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Evaluate enterprise mobile devices for your workforce

IT buyers must decide among tablets, smartphones or both to enhance worker productivity, as well as the usability, management and security level of the options available.

When evaluating enterprise mobile devices, IT decision-makers should determine which device types and OSes will best serve their users, taking into account their workflows and daily tasks. Decision-makers should also consider how they will manage and secure enterprise mobile devices so they do not put sensitive data at risk.

Tablets vs. smartphones

One of the first decisions is whether to choose smartphones, tablets or both. Although there are other types of devices on the market, ranging from multimedia players to personal digital assistants, smartphones and tablets have emerged as the primary mobile tools workers use to conduct business.

The main difference between the two is size, which is generally measured by display area (the diagonal length between the display's opposite corners). The larger the display area, the better it is for working with more complex apps. By contrast, a smaller device is more portable and easier to manage with one hand. A device's size can also impact such factors as battery life, processing power, memory and storage.

A smartphone's display area usually runs between 4 and 6.4 inches, with larger smartphones often referred to as phablets. In some cases, phablets offer additional features over the basic smartphone, such as a stylus.

Decision-makers should also consider how admins will deploy and manage line-of-business apps; how they'll implement security patches and updates; and what it will take to support enterprise mobile devices throughout their lifespans.

A tablet has a display area between 8 and 13 inches and might support capabilities not available to a smartphone, such as the Split View feature that comes with Apple's iPad. Some tablets, such as the Microsoft Surface Pro, are sometimes referred to as 2-in-1 devices because they support keyboards and provide some of the same functionality as touch-enabled laptops.

When deciding on the types of enterprise mobile devices to implement, decision-makers should take into account:

  • how users will be working with the devices;
  • the types of apps they'll be running;
  • the environments in which they'll be working; and
  • OS platform.

The OS is a particularly important consideration. Currently, the majority of devices run Android, although iOS remains the favorite for most enterprises. Windows has a much smaller presence among consumers and businesses, and the BlackBerry OS has become virtually nonexistent outside of government agencies and certain regulated industries.

Development communities have widely adopted Android and iOS, resulting in many apps available for both platforms. Because Apple led the way into the enterprise, early business apps tended to favor iOS, although this appears to be balancing out.

Organizations that develop their own apps should also evaluate the time and effort it will take to build apps for a specific OS, taking into account such factors as the amount of necessary coding, available development tools, integration into existing DevOps systems and the time it takes to approve and publish apps.

Apps for iOS can take longer to release because Apple exercises much more control over the iOS ecosystem than Google does Android, which is a much more open platform. In fact, device manufacturers can customize Android in whatever way they want, resulting in far more device options than Apple offers.

Because of this flexibility, Android devices are often inconsistent among manufacturers. Customers are also at the mercy of manufacturers to release updates in a timely manner and address known issues. Apple controls all update releases across all of its devices, generally resulting in a more stable and reliable OS.

Although Windows mobile devices are not completely out of the picture, Microsoft has pulled back significantly on its Windows 10 Mobile efforts. However, Microsoft has hinted that the company might continue making enterprise-related enhancements. Either way, Windows phones continue to move toward the same fate as those running the BlackBerry OS. BlackBerry has mostly removed themselves from the competition, as evidenced by its new Android-based phone. Microsoft's Surface tablets are still serious contenders in the enterprise.

At this point, organizations shopping around for enterprise mobile devices will likely want to stick with iOS or Android, except perhaps for the Surface tablet.

Ease of use

No matter what tasks users perform on their mobile devices, they need to be able to run apps and access features easily and quickly, without the burden of poor usability.

In the early days of smartphones, Apple ranked high in usability, with its refined interface and simple access to features. Even now, many enterprises give the edge to Apple when it comes to design. But Android devices have been catching up, with many offering an exceptional user experience. For example, the Sony Xperia L1 smartphone comes with a smooth, rounded frame, so it fits comfortably in the user's hand. The Galaxy Note 8 smartphone provides the S Pen stylus for writing, drawing and working with apps. The Huawei Mate 9 smartphone includes a large 4000mAh battery and power-saving technology to support up to two days of usage.

