Mobility is well established in Ireland, and in some industries has become the de facto standard for collecting and distributing information.
Handheld devices have become common in most major warehousing and stock control facilities, while the retail sector in particular has adopted barcode scanners and hand held devices with enthusiasm. At the enterprise level, travelling executives were among the first to embrace laptops and mobile phones with enthusiasm.
From the outset, the business benefits of being able to get real time access to stock levels, product orders, client and billing information whilst in the field have been obvious. However, there are still many industries were mobility hasn't made many inroads, either because there is no apparent advantage or because of a culture of resistance from senior management.
This could be set to change, according to Chuck Dietrich, general manager and vice president with Salesforce Mobile. "We're seeing not just new companies coming to us for mobile solutions, but new kinds of companies, and part of the reason is the growth in popularity of mobile e-mail," he said.
Mail in the hand
"Once you get a mobile device into someone's hand and they get used to having their e-mail there when they need it, then they start to wonder why they can't move other aspects of their IT function to a mobile platform."
"Also, as smart phones become more popular and people start to use other kinds of consumer applications on their devices, they also start to think ‘why can't I access my enterprise application this way?' That's something we're seeing as a catalyst for adoption of our mobile applications, and we're seeing companies of all levels of sophistication going this way."
In the US, users of Salesforce Mobile's technology include the nationwide pizza chain Papa Murphys, which uses a franchise management system to interact with its 900 outlets using Blackberry smart phones.
"Likewise the Karl Strauss Brewing Company manages all its sales and distribution of its beer to stores and bars using Blackberrys. Those aren't industries you would typically associate with a high technology solution, but in some cases they were early adopters of mobile devices and in others they had a forward thinking chief information officer (CIO)," said Dietrich.
"In some cases, especially outside the US and in emerging markets around the world, the price point for purchasing a laptop is also a factor. It's much more affordable for companies to equip their staff with mobile devices than it is to buy and maintain a fleet of laptops."
"As long as they can do everything they need to do from the device, it becomes an ideal replacement -- the Blackberrys and iPhones of today are just as powerful as laptops were three or four years ago, and they're evolving quickly."
At the same time that handheld and other mobile devices are become more powerful, the cost of them is falling, and as a result it's becoming more common to see people privately purchasing and using such technology for entertainment. The result is that mobility is going mainstream.
"The price of mobile devices is coming down, whether it be laptops, netbooks or smart phones, and more people are taking them on board for that reason," said Paddy Collins of Vodafone Ireland. "However, businesses are deciding whether they have a real business need before choosing to rush out and buy devices."
"Many companies are dipping their toes in the water with netbooks, as the price point is relatively low and you can get them with broadband connectivity built in. The killer mobile application is still e-mail however, and the vast majority of companies embarking on a mobile strategy are starting there."
"We've done some research that shows that within the Irish business community, people now expect their e-mails to be replied to within 30 minutes. That implies a change in how we think about e-mail and in how people are using mobile devices - most people are away from their desks for various reasons during the day, but we now expect that they'll pick up their mail anyway."
"While e-mail makes up the bulk of mobile data users, we're also seeing that even small to medium companies are getting more sophisticated in terms of accessing office applications remotely. This is allowing people to access thin client versions of full customer relationship management (CRM) systems and amongst companies that already have those systems this is a big draw."
According to Salesforce Mobile's Dietrich, growth in the mobility sector is also being driven by the popularity of mobile applicationss based around thin client software developed specifically to work regardless of whether the user has connectivity, as opposed to browser-based technology that displays data remotely.
"For example, Facebook has a client application that can be installed on a mobile device and you can do certain things on it regardless of connectivity. As a result, its performance is consistent even though you may be bouncing between signals and losing coverage. That's quite different to a browser based application, which is totally dependent for performance on coverage," he said.
Going mobile involves changing the way the company administers its IT function and potentially opens the company up to a world of security issues, not to mention productivity concerns. Understandably, the risk of having employees lose a smart phone, netbook or laptop loaded with commercially sensitive information can make senior management sweat.
"Although mobility offers access to data and increases the throughput of the business, it also increases the security risks of that data being exposed," said Sean O'Connell, security consultant with Computer Associates. "We've seen a whole range of cases coming in from the UK of what the consequences of losing data looks like, and there's no shortage of them here in Ireland as well."
"The biggest concern we have is that security and confidentiality are still seen as an add-on, as something to be concerned about after the fact as opposed to a built-in fundamental concern. If you're going to have information on a Blackberry or laptop, how do you treat that data to make it as safe as if it was inside the physical boundaries of the office?"
