There's no such thing as a 'business cell phone'

JD Power announced today that the Apple's iPhone ranked No. 1 in customer satisfaction for "smartphones in business," beating out LG and BlackBerry.

But wait, everybody knows the iPhone is a consumer device, and not ready for business. It's insecure! It has no keyboard! It has no back-end support! How can this be?

The JD Power results should force us to recognize a new reality: There's no such thing as a business phone anymore.

The business-employee divide

In every office, factory or other workplace, every piece of equipment exists somewhere on a scale, with a device that "benefits only company" at one extreme and "benefits only employee" at the other.

Company servers, PCs, and landline phones are clearly business equipment, as they're selected, provisioned, installed, and serviced by the company or service contractor for business purposes only. The user has no claims on these devices.

Eyeglasses, clothing, jewelry, wristwatches, heart pace-makers, hearing aids, wallets and other personal devices are the personal property of each employee. The company has no rights over or claims to any of them.

Where does a cell phone fit?

In ancient times (the 1980s and 1990s), cell phones were rare and expensive. If a company wanted executives or sales people to have cell phones, they had to be provisioned. As phones gained more capabilities and began resembling PCs, IT departments treated them as such. Like PCs, phones were (and still are) purchases based on company criteria, and for company purposes of security, data and application access and serviceability.

The industry has responded with all kinds of back-end solutions to facilitate corporate objectives. Companies like Palm, RIM and Microsoft and many others have developed phones, server software and other products designed to support the notion that a phone is a business tool to be provisioned and supported like a PC.

A study called "The Device Dilemma," commissioned by Good Technology and published last month, found that more than one-quarter of enterprises have already experienced "security breaches due to employees bringing unauthorized devices."

Nearly half of IT decision makers "would allow users to choose their own devices if they could be assured of security and configuration." The survey found that nearly 80% of companies saw a rise in the number of staff wanting to "bring their own devices into the workplace," the overwhelming majority of which specified iPhones.

The phrasing of and responses to these questions reveals a shockingly outdated view about the relationship between a company, an employee and the cell phone in every employee's pocket.

Do companies have a mechanism for strip-searching employees as they come to work? Full-body scans? Thugs frisking staff in the lobby?

On what planet do employees carry personal cell phones to work only when the IT department "allows" it?

Meanwhile, back on Earth

While all this activity was going on inside IT departments and in the industry, powerful changes were simultaneously taking place in the culture at large: Cell phones have become part of us. They have become profoundly personal.

A survey released this week by Samsung Telecommunications America found that about 3 in 10 Americans would rather give up sex than cell phones for a year, if forced to make a choice. (Women said this more than men. Go figure.)

I've written previously about the extreme connection people now form with their cell phones. The point is that people view cell phones in the same category as their clothing or other personal items, not as company equipment that their employer's IT department allows or doesn't allow.

Phones like the iPhone are strengthening the phenomenon. The user-friendly interface and amazing App Store create enormously powerful emotional bonds between human and gadget. They also radically accelerate the speed with which cell phones themselves evolve new capabilities.

As a result of this new reality, IT departments would be well advised to abandoned antiquated notions about what a cell phone is, who owns it, who chooses it and how it will be used by employees while they're sitting at their desks.

IT departments should immediately get on board with the new reality about cell phones. Specifically:

* Nearly every employee carries a personal cell phone, which is increasingly likely to support Wi-Fi Internet connectivity, applications and end-user data storage.

* There is no sure way to predict what the capabilities of phones 6 months from now will acquire.

* Purchasing phones for employees is often a losing strategy. Many employees won't carry, charge, share the number for or use company cell phones.

* Supporting every major brand of user-purchased phones with backend encryption, security and data access capability is a needless cost and time-sink for many companies.

* Company data stored on phones is a risk no matter what. Phones are lost, stolen, synchronized and shared, and data residing on local storage is vulnerable.

* The psychological wall between work and personal time is gone. People work at home, and do personal tasks at work. You can create user policies and train until you're blue in the face, but users will still use their cell phones to socialize, play, browse and shop from the office.

* Social networks cross all barriers. Employees have access all the time. Twitter requires only SMS. Facebook is accessible on phones.

It's time to stop fighting against the cultural tidal wave of cell phone obsession, against the hockey-stick growth curve in cell phone capabilities and against the growing complexity of security, data, devices and the Internet.

It's time to zero-base the entire problem.

Let's all understand that cell phones are part of the employee's body -- inseparable and on the other side of the company-employee boundary. They have powerful capabilities now, and unpredictable capabilities in the future. They will evolve faster than your IT infrastructure.

Sure, vertical-use gadgets with cell phone capabilities are necessary and valuable. And some companies will still have very good reasons to do things the old fashioned way, provisioning phones and supporting them under a client-server model.

But for most companies, and nearly all employees, there is simply no such thing as a business cell phone.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike by e-mail at, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

This story, "There's no such thing as a 'business cell phone'" was originally published by Computerworld.

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