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Taking It Personally

As the line blurs between consumer and corporate technology, companies may have to rethink how they equip mobile workers.

Why not let them use whatever technology they like? Proponents of that approach argue that companies that outsource IT needs can simply have their vendors reconfigure support for a broader range of technologies; in other cases, users may create their own shadow community, with IT sharing what it knows about the best practices for, say, securing certain applications. “Companies want employees to be as productive as possible,” says Josh Holbrook, director of enterprise research at The Yankee Group. “If employees are comfortable with the iPhone, then they will use a lot more of the applications available to them, which is good for business.”

Netbook Value

While they may pose certain managerial challenges, the latest mobile devices also offer plenty of advantages. The advent of smaller, lighter netbooks, for example, represents an acknowledgement that for all their versatility and power, most computers are used for checking e-mail and surfing the Web. In order to do those activities from their couches, backyards, or even the local funeral home, consumers have been willing to see high-end microchips and optical drives jettisoned from the devices. The price point ($299 to $499) has also been a big draw.

These machines “have some limitations, but they’ve struck a chord with consumers,” says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. “With corporate budgets where they are, CFOs will have to rein in their IT spending going forward. Netbooks have given them a glimpse of what is possible.”

In turn, the industry has gotten a peek at its own future. Research firm iSuppli projects that global PC shipments will rise just 4.3% this year, but that notebooks will get a 15% boost, largely thanks to netbooks.

In addition to the lower price point, companies find netbooks appealing precisely because of the functionality they lack. At Comtech Telecommunications, “we’ve found them to be ideal for employees who travel internationally,” says Michael Porcelain, CFO of the satellite-communications equipment maker. “We don’t have to worry technical information that is prohibited from leaving the country.”

Working from Phone
Smartphones offer an expanding array of applications — e-mail, Web access, contacts, address book, calendar — on an even more portable device. And, they can also make phone calls. The BlackBerry remains the top choice among business users, thanks in part to its security features. Apple’s iPhone represents a major advance of consumer technology into the corporate world, where its substitution of a touchpad for a keyboard has touched off hot debate.

“For businesspeople, the iPhone can be cumbersome,” maintains Ernest Scheidemann, CFO of software maker Allen Systems Group. “If you’re writing a lot of e-mail, it’s easy to send it to the wrong person.” The BlackBerry’s Qwerty keyboard is often preferred by frequent typers, although Research in Motion also offers a version with a touchpad. Needless to say, the new Palm Pre offers both.

The pace of innovation is such that the smartphone of the not-too-distant future may have just as much functionality as netbooks do — if not more. Companies risk a perpetual game of catch-up in establishing appropriate rules. “We need to come up with a policy restricting USB drives, but we haven’t done it,” says Karen Cambray, CFO of Zeemote Inc. “I use them all the time. I’ve got one in my purse right now.” Zeemote, it’s worth noting, makes wireless joysticks, proving that even companies at the forefront of technology have a hard time setting their own limits on mobility.

Josh Hyatt is a contributing editor of CFO.

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