More people are using iPhones, smart phones, and hand-held computers on the job, and if they aren’t now, they want to in the future.

But introducing a whole new class of electronic devices into the office isn’t as easy as placing an order with IT, or letting employees bring their own smart phones to work.

Ideally, a business should use the same management systems to host, maintain, and safeguard mobile devices that they use for their existing infrastructure of desktop PCs, according to sources in the mobile device management business. But smart phones and PDAs caught on so quickly the default at many companies has been to adopt entirely different tools for managing mobile devices -- if they’re using any tools at all, according to the industry sources.

That’s an expensive and possibly dangerous way to operate, according to the sources. It’s expensive because by duplicating efforts, companies are spending more time and money than they need to. In fact, duplication is one reason John Girard, a vice president and analyst with Gartner, the Stamford, Conn., technology researcher, estimates that companies spend close to $2,500 for each iPhone and hand-held device their employees use.

It’s also dangerous, because if companies aren’t using the same measures to protect data on mobile devices that they use to secure information on desktop machines, they run the risk of allowing sensitive company information to leak out if the devices are lost or stolen. Security has become an even bigger concern recently because more companies are putting important business applications on smart phones, and because more viruses and other malicious software have begun popping up on the devices, says Shari Freeman, a product management director at Sybase iAnywhere, a division of Sybase that makes mobile device management services for large and small businesses.

If companies aren’t thinking about merging the management systems they use for mobile and non-mobile devices now, they’ll have to soon enough, Freeman says. “There’s a general trend for employees to have one or more computing devices, so the need to manage those is increasing,” she says.

Streamlining suggestions

What can companies do?

  • Find areas of duplication and decide what can be eliminated. According to Girard, companies commonly maintain separate systems for user authentication, firewalls, anti-virus, and software distribution for mobile and desktop devices. Determine which programs might be suitable for both and cut out the extras.
  • Use an integrated management software application. A variety of vendors sell software that can manage all types of workplace devices, from desktops to smart phones. Some applications, such as Sybase iAnywhere’s Afaria software, are product agnostic, working with devices from multiple manufacturers and across a variety of functions. Others work with specific product brands or with select functions. They include Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 which integrates Windows Mobile 6.1 devices with Microsoft computer networks, Nokia Intellisync Device Management, which manages mobile devices from multiple manufacturers and Checkpoint Software Technologies, whose firewall and other security products work across all mobile and non-mobile devices.
  • Make sure all types of devices can be accessed remotely. When it comes to security, put hand helds on the same platform as a desktop device, so IT staff can access them remotely to wipe a hard drive should they be lost or stolen, says Freeman, the Sybase iAnywhere executive.
  • Don’t let employees use their own iPhones, smart phones or PDAs at work. Giving people the option of using their own devices or letting them load their own applications onto computer devices opens a can of worms. For starters, IT won’t know what’s on the device and that’s “potentially destructive to the platform, and you won’t have a record that the help desk can use as to what’s changed,” according to Girard. Plus, if they’re not taking adequate safety precautions and the devices are lost or stolen, your important company documents are at risk. According to Freeman, some companies are putting software on their networks that checks any device trying to log in to retrieve email and blocks anything that’s not pre-approved or doesn’t have the appropriate security safeguards.