News Analysis: When employees are asked to provide their own smartphones and other mobile devices, employers are going to have to accept the blur between personal and professional uses. But since few, if any, device platforms and management tools are ready to cope with that mixture of roles, where does one draw the line?
One of the tests that the IRS
uses to determine whether one is an employee or a contractor relates to the
tools of one's trade. Basically, an organization that provides those tools is
acting in the capacity of an employer, while workers who are required to
provide their own tools are less likely to be classified as employees.
Does that rationale, rooted as it is in a pre-millennial "shop floor"
work model, still make sense for many of us? I've begun to wonder, for a number
Let's start with the two most important tools of the knowledge worker, the
personal computer and the mobile phone. Most of a day's work gets done with
basic software that includes a Web browser and an office productivity suite; in
many cases, it really doesn't matter which is used.
As for the mobile phone, that's a choice that depends on what one requires
of it above and beyond its role as a phone. Although the company-owned model is
very common for devices in the feature phone class, the reality is that many
people are bringing their own smartphones to the office. Those users seem to
break down into people who need BlackBerrys, and everyone else, which makes
sense, given the specialized nature of the BlackBerry platform.
But the days when a computer was a specialized piece of equipment are far
behind us, and many of us don't need custom software to do our jobs because
anything that requires serious customization is "up in the cloud" and
we're using a garden-variety Web browser to access it.
Take my own case: When I joined eWEEK earlier in 2010, I was issued a
notebook computer and, as part of the package, a docking station, a monitor, a
mouse and a keyboard. The notebook runs Windows XP and, in many respects, it's
all the computer I need. But I don't really need
I could have brought in a computer of my own; there's nothing in my
work-issue software that I don't already have on my MacBook Pro at home,
whether it's a Mac-native version of the software or an analogue. (The only
exception to this is Microsoft Outlook, which is expected to have a 32-bit Mac
OS X version available later this year.) So why don't I bring in my own
machine, since its display is easier on my eyes and I'm more accustomed to its
I don't BYOC because my computer's not something I want to schlep to and
from the office, since most of my commute is done standing up on a streetcar as
it lurches its way through the streets and tunnels of San
I could see myself carrying a slate device, such as an iPad, between home
and work, and there's a good chance that I will do just that when I break down
and buy one with my own money. There are a lot of factors to consider, though (hardware
features, software interoperability for content management and e-mail), so I
won't be doing that any time soon.
But there's an enormously important reason why BYOC doesn't fly for many
organizations, and that's data security. It's a lot easier to justify the
rigmarole of lockdowns and restrictions on a company-owned machine than it is
on personally owned devices.
That's not so much a concern for me as it is for other knowledge workers,
who regularly handle financials, sales plans, and other confidential business
and personal information. Obviously, there's good reason to keep a tight grip
on that data. The best way of doing so is to own the machine, but what happens
when that data goes onto phonelike devices?
Right now, the solution offered by many mobile device platforms is
encryption coupled with remote wipe capability. That's pretty effective for
cases where the device is owned by the employer, but doesn't really solve the
problem presented by devices that are owned by employees but used for business.
As most experts predict that the economy will wallow in the doldrums for a
few more years, this problem is perhaps even more acute for state and local
governments than for companies. Many governments are being pressured by
taxpayers to reduce the number of mobile devices they provide to their workers,
and in extreme cases they may follow the example of Warren,
Mich., and tell employees that the job
entails the use of personally owned phones for municipal business.
That gray area of mixed employer and private data is going to challenge the
providers of mobile device management tools to come up with products that
accommodate both roles, and can deal with data wherever it is, whether on
computers, phones or slates. But until the platform creators recognize the dual
roles of their customers, it looks like we're stuck with one-size-fits-some