Can HP's webOS, TouchPad gain a foothold in the enterprise?

Despite a lot to like about HP's webOS plans and TouchPad, the company needs to address some core mobile security concerns before IT departments will accept them.

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HP definitely had a lot to wow us with during its webOS media event. The TouchPad, Pre3, Veer, directions webOS is heading in over the next year, and let's not forget the bombshell that HP is going to put webOS on PCs and offer direct competition with Windows. With all the splashy announcements, it's no wonder one question was overlooked about HP's plans to develop a complete platform and ecosystem around webOS: what about the enterprise?

HP already has significant enterprise and business penetration. It's a brand that generally inspires trust from IT professionals for a diverse range of solutions that include PCs, printers, and various mid to high range network equipment. HP has the potential to capitalize on that relationship with IT to get webOS devices into a lot of organizations.

If the company plays its cards right, it will almost certainly have an easier time convincing IT managers and sysadmins that standardizing around webOS and its other products is better than a mix of technologies for different types of devices (iPads, BlackBerry, Windows, and forth). One truly significant advantage is that HP can bundle several core technology products together as a single solution and offer significant discounts for bulk purchases.

The big question is whether or not HP can truly capitalize on that potential. The answer is going to come down to the level of security and manageability the company bakes into webOS as a platform.

With the proliferation of new mobile devices, some of which are company-owned while others are brought into the workplace by employees, ensuring mobile security is a major concern of every IT manager today. For any mobile platform to be successful in the enterprise space, it needs to offer some serious core security and device management capabilities. This is one area where RIM has historically excelled and it is what allowed RIM to dominate the smartphone market for years. It is also an area where Apple began to lead with this year's release of iOS 4 and its support for a variety of mobile device management solutions (making it light-years beyond Windows Phone 7 and Android in terms of available security policies available and how well they are enforced).

If HP has any hope of using its existing influence to crack the enterprise and workplace markets, it will need to offer serious security and management functions. Right now, the platform has one of lowest enterprise security scorecards because it can only enforce five policies: require passcode, define passcode length and complexity, automatic device wipe after a specified number of passcode failures, and automatic device locking after a set period of inactivity. Even this paltry list of security features require Microsoft Exchange to function (Exchange's remote wipe of lost/stolen devices is also supported). Without Exchange, there is no central management option. That limited set of capabilities will make it a non-starter in a lot of environments (as it should).

Other features including limiting access to certain web content, limiting the use of potentially unsecure apps, preventing confidential data residing on the device (or forcing it to be encrypted), ensuring secure connections to corporate resources, potentially force removing corporate data from a user's personal device, provisioning security certificates and custom apps, monitoring device usage, and ensuring devices and apps are appropriately updated as needed are all common enterprise security and management requirements for mobile devices. HP will need to build all those features (none of which were discussed yesterday) into webOS.

Exactly what approach HP will take to address these concerns isn't clear, but with the company making a run at traditional PCs and mobile devices, I'm sure it has some plans in the works. After all, PCs have their own security and management needs that have to be addressed. Hopefully the solutions HP is working on will be able to function in a standalone environment as well as in an Active Directory/Exchange infrastructure.

One solution, Citrix, will be available the day the TouchPad and Pre3 launches (the company seems uncertain about supporting the minuscule Veer). Since Citrix virtual desktop solutions don't store data on a device, they make an ideal option for accessing secure data (as well as Windows applications) from mobile devices. In fact, Citrix has been a major factor in the iPad's rapid adoption in healthcare.

Beyond the security question, a common enterprise need is custom in-house apps. On this front, webOS may be an ideal platform since it relies largely on web standards for app development. That should make it easy to convert corporate intranet resources into webOS apps.

I have to say that I'm very curious to see how HP will improve webOS from an enterprise IT perspective. Hopefully, some solid solutions will be available when the TouchPad and Pre3 ship this summer.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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