It’s not your mother’s mobility anymore

Published: August 6th, 2008

There’s a perfect storm brewing around mobility, and resellers who understand it will have a lot to gain. We’re talking about WiFi enabled chips, more competition in the spectrum and concepts such as mobile thin clients and notebooks as a service. And these changes are making mobility a lot more interesting – and profitable.

Notebooks are starting to exceed sales of PCs, as their reliability, performance and pricing make them much more attractive. “The biggest opportunity, depending on the sophistication of the organization, is that executives see a mobility strategy as enabling the organization and improving employee productivity,” says Marc Perrella, vice-president of the technology group with IDC Canada. “The key is whether, as a reseller, you can mobilize an existing IT process.”

There’s not that much difference in price anymore between a low-end notebook and a handheld device; and for more complex analysis or decision-making, a notebook might be a more attractive option. However, in most cases, users want both. And that’s what is driving organizations to take a closer look at mobility. “This productivity drive is unending,” says Perrella.

In addition to that executive drive, a perfect storm is coming together – we’re seeing WiFi enabled chips (moving forward we’ll see built-in chipsets), more carriers offering high-speed broadband in a wireless format and rate plans coming down. This means there’s plenty of opportunity for vendors and their channel partners, says Perrella.

Mobile thin clients are a relatively new concept, where an organization reduces the amount of data on the client by centralizing it in the data centre, says Perrella. “As long as you have connectivity, everything is wonderful,” he says, and that has some advantages in reducing total cost of ownership. But the use of WiFi or hotspots doesn’t lend itself to perfect coverage – it’s not as ubiquitous as a cellular network at this point. “So that becomes a challenge,” he says.

One area where mobile thin clients could be a good fit, he says, is in contact centres, where agents could work out of their homes. “That type of technology can solve a couple of dilemmas that [organizations] are facing,” he says. “The biggest challenge is finding appropriate staff to fill positions, and that’s a big issue that HR professionals are grappling with.” Mobile thin clients could give them flexibility to allow employees to work remotely or from home, while keeping data safe.

Mobile thin clients are like dumb terminals on desktops – there’s no hard drive, just flash memory, and no data ever leaves the data centre. “We expect to see that grow as people start to consolidate,” says Darren Leroux, product marketing manager of commercial notebooks with HP Canada. It’s still a relatively new concept, and right now will likely be restricted to mid-size and large enterprises looking to consolidate their back-end infrastructure – as well as banks and hospitals. Privacy legislation, for example, stipulates that client data can’t leave the hospital – and with mobile thin clients, the data never leaves the back-end.

Notebooks as a service a slick new model

There’s also an opportunity with notebooks as a service, but for smaller firms. Over time, more partners will develop this type of solution, says Leroux, where they don’t sell the box, but the solution.

No Panic Computing is one company offering notebooks as a service, where customers not only lease the notebooks, but also security and storage services. It costs $129.99 per month, including an HP enterprise notebook, with backup and encryption services provided by Iron Mountain.

“This is a prime example of how to do that,” says Leroux. “It’s very slick, and I think you’ll see more partners jump into this as we move forward.”

But it involves a cultural shift in how people buy technology. If a customer doesn’t have an IT department or a lot of money to build out an IT infrastructure, then it offers convenience and cost savings. But do they want customer records being stored remotely, and what risk or liability do they face? “There’s good around that, but also some challenges,” says Perrella. VARs can help their customers decide what makes sense for their particular operations – and make sure there are service level agreements and documentation in place.

We’re also starting to see global networks, where broadband wireless is becoming a real connectivity option. “We’ll incorporate that into our products in the November timeframe,” says Leroux, adding that HP will work with a carrier like Rogers and offer a data plan on top of that.

