The global mobile workforce is expected to grow by more than 20 percent in the next four years, with 878 million mobile workers toiling away on laptops, handhelds and cell phones by 2009, according to a recent study by IDC. But as the number of mobile workers rises, the research firm is sounding an alarm that IT staffers assigned to support them may not be ready.
IT managers today often don't deal with the complexities associated with managing, securing and supporting handheld devices and applications for mobile workers. Current spending levels on software to provision mobile workers and support them once they are working has been less than robust, according to two analysts.
"Mobile management tools have made sense for IT to deploy for many, many years but only a small portion of companies are using them, because they don't want to spend the money," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner in Stamford, Conn.
Tools to manage mobile devices remotely, make sure the software on them is updated and provide other support can cost $50 per user, he said. While installing the tools can "keep things operational and avoid unexpected costs with a bug or something else companies just wait until a train wreck before using them."
As a result, companies such as iAnywhere Solutions (now a subsidiary of Sybase), Intellisync and dozens of smaller vendors that offer mobile solutions have often "languished in the market, waiting to be acquired," he said.
One complicating factor, Dulaney said, is that virtual private networks (VPN), which are offered by hundreds of vendors, are proprietary and inefficient, meaning few companies use them.
IDC analyst Kevin Burden, one of the authors of the recent study, said interest in mobile support has increased as IT shops try to figure out what they should be doing.
"IT managers are starting to realize that mobile [technology] support is different from supporting a laptop in an office," Burden said. "IT departments have traditionally just wanted it to be easy and have been building mobile solutions piecemeal.
"Cost is the biggest barrier to providing mobile IT resources, since IT managers have demands coming from all over," he added. He argued that over-the-air support has to be given more consideration than it has received so far.
Sometimes, for instance, IT shops find that offering wireless e-mail is easy, Burden said -- but that doesn't necessarily hold true for other functions mobile workers need. "Staying connected on the road through e-mail and voice -- now, that's really easy. But if IT's talking about the process of taking data that runs inside the company and manipulating it and changing it from the road, that's not easy," he said.
Despite those concerns, some IT managers are already taking the issue seriously.
"We have about 60 percent of our workforce not working at fixed offices, so [provisioning and support] is an important issue for us," said as Irving Tyler, CIO at Quaker Chemical in Conshohocken, Pa. Those workers use a VPN for remote e-mail connections and have access to a Web conferencing tool Quaker implemented for them. The company has also deployed authentication technology for users in the field and locks down their laptops so they can't install unauthorized software.
"To be honest, this is all we've ever needed," Tyler said. "We try to keep things simple, and in general we really don't have many problems."
The IDC study not only looked at the overall growth in the number of mobile workers but also at an expected rise in the demands on those workers -- such as a salesperson who might need to use a wireless device to check a corporate database for immediate availability of products.
Expectations for mobile workers and managers will be higher in the next few years for things such as how quickly an e-mail is answered or how often, Burden said. Fifteen years ago, workers weren't expected to answer e-mails constantly or be connected for continuous availability.
"Now you can no longer use certain excuses," Burden said. "Lawyers have actually told me that they can no longer use the excuse, 'I was in court.' Those kinds of excuses don't fly anymore."
The study looked at growth rates by regions of the world, indicating that the mobile worker population in the U.S. will reach 113 million in 2009, growing nearly 3 percent in each of the next three years.
That growth could be stymied, however, by several factors. "Security can always ... stifle mobile adoption within an enterprise," IDC said in the study. And there could also be a "backlash among workers who [don't want to be] on duty 24/7."