Creepy Features

Multifunction devices can lead to management nightmares.

Do any of these integrated, multifunctional products sound like good ideas to you: A computer mouse thats also a neck massager and text scanner, a laptop with a built-in paper shredder and espresso maker, or a digital projector/cocktail shaker?

They dont sound like good ideas to me. For the most part, Im in the a-gadget-should-do-one-thing-and-do-it-well camp.

But for many vendors, feature creep in gadgets isnt an option; its a business plan. The biggest offenders are cell phone makers, which are working hard to turn the phones into PDAs, cameras, game consoles and music players that can—oh, yeah—also place a phone call.

This trend means big headaches for corporate IT.

Cell phones have been a great innovation. Companies have gained many efficiencies by deploying them to work forces. Productivity goes up when workers can be more easily reached. If you had a mobile work force that racked up big charges on hotel room phones, cell phones have helped cut those costs.

They also generally require no work on the part of corporate IT to manage. But what happens when these new hybrid devices become the only option for your company?

If you dont think thats likely to happen, listen to what the cell phone companies themselves are saying. In a recent Reuters article, Qualcomm COO Tony Thornley said that in coming years, simple cell phones will be found only in third-world countries. Motorola CEO Ed Zander echoed the theme in the same story, saying that cell phones will become information appliances.

As an IT professional, that statement should make you wince. A couple of years ago, when it looked like PDAs would be more popular than they have become, many IT pros looked warily at the problems of integrating them with corporate technology infrastructures.

Now imagine having to deal with thousands of super cell phones. Its a guarantee that IT will quickly get requests to integrate them with mail systems and company applications. If you succeed at these tasks, you can bet that the next release of these phones will require you to start from scratch for these integrations.

You dont think so? Think again. While it would be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for your company to change desktop or server operating systems, cell phone companies do it in nearly every product generation. During the last few years, smart cell phones have been based on proprietary systems, Symbian, Palm OS, Java, Microsofts Windows Mobile and even Linux. Given this kind of turnover, any hope to build integrations that will last is most likely a pipe dream.

The problems of deploying digital cameras, portable game machines and music players to hordes of employees are too numerous to count. How many companies would willingly deploy such devices to their employees if they had a choice? But once theyre deployed, its a guarantee that any company policy to not use the "cool" features would be ignored. Also, many of the efficiencies afforded by cell phones would be lost, including the ability to reach employees on the road. Thats because many of the coveted features are big battery drainers. A mobile worker whose cell phone battery is dead wont be receiving many important calls.

Im not against all added features in cell phones. Address books and calendars make a lot of sense in cell phones, as do text messaging and e-mail capabilities. Most basic cell phones already incorporate these features.

Corporate buyers should speak up now. Let the companies providing your cell phone services know that your company does not want to upgrade your work force to the new "entertainment and information appliances." Let them know that if you dont have a choice for a corporate-friendly cell phone, then youll take your business elsewhere.

Cool features might be nice for personal use and look great in commercials with Catherine Zeta-Jones, but they wont look so great on your bottom line when they start adding costs to your IT budget while diminishing productivity.

Sometimes—a lot of the time, in fact—its best for a phone to just be a phone.

eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapozas e-mail address is