Right now a lot of products are tied to a specific carrier, but there’s a new wireless module coming out called Gobi, which is carrier-agnostic. Qualcomm’s Gobi global mobile Internet is an embedded solution for notebook computers, which can take advantage of high-speed mobile Internet services offered by network operators in virtually all parts of the world – so it doesn’t matter what carrier you use. And that could start changing the game.

We’re entering a realm where almost everything you used to do in your office is becoming enabled in a mobile sense, says Irv Witte, vice-president of ¬business marketing with Rogers Wireless. For smaller businesses that don’t have support staff, the more they can avoid being tethered to their desks, the more productive they can be. “For small business, it’s all about survival, to be more nimble than the other guy.”

Rogers just launched a voice-to-text capability powered by SpinVox, for example, which translates a voicemail message into a text message, delivered straight to your inbox. And high-speed networks (such as the HSPA network that Rogers is currently rolling out) will provide much faster speeds on wireless devices.

Connectivity changing the mobile computing dynamic

“It’s like a whole new category opening up,” says Witte. “Previously a notebook was convenient, but unless you dialed into the network or found a hotspot, there was no way to access all of your applications.” That’s changing. E-mail is no longer the killer application. Users are now able to do things they traditionally did on their desktop back at the office, such as contact management.

And this is bringing about a new dynamic in the channel. The cellular world is used to selling cell phones in a mall, and is largely driven by what 17-year-olds want, while resellers have focused on the traditional PC and notebook world. It’s in the intersection between those two worlds where there’s opportunity – because neither really understands the other very well. “Any reseller or VAR who gets it and understands how to bridge the two has an open field, because nobody’s done it to a large degree yet,” says Witte. Cell phone penetration in Canada is around 60 per cent, while smartphones and PDAs are at around 10 per cent, so it’s a virtually un-penetrated market.

The mobile market, in fact, is poised to exceed desktop units in Canada later this year, according to Doug Cooper, country manager with Intel of Canada. “VARs that are not selling mobile solutions need to get in the game now,” he says. Managed notebook solutions and the ability to package wireless broadband services based on on WiMAX technology will soon present new business opportunities and accelerate the shift to notebooks, he added.

Intel will introduce WiMAX wireless broadband capabilities with its latest Centrino product launch in some markets later this year. It will also introduce five new processors, three of which will reduce power consumption by 30 per cent, as well as the fastest mobile processor, the Intel Core Extreme. “WiMAX is inevitable,” says Cooper. “There are several technical trials operational in Canada today.”

New security challenges

One of the concerns that initially held back mobility was security – particularly because of the human factor involved. Now there are automatic wipe and location recovery services, as well as software that organizations can use to mitigate risk.

We don’t see a lot of malware for smartphones in the wild – yet. The biggest problem, however, is user apathy, because they view their mobile device as a phone and not as a computer. Yet, they’re using these devices for corporate e-mail, mapping software, even ATM locators – and that means they’re more likely to be attached to a network. “You’ll start to see more malware get delivered over the air because the devices are now connected to the network over the air,” says Paul Miller, director of mobile and wireless with Symantec Corp.

If someone is to lose control of that device, or it’s infected without their knowledge, it opens up the potential for bad guys to gain access to the network. But these won’t be the same types of attacks that occur on PCs or notebooks. One example is a class of viruses known as Snoopware, which remotely activates the microphone on the mobile device (it was first developed as a spousal monitoring tool in Asia). “Next time you’re in a meeting room with people, look on the table to see how many mobile phones are sitting on that table,” he says. “Each one of those could be a listening device.”

Smartphones are lost 15 times more frequently than laptops. “I myself have lost six or seven mobile devices,” says Miller. “I’ve never lost a laptop.” If that data is not protected and there’s no remote wipe and kill or encryption, it puts the organization at risk – not only for trade secret loss but also for a potential compliancy breach.

With the perfect storm will come more malware, but it’s an opportunity for resellers to play the role of consultant – treating all end-points as a corporate shared resource and enforcing the right level of security, while freeing up users and helping them do their jobs better.

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