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Are Your Mobile Devices Working For Your Business?

An employee who is not very knowledgeable about Windows Mobile can easily change the important device settings

In recent times, mobile devices have become quite powerful and feature rich and are getting attention from consumers and businesses alike. Faster processors, larger RAM and flash memories along with multiple communication technologies have made mobile devices suitable to deploy and run business applications. Such advancements are helping businesses embrace mobility to improve their processes thereby increasing revenues and efficiency, while lowering operational costs. Mobile device is an important component of any mobile solution. There are wide-varieties of mobile devices to choose from. Most commonly used enterprise mobile devices are based on Windows Mobile operating system from Microsoft and it has become a preferred platform used by companies around the world.

Problem

Windows Mobile is a feature packed and versatile operating system. There is a lot an enterprise can exploit out of this platform. But most of the enterprises don't need all of the available features. Giving a powerful mobile device to mobile workforce can sometimes actually become a serious concern as workers might use the device for personal use rather than for the business. Besides, companies spend lots of money and effort in developing and deploying business applications. They want to ensure that the workers use the solution to its full potential in favor of the business. Following are some of the challenges that should be addressed to maximize the benefits of a solution that involve mobile devices

  • Entertainment on the job

    All Windows Mobile devices contain built-in applications like browsers, games, phone etc. all of which can easily distract a mobile worker. A game of Solitaire can waste crucial working hours. Personal phone calls and SMS can eat away the worker's productivity and will surely cost money to the company. Any audit policy for such usage again costs resources and money. All of this is certainly not favorable to the businesses.

  • Maintenance Problems

    An employee who is not very knowledgeable about Windows Mobile can easily change the important device settings (e.g. Network, system files etc.). Such intentional or unintentional manipulation of device settings can cause the business critical application to fail. Imagine a user turning off the WiFi on the device, while the application is transferring critical data to the server. Results can be costly in terms of money and time. Too much manipulation can "corrupt" the device, which has to be returned to the IT department, again causing loss of productivity and wastage of IT resources. While the device is with IT, the mobile worker might be sitting idle, waiting for the device to be returned to him/her. Loss! Loss! Loss!

  • Installation of Third-party applications

    There are thousands of third-party applications (for personal and gaming purposes) available on the Internet these days. These applications can be easily installed on a Windows Mobile device. Installations of unauthorized third-party applications for personal use not only wastes the mobile worker's time but also can also disrupt the device operation if the third-party application malfunctions or consumes too much of system resources (CPU and Memory). Besides, those applications can contain malware and viruses, which might pose a security risk to the organization. These viruses are as disruptive and fast spreading similar to the ones prevalent on the desktop PC environment.

  • Physical Data Security

    Business applications are designed to work online or offline. If connectivity is not available the application goes back to offline mode. This makes it possible for mobile worker to continue working, until the connectivity is achieved again. In offline mode the application stores the data locally. If the data is sensitive, it is mostly encrypted. This saves the data from misuse incase the device is lost or stolen. But once a device is stolen the thief can connect the device with a PC via ActiveSync and copy the data files out. Desktop-based hacking tools can be used to decipher/decrypt the data. There should be way to block the user from copying the data from a device.

Solutions

Locking down general purpose Windows Mobile devices into kiosk mode can solve the above problems. By locking down the devices, the enterprise can restrict the user to launch and use only "approved" applications and functionality. e.g., a company can provision the mobile devices so that the workers cannot install third-party applications on their own. Another example would be to enable Data Only connection over the phone network, while blocking the voice calls.

There are two alternative methods to lock down mobile devices:

Method 1: Building Custom Kiosk devices

This approach requires an enterprise to build custom kiosk devices that do just what enterprise needs. Windows CE operating system is most commonly used to develop custom devices. This solution has the following advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages

  • Since requirements are tied to the hardware, the enterprise can precisely control features of the device.

Disadvantages

  • It is very costly to develop a hardware device from scratch. This might not be possible at all for small and medium sized companies as it requires huge upfront investments.
  • It does not make business sense to build your own hardware if the required volumes are low, say if only a few hundred devices are needed
  • Custom device will need custom application development. Number of software developers for a custom platform will be very low if any.
  • Once custom hardware is designed and built, it is very costly to modify or upgrade it. This is a very common problem with this approach.

Method 2: Lockdown mobile devices with tools like SureLock Studio

SureLock Studio gives enterprises the power to easily lock down off-the-shelf or ruggedized Windows Mobile devices. An administrator can lock down the devices with kiosk configuration generated by SureLock Studio. A kiosk configuration contains which features and applications are "approved" for mobile worker's use. These configurations are generated in the form of CAB files that makes it very easy to deploy them on large number of devices. Kiosk CAB installation works in the same way as any other application CAB. Over the air (OTA) deployment can happen seamlessly and quickly without any user intervention.

Following are the advantages of locking down Windows Mobile devices with SureLock Studio:

Advantages

  • Save costs: Enterprises can buy off-the-shelf (HTC/ASUS/iPaq etc) or Ruggedized Windows Mobile devices (Symbol/Motorola/Intermec) and deploy the enterprise business applications on them. SureLock will make sure that the worker is restricted to only use "approved" functionality of the device.
  • Choice of devices: Since all Windows Mobile devices are based on the same core operating system, companies have the choice to select a device model based on the specific features that the model may have. The business application will work on any device model with a little or no modifications.
  • In future enterprises can modify the kiosk configuration to allow or disallow new features or applications. For e.g. the company might decide later on to allow mobile workers to use the devices for making phone calls. A new SureLock kiosk configuration can be deployed with the phone feature enabled.

Disadvantages

  • Since SureLock does software lock down of the device, hard-resetting the device to factory defaults (clean boot) will cause the loss of kiosk settings. There are a couple of workarounds. Kiosk cab can be kept in the storage card along with an Autorun.exe. After a reboot, the kiosk configuration can be installed which will again lock down the device. Besides some ruggedized mobile device vendors (like Symbol/Motorola) have support for companies to build their own Writable ROM images. Kiosk configuration can be stored on in the ROM and can be installed automatically after a clean boot.

Conclusion

Using a tool like SureLock Studio makes the process of locking down Windows Mobile devices easy and painless. Enterprises can control the usage of their mobile devices and allow them to be used by the mobile workers only for the benefit of company.

More Stories By Onkar Singh

The author is the founder of 42Gears, developer of affordable Mobile Device Management tools.

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