Can BYO Become an IT Management Strategy?

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 of reasons.

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 it.

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 keyboard layout?

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 Francisco.

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 solutions.