Out and about

The mobile workforce is becoming a reality, but the Middle East still lags when it comes to advanced deployments – despite high demand for mobile devices. Eliot Beer looks at the shift to smartphones.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  June 2, 2007

Unfortunately for Microsoft, it is now battling against not just Nokia's popular Symbian offering, but one of the undisputed technology successes of recent years - the BlackBerry. Credited as the first company to crack mobile email usability, Research In Motion (RIM) has seen its BlackBerry devices become as ubiquitous in US and European enterprises as the iPod is for teenagers throughout the world. And - unfortunate patent issues notwithstanding - RIM's success seems assured, for now.

RIM's Middle East and African partner, Emitac Mobile Solutions (EMS), expects to have anywhere up to ten operator tie-ups just in the Middle East by the end of 2007.

The sell for operators is obvious - in addition to revenue from the devices themselves, BlackBerry devices will also deliver a continuous stream of data revenue.

For enterprises, the cachet of BlackBerry is clear, but EMS CEO Babar Khan says that customers which are not familiar with the brand - or the concept of mobility - often need some education in the implications of mobilising email.

"There are two sets of customers for BlackBerry - first, the globally-aware organisations which have very strict policies around security and mobility, so there are no issues there," says Khan. "Then there are organisations which are adopting this technology as new - in this case, we have to give their IT department an overview training programme, where we make them aware of the IT policy require- ments for BlackBerry, and the things they need to be aware of when they're managing customers on their Exchange Server."

BlackBerry, Nokia and Microsoft are all pushing the benefits of mobility hard, but there is now the prospect that they may have been too successful for their own good. Following the increase in interest in always-connected devices, laptop vendors are now starting to integrate cellular technology into their products.

GSM and 3G data cards have long been available, but vendors such as Sony, Toshiba and Fujitsu-Siemens now offer ultra-portable devices incorporating GPRS or UMTS (3G) radios, allowing smoother and faster connections to cellular networks.

Andrew Lamb, Middle East manager for volume products at Fujitsu Siemens, says he sees the potential to tie the vendor's 3G-equipped notebooks (the only ones on the market he says) into bundles with telecoms operators.

"What we'd like to do is tie up with telcos, which is quite difficult, especially if you're dealing with a monopoly," says Lamb. "But there are areas in the region where the telco market has expanded, and operators actually do want to tie up contracts bundled with laptops - which is good for the telco. The retailers selling the laptops can also make some money out of it - and the customer gets a personal service, and isn't forced to use expensive Wi-Fi services in hotels for example."

The selling point for cellular-equipped laptops is the increased ease of use and greater flexibility in terms of applications compared to smartphones; the flipside is of course the laptop's greater size and shorter battery life. And EMS's Khan isn't too concerned about the laptop threat.

"Everyone is going to carry a mobile phone - it's what that phone can do that's the question," says Khan. "If it can give you normal voice and text, and in addition if it can take care of your email, load enterprise applications, and so on - it's great value . It's really about how much you need this - if someone is spending hours on the road writing emails, then perhaps then they will look at ultra-portable laptops as an option."

Issues around security are a concern - some research suggests people are around three times more likely to lose a phone than a laptop. When these lost phones contain sensitive data, and access to corporate systems such as email, the potential cost to an organisation in terms of exposure to risk is significantly higher than just the loss of a contact book.

Even vendors acknowledge the critical nature of security - Nokia's Devassy says that not only are phones a risk when lost, but malware is an increasing concern.

"We are starting to see more viruses for mobile devices; as they become more business-focused, there will be more attention from the hackers," says Devassy. "Right now mobile phones are personal devices - what data can you get from that? But as soon as it becomes a corporate tool, you'll start to see a lot more value in targeting the mobile device."

Security vendors such as Symantec and Pointsec, among others, have now moved into mobile devices and are providing solutions against mobile malware, and to mitigate loss. But the general perception is for Middle East enterprises security issues are a lower priority than they should be.

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