone support so they can review medical information on personal devices. Quintanar said he plans to support iPhones but needs some time to ensure that he provides the proper security.

"We're not ready for that yet, because the health information systems platform that we have today is so old that it wouldn't be feasible to send that information to an iPhone," he said. "That's a ways before we can do that, because I have to worry about security and patient confidentiality and all that stuff. It's a little bit difficult for me to say, 'Go ahead, have access, get in there.'"

But the expansion stops there, saving Quintanar's staff from juggling support for an untold number of devices.

In the meantime, the hospital has a few mobile communications projects under way, including linking BlackBerrys to its private branch exchange and outfitting doctors and nurses with Vocera voice-recognizing push-to-talk phones for internal communication.

Gray said CIOs should consider which mobile devices they will support and develop a comprehensive management policy, much like Quintanar has done by preparing for the iPhone but choosing not to support anything else. CIOs may want to consider purchasing mobile device management software, Gray said.

In a recent report, Gray referred to those solutions as "lame" and "uninteresting" but critical to consider nonetheless. Security features should be the No. 1 consideration when planning a purchase, Gray wrote. Good inventory management software is also a major plus.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Zach Church, News Writer

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