Do you know where your cell phones are?

Let's face it: Wireless is out of control. It's invading everything from tennis shoes to your skin. The days when wireless was a simple cell phone are gone. Wireless is everywhere.

Enter enterprise IT, trying to keep up with this chaotic growth and get control of it. Most companies I talk to have a pat answer, such as "Yes, we do have a cellular usage policy; yes, we track expenses; yes, we have a system in place for device inventory management, billing analysis, device configuration and application setup, help desk, security enablement and more." This is usually followed by a litany of buts: . . . but it only works for SyncML phones; . . . but only in the United States; . . . but not for personal phones owned and used by employees for work purposes.

And the band plays on. Verizon makes downloading music to phones less expensive. Sprint enhances our watching TV shows. Cingular adds features for the user. The opportunities for employees to increase spontaneously the expenses related to their phones are growing, and the ability to track these expenses is falling behind fast.

Most firms' internal resources and tools have too many limitations to manage wireless devices and services in a cost-effective, life-cycle way. You may have a handle on certain aspects of this problem (for example, if you're running a BlackBerry server, you may feel your policy server is doing a good job of handling configuration and security for those users), but when you look at the broader picture you're probably not as secure, economical or efficient as you need to be.

Mix into this the security and liability issues involved when mobile versions of e-mail, document management, ERP, salesforce automation and other applications are piled on top of the challenges of managing these things in the desktop-laptop PC environment. We all hear about the security issues when a laptop is stolen or lost, but the loss of handheld mobile devices is orders of magnitude higher - one survey noted that more than 85,000 cell phones were found in taxis in Chicago alone during a six-month period, only half of which were returned to their owners. Compliance with internal and regulatory policies regarding data security only gets harder when a document with vital customer data is left behind in one of these taxis - not to mention the bad press and lawsuits such exposure can bring.

This problem will get harder to solve as wireless and mobility become more pervasive in the enterprise. While we're seeing new BlackBerries, Treos and a multitude of Windows Mobile devices, application vendors are moving more services to phones that aren't considered smart phones, expanding the base that needs to be managed. Don't forget to mix in air cards for Evolution Data Optimized or high-speed, downlink packet access services, and soon, mobile WiMAX. Users also are complicating matters with personal phones that are expensed (but not issued or directly paid for by their company) or used for business. Companies are going to have a hard time buying enough software and hiring enough people to deal with the issue.

None of this should be news to you. What should be news is that third-party companies are launching managed wireless services to solve these problems. Compelling offerings are available from software vendors (you host your own solution with their software), pure-play application service providers (who host it for you) and the mobile operators themselves. I'm partial to the mobile operators, particularly when they are taking a best-of-breed approach with some of the pure-play vendors (most of which simultaneously work directly with enterprises and through operators). For a relatively small monthly bump in cost, you can expect rate optimization, automated device management and configuration, enforceable and policy-based security, and support.

Today's business environment requires that you know where your wireless devices are, who's got them and what's on them. If you're not meeting that business requirement, you need to check out managed wireless services.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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