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Tech Watch: As smartphone technology takes off, VARs hone mobile skills

Android phones, BlackBerrys and iPhones drives are becoming many business users' primary devices, VARs say.

Smartphone technology is truly ready for prime time. And that means more business customers view their smartphone of choice -- an iPhone, a BlackBerry or an Android phone -- not as an adjunct to their personal computer but as their primary computing device.

While insiders once pooh-poohed the business impact of the Apple iPhone, some technology solution providers are now securing it and managing it for customers along with the virtually ubiquitous BlackBerry.

They are also evaluating two serious mobile contenders: Google's Android and Microsoft Windows Phone 7. The opportunity, they suggest, lies both in device management and in mobile application development to extend the value of corporate applications for collaboration and business intelligence, among other things.

"All of the applications we build now have mobility as a consideration," said Derek Downs, vice president for Houston-based network integrator INX Inc. "The mobile device, in a lot of cases, is becoming the primary device."

VARS must knit smartphone technology into corporate networks

Francis Poeta, president of P & M Computers, a technology solution provider in Cliffside Park, N.J., said mobile support often is the first question prospective customers ask about enterprise solutions his team recommends.

"They ask, 'Can I get to this from a BlackBerry?' Security and compliance are the next questions," Poeta said. "Companies are making business decisions based on the handheld."

That's the same mindset seen by Nexus Information Systems in Minnetonka, Minn., which is hiring technical talent with skills in mobile client virtualization and mobile application development.

Keith Norbie, vice president of sales and vendor management for Nexus, said as more businesses embrace virtualization and cloud computing, mobile technology is increasingly critical, despite the fact that Nexus doesn't expect to sell the actual mobile hardware.

Impact of iPhone

Technology solution providers largely credit the iPhone, with its touch-screen interface and innovative approach to application distribution, with rewriting business mobility. More employees now expect to use iPhones and smartphones built on Google Android as business tools, even though their companies haven't provided them with the devices, they said.

"From what I can see, the BlackBerry and the iPhone are really the tools to be concerned about today," said Mauro Lollo, cofounder and chief technology officer for Unis Lumin Inc., a technology integrator in Toronto. "It's interesting how consumer trends are affecting the enterprise more and more."

Market research company Gartner Inc. recently predicted the worldwide market for touch-screen devices would hit close to 363 million units in 2010, a 100% increase over 2009 sales of 184 million units in this category. By 2013, Gartner projects that touch-screen mobile devices will account for 58% of all the mobile devices sold in developed technology markets such as North America and Western Europe.

Matt Bossom, program manager for technology solutions with Denver-based security integrator Accuvant Inc. said the BlackBerry remains the most secure mobile messaging platform because of the infrastructure surrounding it. But, he said the iPhone can be very secure if deployed properly.

Accuvant's focus has been on encryption management, which is invaluable for meeting compliance requirements if a mobile device is lost or stolen. "Most organizations that we're talking to do not have those policies in place," Bossom said.

Accuvant has also witnessed the troubling emergence of malware associated with the Android platform, which Bossom considers the most insecure of all smartphone options right now. This is a concern, because the malware is focused on the infrastructure supporting the phones, not on the phone itself, he said.

David Dadian, president of, a solution provider in HoHoKus, N.J., said the carriers selling smartphones often fail to alert customers to the security and management challenges associated with supporting their devices.

"This is not a problem for us, it is a welcome opportunity," said Dadian. "We then explain that the additional support cost will be added to their monthly agreement, then we consult and after doing our due diligence, we discover and define the usage for the devices. We then provide them with a mobile device usage policy. If required, we explain that a BlackBerry server should be implemented along with an antivirus endpoint solution."

Dave Casey, principal at Westron Communications Inc. in Carrolton, Texas, said his team is called upon to integrate BlackBerrys directly into its ShoreTel implementations. Calls aren't simply forwarded; users have virtually all of the advanced UC features made possible through the solution on their handheld device. "We can deliver a very robust solution," he said.

Downs likewise said his team is integrating more mobile devices into Cisco CallManager, which was one motivator for the company's decision to align itself with Sprint. INX is studying the iPhone and the Android mobile platforms closely to assess where they will fit in the future, although there are development challenges.

Microsoft tries to regroup with Windows Phone 7

Another dark horse in smartphone mobility is Microsoft, which is putting a major push behind the forthcoming Windows Phone 7. Microsoft's edge is its desktop dominance and loyal .NET developers, which it courted ardently at the recent MIX10 conference. Microsoft's platform for mobile development is Silverlight, based on native .NET code.

"Microsoft's strength has always been its developer community," said Andrew Brust, chief technology officer for twentysix New York, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner for business intelligence (among other disciplines). "That's really the card they have to play in this game."

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