Is BYOD Becoming BYOBS?

In the modern technical world, you don’t have to search far to find someone with a quote purporting to define the future. This month’s example came to me via the medium of Twitter, with an analyst offering the line, “by 2017, half of all employers will require employees to use their own device.”

This is the sort of thing that sends IT managers and directors into a spin, promoting a feeling that they are required to jump squarely onto the [insert buzzword] bandwagon and adopt the newest paradigm before employees start leaving in droves for an employer that has embraced the [insert buzzword] movement in its entirety. In this case, the buzzword I’m focusing on is “BYOD,” which has been on the periphery of the virtualization arena for quite some time. But how likely is it that the BYOD revolution will materialize—and will it in fact by 2017 reach a stage in which more than 50% of employers view it as mandatory?

It’s important to define precisely what BYOD is. It is not, as many seem to think, the provision of occasional work connectivity (such as OWA, VPN, or even remote sessions to a VDI desktop or published applications) to employee-owned devices. Rather, it is the requirement that employees provide a primary work device themselves—essentially bringing non-company IT into the organization and connecting to everything. Is it really likely that this will expand to such an extent that in just over two years, half of employers will require it?

As an independent consultant, I tend to be forced into a BYOD situation on a more-than-regular basis—but it is unlikely that I get more than basic connectivity to a client’s network (i.e., Internet access) whilst I am on site. Running RDP sessions to client servers from a non-client device is practically unheard of. BYOD forces a lot of operational challenges: governance, device management, and security being the primary ones. How can you prevent data leaks? How can you support the users over such a range of devices? How can you ensure basic network protection mechanisms, such as auditing, password policy enforcement, patching, etc.? The list of possible problems is as long as the day.

That’s not to say BYOD doesn’t have any positives. It creates new opportunities by increasing mobile application use, and it encourages workers to greater productivity by upping their employee satisfaction. Statistics indicate that BYOD workers put in extra hours.

But has BYOD, as a whole, become a solution looking for a problem? Is it something that only high-level executives and IT staff want? Or is it being pushed as a way to allow IT departments to justify themselves and their budgets by staying abreast of the predicted “BYOD revolution”? Do your average workers actually want to be more productive and check their email from home or on their iPad? In fact, does the average worker even care about BYOD—or has it, effectively, become BYOBS?

The fact that the perceived advantages of BYOD are primarily “soft” benefits such as employee satisfaction lends weight to the theory that it may simply be a fad that is unlikely to see as much adoption as predicted. Cost savings are likely to be little or none at all—are companies going to insist that employees who are unable or unwilling to pay out for a work device do not meet the necessary criteria for employment?

If BYOD were to be broadly adopted, then it would be crucial for companies to create environments in which applications are delivered to a multitude of different platforms. Essentially, apps would need to become device-agnostic. This would make “above OS-level” delivery and management tools necessary in situations that otherwise would not demand them. The extra cost again makes it unclear whether BYOD will be as broadly adopted as has been suggested.

Further, there are more direct problems to consider, such as licensing for the applications in use. Whilst many companies—even Microsoft, lately—appear to be adopting their old licensing strategies towards a multidevice world, there are still major financial roadblocks to pushing BYOD as a solution for application delivery.

With all this in mind, I would conclude that it is very unlikely that BYOD adoption for primary work devices will reach the levels specified—certainly not in the predicted two-year time period. However, the notion that each employee only has one work device is now rather antiquated, and this is one area in which BYOD, of a sort, may actually take off. Taking PCs and laptops out of the equation, you may find that BYOD does have a rosy future—with regard to mobile devices.

Containerization of applications and data is much more evolved on mobile devices than it is currently on PCs and laptops. A whole market is springing up around mobile device management that provides a ready-made ecosystem allowing users to utilize their own smartphones for work purposes. Unlike laptops, smartphones are becoming ubiquitous—users are much more likely to be able to provide their own phone than a portable computer—and the perception of possible data loss and security risk, although it still exists, is much lower. The dominance of the two major platforms, Android and iOS, also makes application provision and compatibility generally quite straightforward. In fact, outside of specific regulatory environments that mandate certain specific security levels for smartphones, the adoption of BYOD for mobile devices is already—in comparison to that of PCs, laptops, and tablets—quite high.

In summary, whilst the BYOD movement is very unlikely, in my opinion, to ever make significant inroads into the desktop PC estates of businesses across the world, a different kind of BYOD may well become the norm within the next few years, as users are increasingly encouraged to use their own smartphones for mobile working. It seems likely that BYOP may be the only BYO acronym that doesn’t turn out to be BYOBS.

Thanks to Simon Townsend (Chief Technologist, AppSense) and Conrad Sidey (Solutions Architect, Microsoft) for sharing their BYO thoughts with me.

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