The executives at Tysons Corner-based MicroStrategy gather in an 11th-floor conference room each Monday for the weekly “ops meeting,” a four-hour session during which they comb through data about the business intelligence firm’s operations, strategy and performance.
Assistants used to compile and bind a 30- to 50-page report each week in preparation for the lunchtime session, a static if comprehensive document that executives could flip through as a point of reference.
But the firm has largely supplanted that entire process — paper-binding and all — through the use of company-issued iPads, digital reports and mobile applications that executives can fire up before they even arrive at the office.
“We now have those reports automatically generated using MicroStrategy software ... and sent directly through iPads first thing Monday morning,” said Sanju Bansal, co-founder and chief operating officer. “So when we show up at noon for that meeting, we are all well-armed with that information.”
A growing number of businesses are developing a mobile-first mentality to capitalize on the popularity of tablets and smartphones among their workforce. In some instances, that means deploying apps or mobile-oriented software for away-from-the-desk use.
Sometimes those devices are doled out by the companies themselves. MicroStrategy, for example, has bought about 2,000 iPads for managers to take on business trips and representatives to tote during sales calls, among other uses.
But the trend is being driven in large part by the consumerization of technology — a movement in which employees bring their personal gizmos into the workplace and expect to integrate them into their daily routine.
“We are already in the midst of the mobile revolution,” said William Briggs, the deputy chief technology officer and director at Deloitte Consulting. “In 2012, researchers predict more mobile devices than human beings on the planet. And our expectations of enterprises — either as customers or employees — are increasingly being defined by our consumer lives.”
MicroStrategy now sells the software it used to build its internal apps to companies in industries as varied as retail, financial services and pharmaceuticals, said Hugh Owen, director of mobile marketing.
“The industries specifically that we see coming up a lot are industries that are predominantly good at and have a history of using data and deploying that data to the right people to help them make decisions,” he said.
But as organizations begin to shift their office procedures to mobile platforms, the transition can raise challenging questions for corporate IT departments.
The departments that once issued desktop computers to each employee, and perhaps a laptop if necessary, must now contend with a wider range of products and questions about how much control they can exert over devices they don’t actually buy.
The proliferation of mobile devices has introduced what-if scenarios that present new security risks for IT departments: What happens when an employee leaves his phone in a cab? Or unwittingly downloads an app saddled with malicious software?
Today, those risks are often mitigated by corporate oversight. Employers could require that devices be password protected, approve new software before it’s installed, and if need be, remotely kill gadgets that are lost or stolen.
But when the consumer owns the device and uses it for work only part of the time, the role of corporate oversight becomes complicated. The line between employee privacy and corporate protection can be just as blurry as the line between device ownership and control.
“That risk is growing over time as the devices are being permitted to access more and more confidential data and people are simply using more and more unknown and unverified applications on their devices,” said Tyler Lessard, the chief marketing officer at Fixmo, a mobile security company.
“It’s not something that is just a small-business thing,” he continued. “We’re talking about major companies that have serious regulatory requirements that are embracing the bring-your-own-device approach.”
Briggs at Deloitte said employers have generally become more savvy about cybersecurity in recent years as they move more operations online, store information in off-site data centers and accommodate a wired workforce. Mobile is simply the latest frontier, he said.
“Scenarios that you never worried about on the laptop become the barriers to mobile,” Briggs said. “It’s how do you move from imaginable risk to acceptable risk. And that’s what has to happen.”
New cybersecurity firms are jumping into the breach. Firms such as Sterling-based Fixmo are crafting businesses that help corporations maintain their data privacy and security as a growing number of personal devices connect to their networks.
Fixmo’s software allows a business to partition a smartphone or tablet into sections so employers can monitor the security settings of apps that are used exclusively for business purposes while allowing the remainder of the device to stay in the employee’s control.
“You can’t completely eliminate the risk,” Lessard said. “Security is not about fully eliminating the risks. It’s about how do you manage it.”
The variety of makes and models presents another difficulty for companies embracing mobile devices and apps. Smartphone users have no shortage of options when it comes to devices with operating systems from Apple, Google, BlackBerry or Microsoft Windows.
Each mobile platform requires a company to build separate versions of the same app, an endeavor that can be both time consuming and expensive, depending on the app’s complexity.
“If you look at how often all of the mobile platforms change ... when you do an app as a CIO, you’re effectively shifting to a product-management mentality,” Briggs said. “For a lot of companies, that’s not where they want to be.”
That predicament prompted the creators of Dasdak, a company that facilitates mobile food orders at restaurants and sporting venues, to build their software on a Web page. It allows any device with an Internet connection — thus, every smartphone — to interact with the same page.
“I can build it once and focus on more functionality features to help people,” said Swaptak Das, the firm’s founder.
Dasdak began as an internal project. Das wanted to provide faster, more seamless service to patrons at Shadow Room, a lounge he owns on K Street NW. So he outfitted the lounge with touch-screen computers where customers could place drink orders or buy liquor by the bottle. The order would then be put into a queue monitored by the venue’s staff. No lingering at the bar. No flagging down a waiter.
The technology has progressed since then. Patrons can now order directly from their own mobile devices and the software is being piloted at RFK Stadium for fans who want to summon beer or nachos with the swipe of a finger.
“It’s all Web-based, so if it’s a small screen, the system will automatically recognize and fit [that],” Das said.
Regardless of whether companies build traditional apps or Web sites that are optimized for a mobile phone’s screen, the transition to mobile computing is well under way at businesses big and small.
“We have seen a tsunami of apps in the workplace — for smart-phones, for tablets, and for specialized devices — across every industry sector, function and business process domain,” Briggs said.
And many firms aren’t stopping at one.
“When you get one of these devices, you don’t download one app. You download hundreds of apps to help you do hundreds of things better,” said Owen at MicroStrategy. “Organizations are going to do the same.”