Mobile models lost in translation

I just completed a grueling VPN project in Western Europe. Working in five countries in four weeks gave me new insights into the concept of mobility - insights that go counter to what I have been hearing from IT and security people in the U.S. for the past few months.

The first surprise was the relative scarcity of Pocket PC devices in Europe. In the U.S., you can't turn around in an airport or at a meeting without seeing a Windows Mobile device, either by itself or incorporated into a mobile phone. I saw a few of these in Europe, but I also saw a lot more Nokia Communicators and other smart mobile phones being used as mobile work devices. Using Bluetooth, I would scan bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies and even train stations to see who was advertising their presence. Virtually everywhere, I could pick up the evanescent aura of some very smart and expensive devices, in a density I never see in the U.S.

What does this mean for network and security managers? If your job includes supporting a European contingent, don't assume that your mobile users are running either a Windows laptop or Windows Mobile device. Symbian-based phones, such as the Nokia Communicator, are making heavy inroads and need to be on your radar screen for mobility support, either through SSL or IPSec VPN technology. If you also haven't planned to support Mac users, be prepared for that onslaught. They are also popping up in increasing numbers in Europe.

The second surprise was the ready availability and use of wireless data services in Europe. In the U.S., competitive carriers and technologies mean we have a lot of choice, but a fairly mediocre footprint of advanced data services. In Europe, the competitive carrier situation is the same, but the focus is on a few technologies, all based on GSM. This means that overall access to wireless data is easy and taken for granted by a larger percentage of users - not just IT folks or early adopters. Companies are not tied into one carrier-focused technology or product, as you commonly see in the U.S.

Network managers need to be prepared for heavier demand from their European users for secure mobile data, because the wide availability and relatively reasonable cost have made mobile data an expected service. In the U.S., we'd jump into a dedicated device or application, such as a BlackBerry. In Europe, the expectation is that mobile data services will layer on top of the current infrastructure, whether that's a mobile phone with its own applications, a phone acting as a modem to a laptop using Bluetooth, General Packet Radio Service, Enhanced Data Rates for Global Evolution or 3G modem card in a laptop.

Above all, the key lesson I learned is that the expectations and models of how to roll out secure mobile services in the U.S. won't necessarily translate to Europe. It's almost like they speak a different language.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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