As a cursory glance around any busy commuter train will tell you, mobile email is hot. But while the BlackBerry from Research in Motion may be the only handheld device capable of rivalling the popularity Apple’s iPod in terms of popularity with travelling executives, the emergence of mobile email has a dark side. And it is the CIO that is bearing the brunt of this insidious revolution.
Plainly put, the emergence of email as a mobile application threatens to grant it a status far in excess of its value to the business. This is, of course, not a view shared by many of the vendors, who insist that email is indeed a mission-critical application (more about that later). But within the corridors of the IT organisation there is a growing realisation that mobile email may be more a curse than a blessing.
At the very least, the popularity of the devices among senior management teams can overshadow the rest of the work undertaken by the IT department. As David Weymouth, CIO at banking giant Barclays recounts: When senior management were polled to gauge the main benefits delivered by the IT function as of early 2004, they did not mention the $1 billion cost savings that IT had delivered over three and a half years, nor the fact that IT spend as a percentage of revenue was down, while client satisfaction had moved up 25 percentage points. The main benefit was the issuing of BlackBerrys to senior management.
But even more detrimental to the IT function, the rollout of these devices is having unforeseen side effects, placing further burdens on already busy departments. One of the major problems reported about the BlackBerry has been the emphasis it places on the organisation’s email systems. The upper echelons of the executive team now have greater visibility over email, and their reliance on their BlackBerry is ensuring that the system is now being monitored at all times of the day and night.
The email plague
In some senses the popularity of the BlackBerry is paradoxical: It has clearly become the must-have executive device, and yet most cases it only provides access to a non-critical application, namely email. The most modern BlackBerrys are actually capable of supporting other applications, indeed RIM is pushing these advanced capabilities a further selling point, but currently this is still very much in its infancy.
Part of the reason for this success is that “we been waiting for a device like this forever,” says Brownlee Thomas, principal analyst at Forrester Research. It’s an inexpensive method of keeping in touch with the office, when compared to smartphones, and allows for more detailed communications than simple text messaging, she adds.
And while this pent up demand for an easy-to-use, content rich messaging system has led to an explosion in demand, momentum is still building: While it took RIM five years to ship its first million units, a mere 10 months later, a second million had been sold. Forrester is predicting that it will hit three million shipments by 2006, and that could yet prove to be a conservative estimate.
The big advantage of the BlackBerry is its ‘push’ capability says Rick Costanzo, commercial operations manager, RIM Europe. This ensures that arriving email is sent directly to the device, rather than having to wait to hot-synch back in the office, giving mobile workers a real sense of being connected to the office. “Of course this means that users know in real time if email isn’t working. But we’ve found that it’s given companies a chance to explore their email systems, and make sure they are robust.”
The undoubted popularity has seen a proliferation of mobile email devices from other vendors, which have greedily eyed RIM’s success and want a piece of that action. So while RIM has been busy sorting out the legal niceties of exactly what patents its owns, in an effort to protect its market, vendors such as Smartner, Good Technology and Visto have all developed their own ‘push’ messaging capabilities.
Added to this wave of BlackBerry alternatives, there is a growing demand for devices outside the ranks of executives. Increasingly, the rank and file within organisations is clamouring for email on demand. At least in the foreseeable future the IT department is unlikely to see any drop off in demand.
One source of comfort for the under-siege CIO is that costs may curb enthusiasm for widespread BlackBerry deployments. The growing army of mobile email users has serious consequences for the financial health of the organisation, says Jack Gold, vice president of Web & Collaboration Strategies “Few organisations understand what wireless email deployment costs the organisation, and even fewer understand the implications for user-selection criteria or return on investment.”
But RIM is keen to downplay the costs of deploying its platform. “We’ve made it as simple as possible: the Enterprise Server can be put on a low-end box and managed by someone with a [Microsoft] Exchange background,” says Constanzo. Added to that, by its own estimates, BlackBerry devices allow users to reclaim almost an hours worth of downtime a day to be recovered.
Such is the demand for BlackBerrys that organisations that try to curtail deployments are faced with seeing the devices introduced by the back door. “We’re getting requests from staff, some of them quite senior, who’ve been out and bought BlackBerrys and want them supported,” says Ian Croxford, head of IT systems services at the Victoria and Albert Museum. “We have to explain to them that we looked at the costs of supporting them, and decided on a very limited roll out. They don’t tend to like that answer.”
The strategy of limiting support for mobile email devices is the only cost effective way to manage a deployment, says Gold. “Organisations must carefully control costs and evaluate who should be enabled with wireless e-mail.” While this approach may win support from the financial directors, it can be the source of hostility from those, including some executives, denied the privilege of getting a BlackBerry. This may not be the end of the IT department’s BlackBerry headaches.
The critical application?
One of the main charges levelled against the BlackBerry is that it places undue emphasis on supporting email systems. Those in the vendor community utterly reject this argument: “If you’re involved in bringing in new orders, new business, then immediate access to email is mission critical,” says RIM’s Costanzo.
Email also plays a vital role in users’ perception of the IT function, says Neil Dagger, business manager at Hewlett Packard UK. “It’s about transparency. If you can show to the users in the field that you can provide email to them, they’ll have a better appreciation of the service you’re delivering.” The sales teams that can close deals faster by being better informed on the road not only help the business, but can be advocates for the IT departments, he adds.
While there may be advantages for certain categories of staff, it does not however follow that email is a vital application for all, nor that all staff need to be able to be in constant touch with email systems.
However, in another sense email is becoming a critical application for the IT department. It is this very sense of being connected to the office that has both driven the demand for BlackBerrys and intensified the pressure on IT directors to support the devices. As the V&A’s Croxford explains: “It has created a massive expectation that having a BlackBerry is like having an office in your pocket. It isn’t realistic. There’s very little understanding from the users about the limitations of these devices.”
Consequently, the IT department is the first point of call for users cut off from the regular supply of emails; few of these will have considered network availability or even planned downtime.
Moreover, the profile of the BlackBerry users, which typically includes the senior executives at the organisation, means that keeping email systems up and running has acquired a higher priority than it otherwise might have.
As the IT director of a UK-based financial services company explains: “My CIO has begun using his BlackBerry to evaluate how well the IT department is performing. If email isn’t up and running he wants to know what we’re spending out money on.” For the CIO, email has become job critical.
The relentless march of the BlackBerry can seem like an unwanted invasion on the CIOs territory. The popularity of the devices with users, and to a lesser extent, the social kudos for having one, means that most CIOs can expect at least some staff within their organisation – Meta predicts that 50% of organisations will have implemented wireless email within two to three years and 75% by 2009.
The only way to manage this growing influx of mobile email is to establish controls over who qualifies for a device, and basing that decision on the value to business will get in return, says Meta’s Gold. “Organisations must evaluate ROI (return on investment) versus TCO (total cost of ownership) to determine who in the organisation should receive [these devices],” he adds.
The warning for CIOs that do not want sleepless nights is clear: Get agreement on rules covering the issuing of BlackBerrys or other mobile email devices. Without it, these devices could bring chaos to IT department.