Offer workers menu of handheld options

Computer World –

Analysts urge companies to pay for their workers' handheld devices to guard against security problems and to control the costs of supporting them.

But such a system can get expensive, since some workers have limited needs, while others use cell phones with Web browsers, as well as pagers and personal digital assistants (PDA).

"Users may be given far more devices than desired," said Gartner Group Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney at the recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2000. "This could certainly break the bank."

To help control costs, analysts at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner recently began urging corporations to set up a "cafeteria-style" plan for mobile capital costs, similar to the health care plan options that many companies offer workers.

The cafeteria plan works this way: Each user is given a budget amount -- say, $1,000 for handheld devices. The total might vary widely, depending on the employee's job function. Then, the user chooses from a list of products that the information technology help desk will support.

The plan was a new concept to many of the IT managers who heard about it at ITxpo, and many weren't sure whether it was the right option for them. But most said controlling mobile capital expenses is a constant concern.

At Northeast Utilities Inc. in Berlin, Conn., the IT department tries to rein in costs by limiting desktop PC, cell phone and PDA spending and models. Workers can choose the devices they want within the spending cap, but they can select products only from specific vendors, said software engineer Andy Kasznay.

Sticking with specific providers helps Northeast cut down help desk support costs and take advantage of discounts offered through distributors, Kasznay said. But, he added, there is some flexibility in the purchasing if a department has particular needs.

At pharmaceutical company Berlex Laboratories Inc. in Wayne, N.J., the overall IT equipment policy is fairly typical, analysts said. Berlex "pays whatever is needed for employees to do their work, and we support these tools," said CIO Bernhard Spiegel. "Or we consider [some] equipment as being private [property], which means we don't pay and interfere at all."

So far, Spiegel said, the approach is working.

While analysts from other firms praised the cafeteria plan, they said most IT shops aren't ready for it yet.

"The cafeteria plan is not a bad idea, but even before companies consider some reimbursement plan like that, IT departments need to step in and take control . . . and define what devices IT will and will not support," said Kevin Burden, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

Tim Scannell, an analyst at Mobile Insights Inc. in Quincy, Mass., said most IT shops have policies regarding desktops and laptops, but setting policies for handheld purchases "is a very new area." He added that no matter how the limits are set on costs, "it is important for companies to pay for them" so the lines are clear about who owns the data.

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