"From an IT perspective, we take a multipronged approach - we look at where the data is in the corporate environment, who is accessing it, where is it going and what is being done with it on the mobile device. Some kinds of employees take significant volumes of data with them on the road, for example travelling executives, salespeople and claims assessors," he said.
"They might have valuable commercial and customer information, insurance records, medical information and general data like that with them on their laptops or portable devices as they move around. As a base requirement, that information should be encrypted so that if it's stolen from the boot of the car or from the passenger seat, as is classically the case, at least it's much more difficulty for the thief to recover the data."
It's not just lost or stolen laptops that present a risk to companies looking at introducing or upgrading a policy on mobility. Security threats can from within as well as outside the company.
"Because of the unfortunate economic situation the country finds itself in, there have been a large number of redundancies. There have been some surveys done in the past six months which asked some pointed questions of people who were being made redundant, such as would they take personal or commercial information with them when they left," said O'Connell.
"The vast majority, two thirds, said they would. They see this as a mechanism that will allow them to get a new job. If you were in a sales job, then you might take the company database with you, and in fact it's not unheard of for sales people to be headhunted by competitors on the explicit presumption that they will do just this."
"Information can leave your premises on a mobile device such as a smart phone or laptop, as well as a pen drive, a burnt CD or even just e-mailed out from your systems," he said.
Security concerns such as those outlined by O'Connell and Computer Associates are not particularly new, but companies new to mobility will need to take such concerns into account. Meanwhile, companies already operating a mobility strategy can look forward to better fitting security solutions appearing on the market in the near future, costing less and more closely meeting their industry specific needs.
As mobility becomes more generally available, the technology required to oversee it is becoming less specialised. As a case in point, the upcoming release of Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system includes as standard a function called Bitlocker To Go that automatically encrypts all data transferred to USB drives or other external devices, rendering safe lost or stolen USB keys and hard disks containing sensitive data.
Meanwhile, Apple's latest mobile operating system for its ubiquitous iPhone platform includes a function that allows users to remotely locate a lost or stolen handset, and if the device can't be recovered, to erase the contents. Both of these functions were previously available as third party applications, but are now being included with mass market products for free.
"Human ingenuity will always prevail and people will find a way around your restrictions. People will upload commercially sensitive information to a blog, or send it out to a Hotmail account - there are multiple ways of getting information out of the enterprise, from a Blackberry to Skype, to web-based mail, a USB key or a burnt CD," said O'Connell.
"To deal with this, the strategy should be identity driven, rather than software driven - know who your employees are, what their roles are and hence have an expectation of what their behaviour is likely to be. You have to have a reasonable level of intelligence behind this. You can end up shutting down your environment and limiting productivity if your systems don't know how to tell the difference between normal and abnormal behaviour."
"The technology has to contextualise different kinds of data - some data is fine to move around and some isn't. Data should be categorised, and then activity involving that data needs to be monitored according to who is using it and what they intent of their activity is."
Question of trust
As well as security concerns, a further barrier for many companies that could otherwise benefit from going mobile is working culture. "If a company is thinking of bringing in mobility, then it has to trust its workforce and this can be a cultural issue in Ireland," said Niall Gilmore, Irish country manager for Citrix.
"If a user is mobile, then you have to trust that they are conscientious people who will do their job even when they're not being watched. Of course, just because someone is sitting in front of you in an office doesn't mean that they're necessarily being productive either."
According to Luke Buckley, country manager for Mamut Ireland, this issue is particularly relevant for small to medium-sized companies.
"Mobile working should be all about freedom and simplicity, but as it requires a change in the current practices of many businesses, there remains either a resistance to accepting these changes in the workplace or lack of awareness of the potential gains for all concerned. This is especially prevalent within the small business community," he said.
"Despite, or perhaps because of, the rapid influx of labour from other EU countries, Ireland has moved from being a low cost labour market to being a high cost labour market. This means that Irish businesses are more likely to be at a cost disadvantage when competing against other European firms. Therefore it is now increasingly imperative that Irish firms adopt new technologies capable of making it easy to access information and work regardless of location."
Gilmore suggests that in order for a mobile strategy to make sense, the way it's designed and implemented has to be secure, it has to meet the customer's needs, and it has to offer good business benefits.
"Once you change your IT architecture towards a centralised model, then mobility becomes less difficult to offer, so it makes sense to look at it," he said. "It can also be rolled out as an add-on to things you do, so you don't have to make your workforce mobile, but you can make aspects of their workload mobile and achieve productivity benefits as a result."