Aug 08

Have you decided which is your primary device yet?

The iPad reinitiated — perhaps reignited is more accurate — interest in tablets. With millions of iPads sold and more millions of sales coming from the likes of Acer, Dell, HP, Motorola, RIM, Samsung and a host of others, there can be no doubt about the scale of interest – vendor and customer.

Yet, most assume tablets are a reflection of consumer issues and interest. At Constellation we do not see it that way: tablets will become mainstream in IT.

In addition, throughout all the ‘new excitement’ about tablets (of whatever flavor), an old, old dilemma has started to reassert itself. It has, at its simplest, the issue of — what device has primacy? Or, put another way, which device is your primary ‘system’ and where is your data?

Consider what has happened

In the 1970s and arguably for most of the 1980s, the primary source of both processing and data was held on some form of centralized host. That host might be a mainframe or a mini-computer — with attached terminals. Whatever the system, data and related applications belonged in the center, and was available and professionally backed up.

In the late 1980s and more particularly in the 1990s the mass adoption of personal computing (delivered on PCs) changed the focus. No longer was it quite so clear where ‘master-data’ was stored. But, because, the original PCs did not move around much (too big and clumsy), from an IT organizational viewpoint this did not present too much of a challenge: with near permanent LAN connections, data copying and backup was practical and the PC with data and applications existed where the user worked.

The arrival of inexpensive, portable laptops fundamentally changed this. More and more people (whether for themselves or for their employers) started to move around, taking their device with them. While some software — notably Microsoft’s Exchange and IBM’s Lotus Notes — provided mechanisms (often awkward in practice, like Notes’ synchronizing) to ensure that the center also had copies of data, not all applications did. Control of data passed, gradually and de facto, into the hands of users who often did not possess the discipline to plan for ‘what happens if my data, or system, is not available’.

Then, and complicating the picture, users started to want to install those applications they felt they ‘needed’, in addition to what organized IT might select or try to dictate. This just added to the beginning of the loss of control (and most attempts by IT to retake control simply did not work).

The existing ‘primacy status quo’ really breaks down

In effect the arrival of the readily move-able laptop (and then the netbook) saw the primacy of data being held at the center really break down. The same applied with applications: people wanted to have the applications they needed with them, which meant that ‘using’ general purpose PCs as occasional terminals to access data became less and less useful. Even if you had your data with you, if you did not have your applications you could not do what you intended.

Despite IT creating ever more elaborate ‘schemas’ and ‘solutions’ (for example, organization-specific virtual machines running on devices increasingly chosen and bought by the user), these ‘solutions’ were and are cumbersome. Moreover, so long as an organization was not burned too badly or too often, an increasingly relaxed laissez-faire attitude took hold.

This operated pretty successfully into 2010. Yes, there were crises. Yes, there were disasters (think of both commercial and government laptops being stolen). But there were not sufficient of these or of such magnitude to oblige change.

Indeed, another reason this relaxed attitude worked was that many IT organizations were spectacularly ineffective about enforcing the very disciplines they claimed to promote. For example, one professional services organization (which should have known better) bought reputable software to back up automatically, and in background mode, all its employees’ laptops. But it never checked to ensure that, once that software was installed and running on each of its employees’ laptops, it actually took those periodic copies. More than one employee found himself or herself bereft of data and applications because the alleged process failed to ensure that the necessary copies were actually made back to the center. This was definitely a case of optimism triumphing over intended practice.

Now think about what is happening

As 2010 turned into 2011 the environment significantly changed again. It became even more complex.

In the past, mobile or cellular phones were largely regarded as devices distinct from computing devices. Unless your organization lived in a Blackberry (RIM) world, then responsibility for (say) the employee’s contact information on mobile phones was more often than not the responsibility of the user (who was also often the owner of the phone, because choosing a cellular phone was regarded as a personal rather than an organizational choice).

With the arrival of tablets that are essentially near-full scale computing devices plus the delivery of smart-phones having the power and capabilities of the iPhone/iOS or of Android 2 and 3 devices — with screens varying from 4” to 10” via a plethora of sizes in between — the laptop lost much (but not all) of its overt primacy as device of choice.

At the same time, those tablets and smart-phones that had not occupied the primacy slot that the laptop had occupied began an evolution. A new interregnum has materialized, presenting new dilemmas for users:

– should one device deliberately be selected to have primacy (and what does this mean)?
– what should one do if you want 2 or more devices all to have equal primacy?
– should one take 1, 2 or 3 devices when traveling?
– where should one’s master data and applications reside (and is this backed up/secure)?
– etc.

What has changed is that increasing numbers of users have 2 (more likely 3) devices which they use in different but complementary ways. What is also true is that the applications on the various devices do not complement each other well. Indeed, possibly the deepest argument (that with the greatest substance) in favor of Windows on a tablet is that it will be application compatible with ones on the laptop (think Office and/orOpenOffice). In contrast, most Office-type offerings on iOS, Android, QNX and WebOSare only partially (or not) compatible.

Thus the environment in 2011 is one of uncertainty about:

– which of multiple portable devices to use, when each can be important for doing one’s job
– where master-data and its associated applications exist
– recoverability.

Change is necessary

For a user with multiple ‘primary’ devices, the current need is to choose primacy. What is needed is a Mobile Device Management (MFM) infrastructure that removes the need for only one of his or her devices to possess primacy. Instead a more practical world needs to emerge, one which also will make it easier to travel or to use what the individual circumstances make more convenient and where every user will know that all of both his, or her, data and applications are available and usable whenever one has connectivity.

When this appears it will be a wonderful step forwards. It will recognize today’s reality, that no one device can do everything that a smart-phone, tablet and laptop each can do. Yet it will also enable you to do that you wish with all of these — with users and organizations being able to make the choices that they prefer — in parallel and with the likelihood of data and applications ‘going missing when needed’ being pretty much eliminated.

Ultimately this will simplify the management dimension for IT, and make it more reliable. But the price may be acceptance of major changes by software vendors which history suggests will not be easy to obtain.

Meanwhile the ‘primacy problem’ will continue to stretch IT and simultaneously irritate users. That is the reality for late 2011 and probably 2012.

[Charles will be exploring many of the issues raised here in greater depth through a series of Constellation Reports, currently scheduled for September and later in 2011 and provisionally entitled:

1. Mobile Device Management – Why IT will have to swallow its tablets
2. Mobile Device Management – What does IT need to think about in MDM?
3. Mobile Device Management – Which Tablet OS should IT develop for?
4. Mobile Device Management – Issues when choosing between iOS, WebOS, QNX, Android and ‘Win8’]

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