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IT solution providers mobilize around mobility

Smartphones and tablets are reshaping IT management, security and vertical applications strategies.

Although very few IT solution providers actually sell smartphones or media tablets, such as Apple's game-changing iPad, they can no longer ignore them in their solution development or enterprise support policies.

"By the end of the year, people [will] really need a good strategy in place, if not sooner," said David Bennett, president of IT solution provider Connections for Business in Hollywood, Fla. "You need to set your own standards and educate [customers] about the risks. Most companies will prefer to accept those risks in exchange for the value of innovation," he said.

There is no denying that 2010 has been a game-changing year for mobile technology, despite the global recession. Research firm Gartner Inc. reported record sales for the smartphone category in the third quarter of 2010, with more than 81 million units sold. Those figures include sales for the Research in Motion BlackBerry, the Apple iPhone and various devices based on the fast-growing Google Android platform. Gartner is predicting 30% year-over-year growth for the entire year from a unit-sales standpoint.

The smartphone category could feel pressure in 2011 as more media tablets reach the market, inspired by the success of the iPad. Gartner forecasts that 54.8 million media tablets will be sold next year.

Support for mobile devices
The extent to which solution providers plan to support these platforms varies -- ranging from full-fledged vertical applications development projects to security policies and solutions for new managed services. As an example, Connections for Business has revised its managed services to set specific boundaries around what it can and cannot support when it comes to smartphones and tablets. For now, it is focused on supporting just Exchange Server connections for email, calendars and address books, Bennett said.

"I don't think this position will be appropriate in the future," he said. That's why Bennett said building a managed services offering that supports multiple mobile devices is a priority from a business development standpoint.

"We are looking for a good management platform that would cover all these platforms. Specifically, we want to take remote control of the device, to push policies out as needed," he said.

"We are not specifically selling iPads and smartphones or writing software for them," said Dave Casey, CEO of Westron Communications, a network integrator in Frisco, Texas. "But we are recommending organizations embrace these interfaces and these apps as we drive sales of all the rest of our unified communications portfolio. We are looking to partner with software developers that will bring unique applications to the platforms that we can present to our user community."

Not just for email
Although smartphones are considered to be primarily communications devices, the larger viewing display afforded by tablets is prompting new sorts of application discussions.

These tablets will be like desktops in the future. So, I have the same sorts of discussions as I would have with someone considering virtual desktop technology," said Guy Baroan, founder and CEO of Baroan Technologies, a solution provider based in Elmwood Park, N.J.

Many executives are looking to the iPad as a presentation tool, a note-taking alternative and a method of staying connected with records that previously they would carry in paper format, said Matt Bossom, solutions engineer for Denver-based security VAR Accuvant Inc.

The motivation is simple: They can have access to the latest information possible. Some medical practices are evaluating iPad tablets to enable secure remote access to electronic health records, Bossom said.

From a security standpoint, Accuvant recommends the Wi-Fi-only version of the device, not only to block roaming costs but also to ensure that its clients have the strongest possible security and encryption options.

Tablet and smartphone compliance concerns
Solution providers need to be conscious of the compliance and policy implications associated with supporting tablets and smartphones, said Derek Downs, vice president of advanced collaboration solutions division of network integrator INX Inc. in Houston. "We can support them technically quite easily, but the policy and governance issues are harder to handle," Downs said. "This is not a technical decision. This requires business input."

That's why, in many cases, it will be the users themselves who manage these devices, not internal IT departments, said Accuvant's Bossom, which has implications not only for application interface design but also for training. It will also have an impact relating to where solution providers should direct their sales prospects, he said.

"The support is being pushed out right to the very edge," he said. "The people using the apps need to know how to support them."

Building consumer device skills the grassroots way
Another challenge that solution providers will face is shelling out the money to get their technical teams up to snuff on all the different devices. These consumer gadgets aren't exactly covered by traditional channel programs, which means skills development will be an investment.

"This is part of the big clash that is occurring between consumer devices and typical business devices," said INX's Downs.

When it comes to application development, Downs said many of the same skills that apply for Java applications programming are applicable for smartphones and tablets based on the Android platforms. That's one reason Android is gaining ground and INX is placing weight on this platform.

"You can't build any Web-based application now with the expectation that it will be viewed from just a desktop or a laptop. You need to make sure it is supported by a range of these devices," Downs said.

The power of the software development community is also the reason that solution providers should not underestimate the potential cloud of the Windows Phone 7 platform as smartphones and media tablets become just another client computing option in business environments, he said.

About the expert
Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist in the New York area with more than 20 years experience. Her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Clancy was previously editor at Computer Reseller News, a B2B trade publication covering news and trends about the high-tech channel.

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