Android users have an advantage in customizing their devices in a way that best fits their needs. They can also download apps from nonapproved stores, as well as sideload apps onto their devices. Such flexibility can make it easier for them to do their jobs and potentially enhance productivity, but it can also increase support overhead and security risks, especially when it comes to installing unsecure apps. Fortunately, Google and some of the Android manufacturers have been coming up with better security options for protecting devices and mitigating these risks.

With Apple devices, users are fairly locked into the iOS ecosystem. Plus, users can take advantage of multi-device capabilities, such as the Continuity features, which allow users to hand off data from one Apple device to another. Even the Continuity features can represent a security risk, however.

Regardless of product differences, enterprise mobile devices should be able to run the business apps necessary for users to get their jobs done, while allowing them to perform those jobs as efficiently as possible. Decision-makers need to understand how users work and which device features are necessary for them to be productive. Some jobs might require better quality cameras or sound capabilities. Other jobs might rely on devices that can hold up under harsh conditions or that have a long battery life. For other jobs, necessary functions might include extensive data entry or messaging capabilities.

IT must be able to centrally manage any mobile devices that employees use to conduct business. The devices should come with built-in management capabilities and, if applicable, be able to integrate into the organization's enterprise mobility management (EMM) platform.

Apple took an early lead in EMM by building management features directly into iOS, starting with Exchange ActiveSync policy integration. The company quickly followed with mobile device management APIs and an MDM protocol, making it possible for third-party vendors to incorporate iOS device management into their EMM platforms. Apple has been steadily improving the MDM features with every OS release.

Android products were much slower to incorporate EMM capabilities, but eventually, several manufacturers started to build enterprise-friendly features into their devices. Samsung, for example, came out with its Samsung Approved for Enterprise program, as well as Samsung Knox, which included APIs for both managing and securing the devices.

These efforts provided no cohesive tool to manage Android OSes across manufacturers, so Google released Android for Work, a set of management features built directly into the core OS, starting with Android 5.0 Lollipop. The Android for Work program has since morphed into a core component of the OS.

Organizations that implement Windows 10 Mobile devices can use Microsoft tools and technologies to manage them, including Group Policy, PowerShell, Windows Management Instrumentation and System Center Configuration Manager. Windows 10 also provides an MDM client built directly into the OS, making it possible to manage Windows 10 devices from any EMM platform.

Decision-makers should also consider how admins will deploy and manage line-of-business apps; how they'll implement security patches and updates; and what it will take to support enterprise mobile devices throughout their lifespans.

Security

One of the most important parts of mobilizing a workforce is ensuring both device and data protection. Many enterprises consider iOS devices to be more secure because of how closely Apple controls its OS and app infrastructure, but both iOS and Android can be vulnerable to attack, as can Microsoft mobile devices.

One notable Android disadvantage is that hackers can more easily access the source code. Plus, there are many more Android devices in use, making Android a potentially more lucrative target for cybercriminals. As a result, a lot more malware has targeted Android devices than iOS or Windows devices.

Apple and Microsoft can also better control security patch rollout. That said, there is little information available about how vendors prioritize security issues, especially with Apple. Because the company is so secretive about its approach, it's difficult to know whether it addresses all security threats. Apple can at least push out updates to all its devices when necessary, as can Microsoft, although not quite as efficiently.

Keeping Android devices up to date is much more difficult because there are so many versions of the OS in use and so many vendors control those versions. Even though Google regularly releases security updates, there is no way for users to know when other Android vendors will apply those updates, if at all. Android also makes it easier for vendors to modify the OS code in ways that can introduce vulnerabilities.

Despite all this, Google has made significant strides when it comes to Android security, as have vendors such as Samsung and BlackBerry, resulting in Android devices that many consider to be as secure as iOS devices, if not more.

Editor's note

With extensive research into mobile devices, TechTarget editors focused this series of articles on vendors with considerable current market share that offer both smartphones and tablets available in the U.S. Our research included Gartner and TechTarget surveys.

This was last published in December 2017

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