Are Smartphones a Smart Idea for Small Businesses?

As a student, I remember watching reruns of “Star Trek” in my college dormitory with other University of California matriculates, and yes, I was a bit of a geek for sure! My favorite phrase uttered episode after episode was, “Kirk to Enterprise. Come in, Enterprise,” and with a simple flick of the wrist, a well-equipped Federation personnel would “beam” Captain Kirk back to Enterprise from wherever he was. Maybe Gene Roddenberry and the other geniuses behind the 1960s hit were really technology gurus and visionaries. Think about it; Captain Kirk talking directly to someone on another space vessel, or even in another galaxy, via a live connection on a wide screen display. Does this remind you of Cisco TelePresence perhaps? What about the electronic “pads” the yeoman was always handing to Captain Kirk to sign-off on. Did Steve Jobs have that vision in mind as he fleshed out the first iPad design? Maybe the most prescient device on the show was the communicator. Could it have been a precursor to today’s smartphone? I don’t think Roddenberry, even in his wildest dreams, imagined the direction of today’s smartphones; a device powerful enough to allow users to play word games with friends while talking to their mother and searching a website for a great place for sushi. Interestingly enough, it was Canada where both of these wonders were born.The smart phone revolution was of course pioneered by Canadian giant Research In Motion (RIM), and I’m not sure not even the company’s corporate strategists could have foreseen how deep the insertion would be when Blackberry first hit the market. The term “CrackBerry” snidely referred to those individuals who, even with a crowbar, couldn’t be separated from their BlackBerry devices. RIM enjoyed a tremendous advantage in being first to market, and their legions of converts who eagerly consumed everything BlackBerry were harbingers of a new era of business mobility. The days of “out of office” greetings were numbered as any smart, aggressive organization knew that if they were more accessible to their customers and prospects the likelihood of closing business and creating agile customer service was astronomically better than those not embracing the mobility trend.In the case of business, as well as in the wild, the hunter often becomes the hunted. Even though RIM had a pretty strong foothold on the fledgling market, others soon came to dislodge the leader from the mountaintop. Even PDA makers such as Palm, Inc.,with their Treo devices, jumped into the fray after seeing their product was becoming obsolete. Soon others with new operating systems like the Apple iPhone and the Google-backed Android device were introduced to the market. Of course, it wouldn’t really be a party without Microsoft, who has been trying to crack the smartphone and mobility market for several years with their Windows Phone. Though lagging behind in feature set, the Windows Phone was thought to have a slight advantage in ease of incorporation into full Windows-based environments. However the comparative ease of the competition to do the same, as well as weaker Windows Phone feature sets, kept Microsoft on the outside looking in for the most part; until now. Industry watchers are carefully keeping an eye on the next iteration of the Windows Phone operating system, Windows Phone 8. Microsoft has placed some heavy bets on this product touting the seamless user interface between the phone and the desktop or laptop. Time will tell whether this strategy will be a winner or a disaster.Today’s smartphone market offers a plethora of options which makes it difficult to point to one that is considered to be the BEST. In truth, there may not be one universal choice because the needs and wants of small and mid-sized business are all over the board and there is no “typical” network configuration. However, I think we can agree there are many options that most SMB organizations could use in the realm of the smartphone feature set. Being able to conduct business on the fly is the most compelling and common reason small businesses are thinking about the smartphone and how it fits into their overall plan. Sure, enterprise businesses are in the same boat, but the SMB space may well have more agility and flexibility in their business model to accommodate a shift like this. More and more, there are small start-ups and sole proprietors that can take advantage of the power smartphones combined with cloud solutions that eliminate the need for an onsite server and suite of applications. Solutions like Microsoft’s Office 365 allows users to have all of their organizational information, email, databases, intranet, voice, and IM communications handled in the cloud and accessible anywhere on their smartphone device of choice.This type of configuration and smartphone integration works well for businesses that have a small office or a home office, but it could also work well for businesses looking to cut costs and not reinvest in expensive hardware, software, and personnel to support it. However, there are numerous pitfalls around security and device access.Addressing the former, with the ease of connection for a growing number of smartphone options, the drawback can be the potential for security breach. What if the device is lost or stolen? What if an employee goes to a competitor but siphons off critical client information before they leave? What if the Internet connection the device is accessing is hacked leading a malevolent outsider to access to your internal network? These are all critical points to consider. Most smartphones are only able to access the network via a secure connection through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) tunnel, for example. These tunnels are a clientless variety called SSL, which is a browser-based connection that leverages the secure sockets layer in Internet Explorer. In other words, it’s not like the old VPN connection that required a client to be downloaded, had to be maintained, and had to be accessed only from the machine it was loaded onto. The clientless SSL version can be used from any compliant browser, even an airport or hotel kiosk.It’s imperative to understand how smartphones are able to access the network safely and securely as most employees want access to a BYOD environment; bring your own device. These scenarios are playing out at every rung on the business size ladder, but the same security issues remain as mentioned above. How to properly deal with the plethora of devices accessing the network? I hate to introduce another acronym, but Mobile Device Management (MDM) may well be the ticket to solving that riddle. Between cloud-based solutions and on-premise options, MDM providers allow organizations to securely manage both company owned and employee owned devices. With compliance to federal regulations an ever changing issue, these MDM solutions can help provide proof that the entity’s data is safe and protected. They can even track the location of the device, and if it is lost or stolen, give an administrator the ability to lock it down or even wipe it clean of all corporate data remotely. That gets a bit tricky when dealing with devices owned by employees, but some of the MDM suites will allow for the removal of only corporate data, leaving the pictures of your cute dog or adorable niece intact.So there are plenty of options and choices around smart phones for the SMB crowd. There are too many choices, and too many individual needs and wants for me to recommend or point towards any one device. Regardless of the option, the need for security and management is something that cannot be ignored. It is important to do a thorough evaluation of your needs and how your budget can handle all the key aspects of the solution. A smartphone as a key tool in business for any number of users, but I often wonder what will they look like in the future. I’d be thrilled if devices of the future could materialize a good cup of coffee to me like the food replicators in the Star Trek universe! Live long and prosper, and be mobile!

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