Learn how to choose the best mobile ERP, BI devices

Alan Joch

With Forrester Research Inc. predicting that 60 million tablets and 175 million smartphones will serve the global workforce by 2015, the trick for manufacturers will be figuring out exactly which models and operating systems can best run mobile ERP and mobile BI applications.

Events of the last year haven’t made those decisions any easier. Scores of new tablets and smartphones arrived on the market, many packing enough processing power to easily handle mobile ERP and mobile BI. They included tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab with 7-inch screens for lighter weight and increased portability compared with the segment-leading Apple iPad. The BlackBerry Playbook from Research in Motion (RIM) had an unusual design: it tethered a tablet to a companion smartphone that stored emails and contact lists for display on the larger tablet. But buyers were lukewarm to many of these introductions and some products were quickly withdrawn from the market.

That leaves two mobile platforms at the top -- devices supporting Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems -- with RIM’s BlackBerry products in third place for now.

So where should IT managers place their mobile bets in the months ahead? Don’t start by choosing the latest and greatest devices, analysts warn. “The IT department and line-of-business managers have to work in tandem to determine what applications the business needs,” said Jack Gold, president of J. Gold Associates, an analyst firm based in Northborough, Mass. Only after that should IT managers develop a short list of mobile devices to acquire and support, he added.

Tough choices for mobile ERP, BI

The good news is that tablets and smartphones will continue to become more powerful, with new generations of multi-core processors for running mobile versions of ERP and BI applications, analysts predict.

And while the mobile market has seen some product shakeouts in the past year, diversity still reigns. This means IT managers will likely find the right hardware match for each type of mobile user, from senior executives and business managers to sales reps and production supervisors.

For example, their relatively large screens make tablets prime candidates for running dashboards that show production trends and inventory levels. Smaller screens make smartphones appropriate for anywhere, anytime exception reporting and alerts delivered via phone calls, text messages, emails and push-to-talk communications.

But the technology choices are complicated by shifting trends in mobile operating systems. IT managers must do more than just weigh the pros and cons of the two main choices, iOS and Android. “There’s fragmentation even within the same operating systems,” said Andrew Braunberg, research director for business technology and software at the consulting company Current Analysis, which is based in Sterling, Va. To differentiate their products, device makers that adopt Android may add proprietary security and other features, he explained.

The bottom line: Prepare for tradeoffs no matter which hardware and software choices rise to the top. While iOS and Android may be the most popular platforms today, each is flawed in terms of management capabilities that are important in the enterprise, Gold said. The BlackBerry platform continues to enjoy a solid reputation for management and security functions, he added. However, RIM has stumbled in recent months while trying to gain a foothold in the tablet market.

Coping with the diversity of mobile platforms

As if choosing mobile platforms isn’t hard enough in a shifting market, IT managers also grapple with trying to keep a lid on all the personal mobile devices that employees bring to work. “Many IT departments are just throwing up their hands and letting people use their own devices until they figure out a better plan,” Braunberg said. “BYOD [bring your own device] is just an admission that IT was caught flatfooted by the mobile wave.”

Allowing personal devices in the enterprise isn’t a viable long-term strategy for IT departments, he said. Research by Current Analysis shows that IT managers are anxious to impose more control; this is due in part to legal concerns about managing corporate data on devices not owned by the enterprise.

Balancing control with user preferences may require what technology researcher Gartner Inc. calls managed diversity. Ken Dulaney, vice president and distinguished analyst for the Stamford, Conn.-based company, outlined this strategy in a recent report, Use Managed Diversity to Support the Growing Variety of Endpoint Devices.

Arguing that device and operating system standardization reduces the total cost of ownership for mobile technology, Dulaney conceded that it may be impossible for IT managers to create a mobile environment as homogeneous as one with traditional PCs. Instead, managed diversity defines three levels of IT support and lets users choose their preferred option. In one level, the IT department makes all mobile hardware and software determinations and in return commits to fully supporting the environment. A second level allows for certain personally owned devices, but limits how extensively IT will support some products. The third tier accommodates full choice, but makes end users fully responsible for their devices, Dulaney said.

“If IT is permitted to select, own and manage a device, then it can be 100% responsible for the highest quality of service, since it knows the profile against which it will deliver applications,” Dulaney wrote. “If it is asked to support anything, it is highly unlikely that it can provide any such guarantee. IT must indicate to end users that decisions have privileges and consequences; if users cross certain boundaries, these privileges and consequences change.”

He added that because this multi-tiered approach gives users a variety of choices, the IT department avoids becoming the technology dictator that forces inflexible systems on others.

Cross-fertilization key in choosing mobile platforms

Gold said IT managers can take another step to avoid becoming the sole decision maker for mobile systems. He advises manufacturers to create internal advisory councils with representatives from across the company, including IT, line-of-business managers, the legal department and production workers. “These groups should meet on a regular basis to discuss the mobile strategy and keep individual constituencies informed about why particular decisions were made,” Gold explained.

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