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The dangers of a smart phone free-for-all

Nearly one in five Canadians owned a smart phone as of March, 2011 – slightly higher than the rate in the U.S., France and Germany.

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A decade ago, the business world had never heard of Angry Birds, BBM or cellphones that could double as cameras, music players or Web browsers.

How times have changed.

Consumers now depend on their smart phones for Internet access, social media and entertainment, so it's little wonder they don't want to give them up once they get to work. Many employees hate the hassle of learning a new operating system and lugging around another piece of tech.

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Making sure smart phones made by multiple manufacturers are secure and usable at work can be a headache for IT departments, which is why many companies prefer to issue a single type of device to their employees. But businesses that embrace the notion of workers using their personal devices and execute it properly could save money, increase productivity and, above all, keep their employees happy, experts say.

"Employees are bringing in phones and companies are trying to find ways to deal with it," said Brandon Mensinga, senior mobile analyst with research firm IDC Canada. "Instead of trying to fight change, it's really a matter of embracing it."

Nearly one in five Canadians owned a smart phone as of March, 2011 – slightly higher than the rate in the U.S., France and Germany, according to Internet market research firm comScore Inc. Their report found that 6.6 million Canadians have a smart phone – one-third of all mobile subscribers in the country.

More than half of employees are already using their own smart phones for business purposes, reports Yankee Group, a Boston-based mobile research firm. IDC says that smart phones owned by employees will make up more than half of all business phones shipped in 2013.

This trend is being called the consumerization of IT – technology is first adopted by consumers before it moves into the business world – and experts say that employers have little choice but to accept it.

"It's definitely become an expectation," said Scott Lowe, vice-president and chief information officer at Westminster College in Missouri, who writes about issues facing IT. "We as IT have to be ready for it."

One of the more attractive features of the shift to employee-owned phones is cost savings. "It alleviates the [cost]of buying a smart phone and paying for a service," says Ramon Llamas, a Massachusetts-based senior research analyst with IDC. Even employers who subsidize the cost of employee-owned phones could save in a big way.

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The move could also boost employee productivity, says Mr. Lowe, as it means employees can stay on top of important issues and manage their responsibilities even when they're out of the office.

"If someone's out on social media bashing your brand, you don't want to wait till Monday morning to respond. You want to have some kind of mechanism where you see that and you're able to respond from where you are," Mr. Lowe said.

Of course, in addition to the benefits of employee-owned smart phones, there are pitfalls that can lead to corporate catastrophe.

Security is one top concern. If employees want access to corporate systems from their personal devices, they must be willing to use passwords and anti-virus software, allow sensitive information to be encrypted, or install systems that allow the device to be wiped if it is lost, stolen or the employee leaves the organization.

"It's always going to come down to security for me," Mr. Llamas said. "This is the one thing that all IT managers say again and again and again …'We're keeping an eye on security.'"

Liability issues are also an important consideration. If employees use personal devices to do work after hours, there can be potential for abuse or future complaints against the business, Mr. Lowe said.

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Some employees may balk at corporate policies placing restrictions on how they use their personal devices. But that's the price employees have to pay if they want to use their smart phones for work and pleasure, says Mr. Lowe.

"That's probably the mentality people have to get over," he said. "It's not just a phone. It's a mini-computer." Companies that aren't willing to make and enforce those restrictions will likely face headaches, he said.

Experts also advise companies to place limits on what type of operating systems they will support, and require employees to sign statements ensuring they understand the potential for problems.

"It's important to establish a reasonable baseline for what we can and cannot do," Mr. Lowe said. "We can't be all things to all people, no matter how hard we try."

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