Does the iPhone belong in corporate networks?

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from Network World.

The right mobile handset for business use depends greatly on the organization that’s deploying them, according to participants in a peer-group session at VoiceCon Orlando.

The so-called unconference session titled “iPhone vs. Blackberry vs. ???” drew about 25 participants for a roundtable discussion. To promote candor in the group, no names could be used here.

Network World Slideshow: iPhone vs. BlackBerry Storm smartphone showdown

The iPhone was used by just three of the businesses represented, a tie with Blackberry. Six use Windows Mobile devices, and the rest use a mix of other devices.

The iPhone had two downsides: trying to overcome the cool factor when denying their use to users, and the fact that they are supported only by AT&T, which limits the call plans available.

One participant said his CFO wanted an iPhone and he couldn’t say no, but he did force the executive to buy the device himself, then sign it over to the company and submit it to corporate security policies.

One corporation that has issued 25,000 BlackBerries found that turning them over to a managed service reduces operational costs and help-desk headaches. Initially, the company let employees buy their own devices and service plans, but after several thousand were filing expense reports for the monthly fees, it discovered that a corporate-wide plan made more sense.

Roaming fees arose as a potentially crippling cost that was addressed in several ways. One participant advocated buying only national minutes so there are no roaming charges.

Another that uses local plans discovered that the plan was so local that if employees used their BlackBerries from home, they incurred roaming charges. The solution: T-Mobile service that enables Wi-Fi connections to VoIP calls when the device is used at home.

Global businesses said using multiple service providers was unavoidable because the dominance and QoS of carriers varied depending on the region of the world.

Many employees are pushing to use their mobile devices as a replacement for their desktops or laptops, with Salesforce.com being hands-down the most popular application.

Within individual businesses, employees are adding resources to their networks specifically for use on handhelds. For example, an application has been created by one company to enable click-to-call dialing from the corporate employee database. At another, traveling employees set up a wiki to share tips about features of specific cities.

Another business set up a library of corporate instructional videos for download to mobile devices for viewing whenever employees have the chance.

The PC-replacement theme was strong enough for one business that it has the devices on a two-year replacement schedule.

With expanding uses for the devices come concerns about performance and security. None of the participants put antivirus software on the devices themselves because it slows down performance and saps battery life. Instead, all Internet traffic is forced through the corporate Internet link where gateway antivirus and URL filtering can help protect the devices.

These corporate-issued machines pose some unexpected liabilities as well, such as possible lawsuits if an employee on official company business uses the device while driving and causes an accident. Participants recommended reducing liability by establishing a policy that prohibits use while driving and getting users to sign that they understand the rule. In addition, some put stickers on them, too, to remind users that talking and texting while behind the wheel is forbidden. States have already passed laws making use of mobile devices illegal while driving, so the problem for businesses is growing, they said.

Scaling for the devices can also be a problem, according to the participant with 25,000 users. Instances of BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) to support the deployment are proliferating. Each BES supports about 1,400 users, and increasing that capacity would help reduce server sprawl, the participant said.

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