The very fabric of IT support is being undermined by consumer devices. James West spoke to a number of support specialists about the challenges presented by the likes of Apple and Google, and discovered that service desks may end up in a winning position.
IT support teams rely on two things: control and expertise. They control the environment they preside over by only rolling out the technology they select. Frameworks such as ITIL teach them to be meticulous and vigilant to rogue elements in the system. Once a tight ship is created, the team can then use its knowledge of the products, technologies and services to support all user problems.
It is therefore not surprising that the invasion of powerful consumer technologies from companies such as Apple, Research in Motion and Google are not welcomed by most service desks, as they effectively negate the two facets – control of all elements within the IT infrastructure and mastery over the devices and the software they run – that are the bedrocks upon which IT support teams are built.
However, the explosion of interest in consumer devices can no longer be ignored just because it doesn’t suit the service desk. Research by Changewave shows that 14 per cent of corporate workers intend to buy tablet computers in the first quarter of 2011, adding to the seven per cent who have already invested. Recession or not, tablets are catching the imagination of business leaders and this figure doesn’t include the staff who bring their own consumer devices to work. The logical conclusion is that we will soon reach a tipping point where the majority of businesses use ‘consumer’ devices for business. Analyst Gartner thinks so, stating that by 2014, 90 per cent of businesses will support corporate applications on tablets and smartphones.
This wouldn’t be such a problem for service desks if these popular smartphones and tablets ran Windows. For all of it’s faults, Windows is a flexible, customisable piece of software and support professionals are weened on it from a young age and therefore understand it inside-out. But despite Microsoft’s ambitious plans to encroach on the tablet sector, the software giant has failed to deliver any actual products and shows no signs of righting this soon, while its Windows 7 phone has yet to seriously trouble rivals. Given the lead that it is built, and the fact it will likely unveil a second generation device in the first half of this year, Apple will take the bulk of the corporate sales.
Apple’s way, or the highway
This means that, like it or not, support teams must quickly get up to speed with Apple technologies. Bryan Taylor, managing director of Sitehelpdesk,outlines the key issues. “Apple’s lock down into their own technologies is not the most favoured for development as interfaces are not then transferrable across other devices, this will inevitably slow Apple’s insurgence into the corporate market.”
Apple has acknowledged some of these short comings, improving the integration with business-mainstays such as Outlook and Exchange, and beefing up security to appease business customers. However, every iPhone and iPad is locked to iTunes on a host PC, making it very difficult to manage them en-masse. Apple does however have a good track record of reacting to customer feedback so it is likely that solutions will be delivered in the near future.
However, even if businesses opt for the ‘Blackberry tablet’ – RIM’s Playbook due later this year – or a Google-Android piece of kit, the problem remains: service teams will be supporting a non-Windows environment and that is clearly a challenge.
Jim Docherty at Dell KACE says that service desks must accept these developments and adapt. “Providing support for these new devices can represent a significant additional overhead but does this outweigh the value they provide back to the business? I think the answer here has to be no, if more and more people are relying on these devices for work purposes then they have to have support there for when things go wrong. It’s no use saying: ‘You’re on your own’.”
Service desks must quickly diversify and change their mental outlook according to Geoff Rees, sales director at Sunrise. “It’s becoming very difficult to completely separate business and consumer devices, and the service desk will have to adopt a pragmatic approach to ensure it adapts to the changing environment without being swamped by requests about ‘how to download iTunes to users’,” says Rees, who adds that the benefits seen by his business when moving to iPhones last year have ‘have definitely outweighed any new unwanted burden on the service desk’.
Pat Bolger, chief marketing officer at Hornbill, says that support teams are well advised to embrace personal devices, or they could find themselves dealing with even more complex issues than the ones they are avoiding. “There could be an argument for giving people a budget and letting them choose their own kit and setting up their own support from a local supplier. How many people would actually be capable of this, how do you manage software licence purchases, how can you provide support when you don’t know the configuration of their device, how do you manage data security issues, and when they leave how do you get the kit back, and what do you do with it then if no one else wants to use it.”
However, rather than being an overwhelming challenge, supporting consumer devices may not be as great an issue as some people think. Bolger, says that supporting new technologies has always been central to the service desk proposition and that it is simply a case of continuing best practice. “IT has to be even more stringent with supporting corporate policy to ensure that corporate assets, including data, are fully protected.”
Jason Gardiner, ICCM’s technical director, believes there are other benefits which offset the extra effort required from support teams. “In the US, we are seeing companies moving from centrally managed mobile contracts to individual liability programs (allowance for mobility vs. fully funded). It’s even starting to happen for computing devices such as laptops. Costs are predictable, lower, and more manageable providing an allowance. Individuals then choose from carrier and phone types they wish based on what interface requirements the company provides.”
There is a middle-path which IT support teams could take to secure the benefits outlined above, but avoid some of the larger problems associated with accepting all technologies into the corporate fold. Ricky Doyle, managing director of Practice IT, explains. “Unless the organisation changes on mass and provides the relevant training it would be difficult to support these. Having a range of devices with different OS will put the best service desks under strain, the goal would be to have a standard and stick to it and then you could include the new range of devices.”
Peter Durrant, UK sales director, LANDesk, also believes there is an alternative to the all-or-nothing approach creating so much unease within support teams. “(Take) a few popular (devices) and run a pilot group of users to enable them to see what incidents and problems will arise through the use of these and help them to adapt their service catalogue.”
Clearly, including new technology into a business will mean support challenges. But ultimately IT and its support exist to make staff work more effectively, and therefore businesses have a duty to try new technologies to see if they offer any benefits.
The term ‘IT-business integration’ is often used to describe the apparent inability of technical teams to communicate and identify with staff. The interest in consumer devices helps solve this issue in two ways. Most obviously, it offers IT the chance to talk to users and understand what they need to work effectively, and that reason alone makes it worth investigating. But the second benefit may be even more important in bringing IT and ‘the business’ even closer together.
Consumer devices have succeeded in something that business IT can never hope to do – they have made IT sexy to non-techies. Previously, attempting to engage employees regarding technical matters has been very difficult. However, put an iPad in their hands and suddenly they are interested. IT service and support teams serious about improving their standings will be wise to identify the power of this dynamic, and ensure that from now on they maintain a dialogue with staff to understand exactly what they want from IT. The reward of this heightened interest in cool technology may be that staff and executives grow to like and rely on it, which will mean increased budgets.