BYOD: What we can learn from China

U.S. employees may never be as accepting about BYOD's potential privacy violations, but American companies can learn a lot from China about better educating workers about security

Most of us won't buy the latest iPhone until our two-year wireless contract is up. The smartphone costs too much without the wireless carrier subsidizing it. But that's not true in major Chinese cities such as Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, says Stanley Li, CEO of San Francisco-based Netswitch.

Li has worked overseas for years and watched mobile hysteria consume young professionals. Smartphones from the likes of Samsung, Apple, HTC, Sony Ericsson, and others are gobbled up as soon as they hit the market. Consumers are prepared to pay full price, he says, and will buy a new phone every year.

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"They change phones like a fashion statement," Li says.

Smartphone owners in China also don't want to carry around an additional corporate phone. That would be like wearing two outfits, with the corporate one being totally outdated. Instead, they're accessing work data from new-fangled phones under emerging corporate policies known as BYOD, or bring-your-own-device. According to Li, BYOD in China is far ahead of BYOD in the United States.

In fact, the United States can learn some BYOD lessons from China.

Many U.S. companies take a narrow view of BYOD and don't support Android devices. The common refrain is that Android is too fragmented and too leaky a vessel to carry sensitive corporate data. The many flavors of Android also can lead to a managerial and native app development headache.

In China, though, companies don't have the luxury of limiting choice, at least not with smartphones-consumers buy new phones on a whim. Last year, Li saw iPhones everywhere. On a business trip there a couple of weeks ago, Li noticed Samsung phones had become super-hot.

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Analysts expect the iPhone to rebound in the coming months. "We've been seeing a lot of [Chinese] consumers holding off, waiting for the iPhone 5 as opposed to the iPhone 4S," Ben Cavender, associate principal at China Market Research, told the Wall Street Journal last month.

So how do Chinese companies handle Android's BYOD shortcomings? Chinese companies take a more heterogeneous, browser-based approach to bring a sense of order to a sea of BYOD smartphones. This might mean no VPN or multi-form factor authentication, says Li. "Corporate infrastructure in the U.S. is more secure than in China."

This might lend credence to the possibility that U.S. companies make too much out of the BYOD mobile security risk. "Yes, it's being blown way out of proportion," John Mensel, director of security services at Concept Technology, a 10-year-old IT consulting firm, told CIO.com.

Either way, Chinese companies do a better job of educating workers about using BYOD smartphones. Even U.S. companies say employee education is key to security. Li says many Chinese companies use short two-minute videos and animation to get their point across, whereas U.S companies expect employees to thumb through pages of policy documents.

And who reads those boring policies anyway? Many employees will sign the newly crafted BYOD policy without giving it much thought, which is a shame because they could be signing away their privacy rights. (For more on this topic, check out BYOD: Time to Adjust Your Privacy Expectations.)

Along these lines, Chinese employees have become familiar-maybe even resigned-to the negative consequences of BYOD smartphones, Li says. They already know that carriers, device manufactures and employers may be tracking their location. The company might even know what they're doing on the personal side of the BYOD smartphone. After all, what is that corporate app really doing?

That's not to say that U.S. companies should follow this lead of accepting what could be privacy invasions. Rather, U.S. employees should take their cue from Chinese employees and understand the potential tradeoff between BYOD convenience and privacy.

It's one of a few things BYOD companies and employees in the United States can learn from their Chinese counterparts. In China, BYOD smartphones are simply how things are done. In the United States, it's just beginning.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

Read more about consumer IT in CIO's Consumer IT Drilldown.

This story, "BYOD: What we can learn from China" was originally published by CIO.

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