IBM opens up smartphone, tablet support for its workers

Up to 200,000 IBM workers will be allowed to bring their own phones and tablets for work in a growing 'bring your own device' trend

IBM has embraced -- nearly -- the growing "bring your own device" trend of allowing employees to buy and use their own smartphones and tablets for work tasks, said IBM's CTO for mobility, Bill Bodin.

By the end of the year, 100,000 IBM employees will be able to connect handheld devices of their choosing to IBM's internal networks, which have recently been fortified to provide enhanced mobile security, Bodin said in an interview with Computerworld. Another 100,000 employees will be brought on board in 2012, for a total of 200,000 people, or about half of IBM's global workforce.

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Based on recent consumer buying trends, Bodin said he expects that the majority of those 200,000 workers will pick an iPhone, an Android smartphone, or a tablet. The employees will pay for their own devices and monthly service plans, but they will receive IBM's guidance and technical support.

Users will also be required to load IBM's agent software on their gear for secure access to IBM's systems, email, and other functions.

Initially, IBM workers will have email, contacts, and calendar access through IBM Lotus Notes Traveler, Bodin said. In addition to installing agent software on each device, IBM will enhance security through the use of VPNs and by requiring passwords for access to systems. The company will also deploy endpoint management tools that will allow IT managers to wipe data off devices that are lost or stolen.

"We've noticed BYOD [bring your own device] and the consumerization of IT, with devices now becoming more and more proficient," said Bodin, a 24-year IBM veteran who started as a staff programmer. "At IBM, it's not exactly the BYOD metaphor. Rather, we are taking steps to fortify the infrastructure and device management -- all the way to agents on the phone itself -- to guarantee that the phone has not been hacked or jail-broken, and that the phone, with integrity, can attach to our network." IBM didn't disclose the cost of the mobile infrastructure upgrades.

The BYOD trend is widely recognized by analysts, who have noticed that even if a company requires its employees to use a specific smartphone for work tasks, some workers will circumvent the requirement and bring in a second phone of their choosing to do some of their work. According to a recent Forrester Research survey, more people are bringing their own devices to work and more companies are supporting the devices that workers decide to use.

In addition to adopting an open mobile platform approach, IBM plans to allow its employees to choose from hundreds of smartphone and tablet apps available on public application storefronts. They can also get software from IBM's WhirlWind app storefront, which launched in late 2010, Bodin said. In all, IBM users have downloaded about 35,000 apps from WhirlWind.

WhirlWind contains about 400 third-party apps approved for IBM use, as well as 100 apps built internally for IBM employees, Bodin explained. One app provides a catalog of all the software IBM makes, while another helps IBM sales personnel find experts in the far-flung global IBM workforce to help answer customers' questions. An app called Blue Pages, IBM's internal Facebook-style social network, gives users one-click email access to any other IBM employee.

Employees can also rate the apps they pick, and IBM managers can quickly see which apps are downloaded the most, Bodin added. In addition to IBM's apps, "users can go to outside app stores for things they need, including entertainment and recreation."

Bodin said there's no automatic app discovery or tracking software to detect if a user is downloading apps that could be seen as objectionable by managers. IBM, however, has long had in place "very aggressive" business conduct guidelines that should govern the behaviors and personal decisions of users when picking apps.

The business conduct guidelines are signed by each IBM employee. "So far, what apps are chosen has not been a concern, but by and large, if you are spending too much time on a war game, then it's going to be apparent in other areas of your work," Bodin said.

IBM also was founded on the principle of research, so workers need to be trusted to find new, exciting things in app stores, Bodin said. "We don't restrict apps from an enterprise perspective, because we rely on our ability to research and don't want to be seen as restricting people from being innovative," he explained. "We trust the individuals here, and by and large do not restrict innovativeness."

IBM has about 30,000 employees who use BlackBerry devices, and Bodin expects some of them will continue to use those devices, mainly because they prefer physical qwerty keyboards to touchscreen keyboards. The BlackBerry Enterprise Server that IBM uses has been in place for about eight years, but IBM's move to support other platforms will parallel what BES provides through IBM's own comprehensive Tivoli mobile device management software, Bodin said.

To reach the 100,000 people on other platforms by year's end, IBM has conducted pilot projects of 5,000 workers on the iOS and Android platforms with both smartphones and tablets. Other mobile operating systems will also be supported, Bodin said, including Microsoft's Windows Phone. Research in Motion's BlackBerry will also continue to be supported.

Even though it is open to supporting new smartphone and tablet platforms, IBM will continue requiring employees to use eight-digit alphanumeric passwords to access phone or tablet functions. In the future, the log-in process could rely on biometric identification tools that recognize a user's facial features, fingerprints or voice, Bodin added. "We're working with device manufacturers to make sure procedures for unlocking a phone can be accessed at the right time," he said.

Bodin said the password requirement isn't always popular with users, but it's essential to ensuring adequate security. "Screen locks are necessary tactical solutions, even though people aren't always agreeable to them," he explained.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

This story, "IBM opens up smartphone, tablet support for its workers" was originally published by Computerworld.

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