A few weeks ago, a Gigaom Research client told me she was “sick of BYOD” and wanted out. She asked me if I thought she could “dump everything and just have employees remote into their desktops when they need to work from the road.”
It’s a compelling question, and timely, too.
In his 2015 end-user computing outlook, Gigaom Research analyst Simon Bramfitt documents the persistent fears that businesses have of BYOD plans along with the growing acceptance of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). It’s tempting to think that the two trends are directly connected: By turning smartphones and tablets into dumb terminals, we combine the redundant connectivity of a mobile device with all the security and manageability of a containerized desktop environment. If your iPad falls into a river, let it float — your data is safe on a server.
And plenty of vendors support VDI as an important component of an enterprise mobility solution. Citrix is leading in mindshare, with a solid enterprise mobility management (EMM) platform and perhaps the industry’s best-known VDI solution. With AirWatch firmly under its wing, VMware offers a very similar range of features, and Microsoft isn’t far behind. Every week, in fact, I see lots of excitement from vendors about virtualized environments on mobile devices. But we’ve heard barely a peep from IT management — the ones who actually manage mobility programs. So while scrapping mobile app development in favor of delivering general-purpose apps to any device via a virtualized desktop seems like a tempting solution to a mobile headache, it clearly doesn’t stand in as a replacement for a BYOD plan.
In the last two years, I’ve only heard one other client mention an interest in using VDI as an alternative to apps. Here are three reasons why.
Assets still matter
An unlocked top-of-the-line smartphone like an iPhone 6 or a Galaxy 5 costs nearly as much as a laptop, and supporting and configuring that hardware is expensive (particularly if the tech support staff is not familiar with a specific phone model). And even if virtualization solved all security and access problems, tracking, managing and provisioning devices would still be a necessary and resource-consuming evil.
Mobile-device management (MDM) software provides those asset-focused services, and should be a standard deployment for every enterprise. And since most MDM providers already bundle a free or low-cost suite of applications to handle the most common productivity tasks, using those apps is generally much easier (and cheaper) than creating and supporting a virtualization program to connect to desktop apps.
Mobility is about more than the app
Enterprise mobility isn’t simply about accessing apps on the go. The devices themselves are an integral part of the picture. That includes SMS, voice, location-based services, and the camera, all of which need to be managed and integrated into a system. For example, a sales app might integrate text and email communications with prospects while using GPS to guide reps to a meeting. Enterprises supporting similar use cases beyond routine productivity will want to take full advantage of everything a device has to offer through traditional apps.
There are also a number of mobile-specific concerns that rely on device and usage context. Throttling data transfers or disabling certain applications when a user is roaming or over a data cap can be managed fairly easily with EMM tools in traditional mobile settings. Connecting app behavior to device and plan data is much more difficult when the app is running inside a virtualized black box with limited connection to the device.
Mobile apps are different
Successful mobile apps are rarely anything like their desktop counterparts. While a desktop or web app can provide a wide range of choices through menus and expansive screens, a good mobile experience is heavily dependent on context and workflow, providing only the tools a worker needs at that moment to accomplish their current task. And since task switching is particularly difficult on mobile devices, good apps often pull from a number of different sources, mashing up traditional enterprise apps into a unified-but-focused front end.
And building those apps continues to get easier. No-coding platforms allow non-developers to drag-and-drop app components and data sources to create basic business apps. Cross-platform Mobile Application Development Platforms (MADPs) allow developers to write one set of code and deploy it to multiple target platforms.
VDI will certainly play a role in enterprise mobility. Our other client who asked about VDI had a very specific goal in mind. Following an acquisition, he wanted to provide an iOS environment to 500 new sales reps on non-Apple tablets. He needed his new employees to be productive right away, and he didn’t want to replace perfectly good hardware. That’s the kind of use case that’s absolutely perfect for VDI. It’s also a great solution for occasional users who need short-term access to a wide range of office applications and assets. But as a catchall solution, we’re going to have to live with EMM and mobile as we know them. Our devices are too smart to become dumb.
Image courtesy of triloks/iStock.