Managing portable devices can be a headache

Managing portable devices can be a headache


Sitting comfortably among his peers at a trade show last year in Las Vegas, a systems manager of a Midwest bank confessed his biggest fear.

Executives at his company planned to dole out hundreds of handheld computers from Palm Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., as recognition awards to employees. The problem: His department would have to absorb the systems into the company's information technology architecture, even though there was no defined service and support structure for handhelds.

'At some point, there will be so many of them that they will tell IT that it's their problem,' he told the crowd.

Managers of government IT are making the same lament as wireless mobile devices proliferate in agencies. As in industry, many employees start out buying their own devices, and eventually they come home to roost. Often, agencies don't have lists of approved devices so brands and types of wireless devices multiply.

The IT manager at one of the top three oil and chemical companies recounted how executives one day decided to buy thousands of Hewlett-Packard Jornada handheld PCs, although the systems were not on the company's approved buying list.

All sorts of large organizations recognize that mobile systems, including notebook PCs, handhelds and wireless telephones, can be used as effective remote application tools and to boost productivity. Few organizations, however, have rules and management structures that cover basic service and support, mobile asset management, security and virus protection.

Security is perhaps the toughest challenge. Many portable systems used to access sensitive files on host computers will inevitably be lost or stolen. In fact, the IT honcho for the oil and chemical company said people walking off with small devices is his company's biggest problem.

Personal digital assistants are still used mainly for personal information management applications'personal calendars or contact lists, for example. But users increasingly tap central information resources and run their PDAs as highly mobile thin clients within an enterprise. Some Navy units, for instance, use them aboard aircraft carriers to handle tasks related to deploying planes.

The first step in successfully fielding mobile systems is to develop a basic strategy, long before a single portable device hits the streets. Although an agency could try to restrict the use of unapproved devices, the strategy should be realistic in assuming a variety of mobile systems will be used in the field.

No one knows how many government workers use so-called rogue systems, since the IT management at most agencies does not sanction, service or support them.

Which device is used depends on the user's preferences and the applications needed. The small screen of a paging device or digital smart phone is not the ideal platform for viewing large documents. Conversely, a wireless notebook would be overkill for someone who primarily needs e-mail access.

Wireless devices' low prices and near-disposable qualities belie the real issues IT managers must deal with:

  • Managing mobile assets. This includes tracking the devices deployed in the field, determining access levels and channeling the right content to the right people.

  • Synchronizing mobile applications and data. This can happen on a mobile device several times a day using dial-up connections or several times an hour in a wireless environment.

  • Scanning for viruses and other mobile nasties that could corrupt applications and data on the mobile device and then be inadvertently uploaded to the central information resource.

  • Backing up mobile applications and data.

  • Providing troubleshooting and technical services to workers in the field, including those who may not be computer literate.

Unfortunately, mobile systems management is often a second thought to the people making buying decisions. This makes it a tough pitch when it comes to offering these types of tools.

Tim Scannell is an analyst at Mobile Insights Inc., a research firm in Quincy, Mass.


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