Consumer tech is coming to the workplace, so stop fighting it!

Wars between IT and users over mobile and social technologies are battles that no one can win -- but developers can end

If you look at the picture at the top of this column, you'll see right away that I'm a Boomer of a certain age, and like many of my cohorts, I was not exactly pro-war during the 1960s. Well, I still have a few activist bones in my aging body, and there's another war I'd like to stop: the grinding battle between enterprise IT and the masses clamoring to use smartphones, social media, and other noveau technologies at work.

A lot has been written about the "consumerization" of IT and the flood of mobile and social networking products into the workplace. There are many reasons that the deluge frightens IT. Some of those reasons are pretty good: Security is a very valid worry, of course, and there are some knotty cost and control issues to sort out. But I have a lot less sympathy for the IT exec who simply says no to technology that he or she can't control or simply doesn't understand.

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In any case, it's a war that IT can't win. If you're as old as I am, you'll remember the angst and struggle about bringing the PC into the workplace. It's happening again with smartphones and so forth, but these days technologies move much, much faster, and the battle is very compressed. Fortunately, developers are sensing the opportunity to play peacemaker and make money with solutions that could satisfy the concerns of IT and the desires of a youthful user base.

I'm just back from Demo Spring 2011, where 50 or so startups and young companies showed off their technologies to an audience of investors and tech journalists.

An outfit with the unlikely name of Enterproid stands out because it offers software for the Android platform (iOS and others will follow) that promises to satisfy both IT and users. Simply put, Enterproid's Divide imbues an Android device with a split personality that lets users create and keep personal and professional profiles on one Android smartphone or tablet.

Android is arguably the least secure of the leading smartphone operating system, so it needs the help. By contrast, both iOS 4 and Blackberry OS 6 already perform some of the functions found in Divide. iOS 4 separates some personal data and apps from ones provisioned by the server, though users don't see that separation in everyday usage. The same is true for BlackBerry OS 6 when used with the most recent version of BlackBerry Enterprise Server. But Divide's additional capabilities may be useful on those mobile OSes as well.

On the social networking front, another Demo entrant, WebSense, launched software called Defensio is says will help companies -- which are increasingly using Facebook as a marketing tool -- defend themselves from malicious attacks.

Android's split personality
Enterproid's Divide essentially partitions the Android environment and establishes separate online control panels for the owner of the device and for IT. The panel for IT consolidates the information of all users in a company or department; individual users can only see and control their own features.

For example, a user may not want a complex password, whereas IT may demand one. Divide resolves the contradiction by allowing different levels of security for each profile. Likewise, because apps can be dangerous, Divide walls off personal apps and does not allow them to access anything in the work partition. Many users allow their own applications to access their physical location via GPS, but do not want to share that information with their employer, so Divide will only give permission to access GPS to applications in the personal partition. And when users leave a company or a device is lost, IT may demand that their smartphone be wiped for security reasons. That, of course, also deletes personal data unless IT only wipes Exchange-provisioned (corporate) data, a capability few Android devices support. Divide solves that by allowing IT to wipe the business partitions while leaving data on the private partition intact.

That said, I don't have any real-world evidence of how well Divide performs. It's in beta right now and requires the 2.2 ("Froyo") version of the Android OS.

Social media is a tempting target
It's no news that Facebook is riddled with privacy pitfalls that have outraged users for some time. But it's less publicized that as the mammoth social networking site becomes a platform for business marketing, Facebook is becoming a tempting target for hackers hoping to breach the firewall, as is LinkedIn, the popular networking site for professionals. "During this six-minute demo, more than 450,000 posts of malicious content, spam, spyware, phishing, and fraud will be posted onto Facebook," said Websense CTO Dan Hubbard as he pitched his product on the Demo stage.

Websense's Defensio 2.0 product is specifically designed to improve Facebook security. The company says it wrote the application from scratch with help from the Facebook development team. It scans Facebook content, including wall posts, videos, photos, comments, and URLs, but not the operating system.

The application can reject inappropriate Web links and filter out comments, detect harmful scripts and malicious code, and allow users to automatically manage comments with predefined filters, the company says. It can also deliver an alert when unwanted content is detected.

A stupid war that needs to end
I don't want to belabor the war metaphor, but the hostility engendered by the rise of new technologies can be destructive. Sure, there will always be tension between users and IT, and that can be a good thing when it represents different groups trying to do their jobs as well as possible.

But sneaking behind the back of IT is not healthy, and many users are blissfully -- and dangerously -- unaware of the security and privacy rules mandated by laws like Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA. Breaking those rules can result in serious consequences for employers.

Neither is it healthy for IT to get in the way of a company's primary mission: selling goods or services. We've all run up against control-freak IT types who seem to forget that users need to get their jobs done as well.

Wars often have the unintended consequence of spinning off socially useful products and technologies. If Divide, Defensio, and similar products work as advertised, I hope we'll see a lessening of hostilities in the war between IT and users. In any case, there's a great opportunity for vendors to play peacemaker and be well rewarded for the effort.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "Consumer tech is coming to the workplace, so stop fighting it!," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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