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IBM opens up smartphone, tablet support for its workers

Matt Hamblen | Nov. 1, 2011
IBM has embraced the growing 'bring your own device' trend by allowing its employees to buy and use their own smartphones and tablets for work tasks, said IBM's CTO for mobility, Bill Bodin.

WhirlWind contains about 400 third-party apps approved for IBM use, as well as 100 apps built internally for IBM employees, Bodin explained. One app provides a catalog of all the software IBM makes, while another helps IBM sales personnel find experts in the far-flung global IBM workforce to help answer customers' questions. An app called Blue Pages, IBM's internal Facebook -style social network, gives users one-click email access to any other IBM employee.

Employees can also rate the apps they pick, and IBM managers can quickly see which apps are downloaded the most, Bodin added. In addition to IBM's apps, "users can go to outside app stores for things they need, including entertainment and recreation."

Bodin said there's no automatic app discovery or tracking software to detect if a user is downloading apps that could be seen as objectionable by managers. IBM, however, has long had in place "very aggressive" business conduct guidelines that should govern the behaviors and personal decisions of users when picking apps.

The business conduct guidelines are signed by each IBM employee. "So far, what apps are chosen has not been a concern, but by and large, if you are spending too much time on a war game, then it's going to be apparent in other areas of your work," Bodin said.

IBM also was founded on the principle of research, so workers need to be trusted to find new, exciting things in app stores, Bodin said. "We don't restrict apps from an enterprise perspective, because we rely on our ability to research and don't want to be seen as restricting people from being innovative," he explained. "We trust the individuals here, and by and large do not restrict innovativeness."

IBM has about 30,000 employees who use BlackBerry devices, and Bodin expects some of them will continue to use those devices, mainly because they prefer physical qwerty keyboards to touchscreen keyboards. The BlackBerry Enterprise Server that IBM uses has been in place for about eight years, but IBM's move to support other platforms will parallel what BES provides through IBM's own comprehensive Tivoli mobile device management software, Bodin said.

To reach the 100,000 people on other platforms by year's end, IBM has conducted pilot projects of 5,000 workers on the iOS and Android platforms with both smartphones and tablets. Other mobile operating systems will also be supported, Bodin said, including Microsoft's Windows Phone. Research In Motion's BlackBerry will also continue to be supported.

Even though it is open to supporting new smartphone and tablet platforms, IBM will continue requiring employees to use eight-digit alphanumeric passwords to access phone or tablet functions. In the future, the log-in process could rely on biometric identification tools that recognize a user's facial features, fingerprints or voice, Bodin added. "We're working with device manufacturers to make sure procedures for unlocking a phone can be accessed at the right time," he said.


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