Convergence of Mobile and Client Computing: The Future is Here

Date:   Tuesday , December 30, 2008

If we look at some facts about converging devices, already the convergence of usage patterns, functional capabilities and application support is blurring the boundaries between computing on notebooks and on other mobile devices. By 2012, separate strategies for these two categories will be obsolete. The demand for a unified approach to all forms of mobile computing is increasing, fueled by improving capabilities of mobile devices, as well as growth in the use of enterprise communication applications. Alongside, the fragmentation of mobile device hardware and operating systems remains a critical barrier to aligning management and security processes with those applied to PCs. However, technology developments are eroding this barrier, and alignment will be progressively possible, with the emergence of tools that can manage across all client-computing devices—from smartphones to PCs. The unification of mobile and client computing will occur in three phases, first encompassing policies, then processes and, finally, tools. Only policies can be unified today.

The Need for Single Approach

Managing, supporting and securing mobile computing requires some duplication of effort. Multiple processes and tools must be used to achieve similar results on different device categories. Most organizations support mobile computing in two apparently disjointed arenas: the highly standardized PC environment and the fragmented world of (smaller) mobile devices, such as PDAs and smartphones. In some cases, mobile devices are not even handled by the IT organization, but are the responsibility of the purchasing department or other business units.

This is not a viable long-term approach. As mobile deployments keep growing in both directions, the scale of problems demands more attention. As capabilities and usage patterns converge, management strategies should converge as well.

Enterprises building a longer-term client computing strategy need to start planning a unified approach to mobile computing— starting with policies and looking for opportunities to align processes as technology developments permit. Once management and security processes are combined, it will become possible for the functions of management and security tools to converge across the device categories.

Device Capabilities Converge

The differences between the capabilities of mobile PCs (notebooks and tablet PCs) and mobile devices (such as phones, smartphones and PDAs) are steadily eroding. Until a few years ago, these categories represented two different realities: Mobile devices were dedicated mostly to voice and personal messaging, and notebooks were used for local data processing (without wireless connectivity).

However, the situation has now changed, as Mobile devices have become small computers, with expanded computing, memory and storage capabilities, as well as rich operating systems and application environments. Also, Most notebooks now ship with embedded wireless capabilities, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 3G or 3.5G connectivity. Many desktop PCs can be easily equipped with wireless external peripherals.

New hybrid devices that fit in between these categories are also reaching the market: ultra-mobile PCs (such as OQO Model O2, Samsung Q1 and HTC Shift) or high-featured PDAs (such as HTC Athena). The functionality and capability boundaries between mobile devices and notebooks are progressively blurring.

Two Categories of Device, One set of Users

Capabilities, applications and usage patterns are also converging across both device categories. Enterprise communication applications — such as e-mail, instant messaging (IM), voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and Internet browsing (including Web 2.0 concepts and models) — are viable and available on both categories of devices. Ongoing improvements in the performance and capabilities of mobile devices mean the number of applications that can be used will continue to grow. Meanwhile, specialized software platforms, such as multichannel access gateways enable mobilization of business applications, as critical business application platforms (from vendors such as SAP and offer mobile extensions to the traditional functionality.

As the range of applications that can run across notebooks and mobile devices increases, so does the pressure from users to run them from both device categories. This brings expectations about consistent levels of service, support, security and application availability across the device categories. To complicate matters further, mobile devices are on the front line of the consumerization of IT Users want a say in the choice of devices they carry and expect to perform personal and work tasks from the same device.

Unrealistic Expectations from IT

Mobile device users want to access more enterprise applications from their devices and mix personal applications and devices in with them. For IT departments, tasked with information security and ensuring the availability of enterprise applications to users, this is an unrealistic request. The same expectations are already difficult to meet on PCs and notebooks, where hardware is highly standardized and management and security tools are more mature. Mobile device hardware is highly diverse and often includes consumer-oriented features, such as digital cameras, media players and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation. Moreover, small mobile devices evolve quickly, which means they present a more-rapidly moving target for management and security.

Barriers to Convergence

As unrealistic as the demands for convergence are, users and many IT managers implicitly expect the management and security approaches for mobile devices and PCs to align. For this to become feasible, a number of critical obstacles need to be overcome:

Device diversity — Mobile devices are highly fragmented, with little standardization of hardware, operating systems, form factors and feature sets. Different ownership/responsibility — In some cases, mobile devices are handled by the purchasing department or other business units, rather than the IT organization.

Extra dependencies — Architectural dependencies and carrier customization for mobile devices vary. In some cases, the degree of variation is driven by network-specific technical requirements; in others, the motivation is to lock in users.

Granularity of control — Compared with the level of control offered by management and security tools for PCs, those targeting mobile devices offer significantly less depth.In many cases, remedial action is restricted to reset or deactivate-type functionality.

Market maturity — The less-established nature of mobile devices, combined with the diversity of hardware and operating system standards, has caused a fragmented market for mobile device management and security tools. Unlike PCs, for which most leading suppliers offer integrated suites, most tools for managing and mobile devices are tactical, point solutions

Progress Ahead

Overcoming the barriers to adopting a common approach to mobile computing will require market evolution and maturity. In the long term, carrier dependencies are likely to erode, as users demand more interoperability. Consolidation in the mobile device management market and initiatives from traditional PC management vendors to support mobility are likely to result in a market characterized by fewer, more-broadly applicable tools.

However, the technical obstacles to convergence should be easier to surmount. For example, improvements in the performance of smartphone processors will enable more devices to exploit virtualization technology as a mechanism for masking hardware diversity. As the effects of hardware fragmentation become less intrusive through the use of virtualization technology and other approaches, it will become easier to manage and secure more types of devices through common tools and instrumentation. Moreover, it will become easier to increase the granularity of control — the need to offer consistently across different device types is a barrier to increasing “depth” of control.

The author is Principal Research Analyst, Gartner