Mobile device menus -- lists of devices that IT will support that are handed out or posted for users -- are a solid way to keep control over the ever-changing and frustrating mobile environment.
With everyone from BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) to Nokia and Motorola -- and now even Apple Computer -- making a must-have device, however, the chances that IT will be able to dictate who can use which devices are getting slimmer.
Having several different devices spread throughout an organization can create headaches, from added cost to lack of resources for support of the various devices. It's also difficult for IT to ensure that the same applications can be used on a wide variety of devices.
"I think IT's life is a nightmare," said Current Analysis analyst Kathryn Weldon, recalling being at a mobility conference and hearing an announcement concerning a new, must-have device. The crowd was pleased, but "I heard nothing but groans and moans from IT."
As devices continue to evolve and more and more are brought into the enterprise, IT needs to ensure that applications are adaptable, according to Gartner Inc. In a recent study, Gartner recommended: "An IT organization should ensure that its software application can adapt to a variety of devices to protect itself against device preference changes on [the part] of users."
But mobility experts say that a mobile device menu can be an excellent way for IT to ensure that they are managing only a certain number of varying devices. And in some cases, it's up to IT to be the bad guys and flat out refuse to support a device that is not on the menu.
According to Daniel Taylor, managing director of the Mobile Enterprise Alliance, creating a device menu should start with IT's determining what activities the devices are needed for and which users need which level of functionality. By creating activity profiles for users, IT can more easily tailor device menus for those specific users.
"Instead of trying to say, 'We've got to get a list,' turn it around and start with activity profiles," Taylor said, adding that with an approach like that, "the menu writes itself."
Jack Gold, principal and founder of J.Gold Associates, a Northborough, Mass.-based research and advisory firm, agreed that determining exactly what the users need a device for is a solid first step.
"You've got to look at what a user is," he said. "IT needs to understand which applications users will run on their devices and determine which is the correct device for that functionality."
For the most part, rank-and-file workers won't care which devices they are allowed to use. They simply want to be connected. C-level executives, on the other hand, want more.
"Enforcing it with those guys is much more problematic," Gold said. "Who's going to say no to them?"
Taylor added, "The issue is always going to be that someone wants more device than they have. You need to have a way to answer their questions."
Simply saying no to users who want a device supported is not the correct approach, Taylor said. Instead, he suggests offering them other options, but options that are still within the confines of the menu and policy. IT departments should say, "This is what we can do for you, and this is what we can't."
And when the user won't follow the mobile device menu's guideline, "The answer should be, 'Well, if you want this, you're going to have to pay for it, and you're not going to be supported,' " Taylor said. "We like to say we support every user on every application, but we just can't do that."
Still, any kind of answer instead of just "no," is easier for users to swallow.
"A qualified yes is better than a blanket no," Taylor said.
For some users, it's a carrot and stick approach, Gold suggested. Companies can offer to pay if a user takes a certain kind of device – that's the carrot. The stick is that if you decide against using an approved device, IT can decide not to support it on the network.
"That's very effective, if you can really enforce it," he said. "That's really the key."
Craig Mathias, principal with Ashland, Mass.-based Farpoint Group, took that one step further.
"I think eventually enterprises are going to buy these [devices] and give them out to users," he said, adding that buying a large number of devices at once not only ensures the organization a price break but also gives it direct control over which devices are used.
According to Gold, though, "The fewer you support, the better off you are. It's always cheaper to support one kind of product as opposed to several kinds of products."
As a rule of thumb, he said, offering three devices is adequate: One low-end device for users who just need the voice capabilities; a middle-of-the-road device for users who need basic Web and email; and a high-end device for users who need to use mobile applications.
"Most organizations could probably get away with two," Gold said.
Still, some companies allow users to bring in whichever kind of device they want, creating a sort of state of anarchy.
"It's the same question we went through with the PC," Gold said -- companies are now mulling the same considerations as with PCs and laptops just a few years ago. "Phones are going to be the same."
Weldon echoed that the device world today is analogous to the PC world of the past. But, she said, enterprises are wising up and broadening their options while also keeping tight rein on the devices that end users can bring in.
One tactic, Weldon suggested, is limiting device choice to a set of operating systems. That way, users can choose a device, as long as it runs that OS. For example, IT could tell end users that it will support any device running BlackBerry or Windows Mobile, but it won't support Symbian or Palm.
"On some level, things are getting a little easier," she said. "If Windows Mobile and RIM become the de facto standards down the road, maybe it doesn't matter all that much."
Along with operating systems, enterprises and IT must also consider carriers. Certain devices are used by certain carriers, so before setting a menu in stone, IT must determine which carrier to align with and ensure that the carrier offers preferred devices.
"The carrier is only going to support certain devices," Gold said.
Another option -- a kind of fallback plan when the number of devices gets too big to handle -- is outsourcing, Weldon suggested. Many providers can manage deployments of multiple devices, making things a bit easier.
Regardless of whether an enterprise decides to outsource device management or opts to manage devices in-house, Gold said, companies have to be willing to adapt and accept future devices, applications and tools. A mobile device menu, with a limited number of devices available to end users, could help.
"IT needs to think about not only what's in place today," Gold said, "but what you'll run six to 12 months from now."