Monday, May 21, 2012

A new way of working?

Published in the Oxford Times (16th May 2012)

Bring your own device

How do you feel about using your own computer or tablet at work? For many this is becoming the reality as the trend for ‘bring your own device’ or BYOD starts to take off.

The benefits and risks of BYOD have been the subject of heated debate amongst the technology community for some time now. Some technology experts resist the idea on the grounds that it is too difficult to manage and secure such a wide range of devices in a business setting. Others see it as an opportunity to boost productivity and cut costs.

A classic early example of the BYOD phenomenon was the iPhone. Just as the technology departments had invested significant sums in providing staff with an email-enabled Blackberry, along came users with their iPhones asking why they couldn’t use these instead.

The response by some at the time was to say they didn’t support iPhone. That becomes a difficult position to take against the type of enthusiasm found amongst Mac users. It certainly doesn’t make sense for business users to find themselves having to carry two smartphones.

Now we have the iPad, Android phones and a whole host of other ‘devices’ that users feel their workplace would benefit from. The consumerization of technology has no doubt been a challenge for technology support staff, but it’s certainly here to stay, even if it isn’t favoured by advocates of a more traditional corporate approach.

Instead of pushing back, now many are now starting to embrace the idea. Certainly asking users to buy, support and maintain their own hardware has the potential to offload some of the work carried out by technical support. The nagging concern is that the diversity risks making life just too complicated.

Fortunately, at the same time as the demand for BYOD has increased, so has the popularity of ‘cloud computing’, a slightly abstract term given to the use of web based applications provided by vast data centres maintained by the likes of Google and Microsoft.

This is a game changer, because it promises to make makes BYOD a viable solution. By providing applications through secure web pages, device maintenance becomes much simplified. All that is required is an internet connection and a browser. The device itself becomes almost unimportant.

A good example of this is the implementation of Google Apps at Oxford Brookes University. Staff and students are now provided with a web based email, calendar and document system powered by Google as opposed to locally maintained servers and disks. By providing these services as web applications the university has also removed the need to configure email software on student or staff computers.

So, here we have three trends which promise to revolutionize the way we work. The first is the popularity of consumer devices. They get thinner and faster, but are in many ways becoming more standard because their job is to serve web applications. That’s driving the second trend which is for business and other organizations to make their applications available over the web. Which in turn will drive the third trend of users being able to work from any location on any device.

The transition from work based technology presents its own challenges. One is how to migrate vast amounts of legacy data to web applications. Another is connecting these devices to corporate technology like the printers and photocopiers, although these too are becoming web enabled.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is to make the applications, the data and the devices more secure. The obvious danger of making web applications available to any device from any location you are also increasing the potential ease with which hackers can target them.

Some technologists are against the consumerization of technology for different reasons entirely. If the likes of Google and Microsoft are providing corporate email and document services to consumer devices, where does the control belong? Who owns the data? How secure and private is that data? What else can it be used for?

The take up of cloud based services by all sectors from charity and education to industry and finance suggest there has been some reassurance on these questions. One way these concerns have been addressed has been for the cloud providers to give finely tuned administrative responsibility to the business. That means the business can still retain control of the data, if not the hardware on which it runs.

Cloud and BYOD advocates even argue that this approach is more secure. By keeping data in the cloud rather than on a device, a stolen laptop or disposed desktop computer no longer carries the same risk of exposing data it once did. This is particularly true as remote wipe technology (where phones can be wiped once reported as stolen) is adopted as standard.

The debate will no doubt continue, but one question remains. If you can bring your own device to work, what will you choose?

Ray Allen is the founder of Third Way IT, an Oxford based provider of Google Apps for Business.