Is your firm equipped to deal with fragmentation of your mobile IT estate?

Mobile gadgets are a crucial part of any business today, but keeping control of this ever-growing category of devices can pose numerous challenges. And one issue that’s likely to affect any enterprise is that of fragmentation.

This is where devices within a network cover a wide range of disparate hardware and software systems. When it comes to smartphones, it typically means dealing with hardware from multiple manufacturers, which may each have their own quirks and ways of working, as well as different operating systems.

Unlike desktop environments, this is often more than a case of choosing between Windows and Mac systems. Every hardware maker will have its own way of doing things, and the different operating systems in use will have very different requirements, even between versions.

With employees now expecting firms to offer mobile capabilities, and the number of devices in use on the rise, this is an issue every firm will experience to some degree. According to a 2018 study by Enterprise Mobility Management, three-quarters of firms (72 per cent) use more than 100 company-owned mobile devices, while one in three (32 per cent) have over 1,000. Therefore, the key question is how you cope with fragmentation.

The causes of mobile fragmentation

There are several reasons for fragmentation within a businesses’ mobile estate, with perhaps the biggest cause being a lack of centralised planning for a business, as well as the effect of policies such as bring your own device (BYOD). Some workers are likely to prefer Apple devices, for instance, while others will expect to use Android-powered handsets.

Even within operating systems, fragmentation can still be an issue if businesses aren’t paying attention, and this is especially true for firms that are managing Android environments. Whereas iOS remains tightly controlled by Apple and is only available on a comparatively small number of devices, Android is a much less centralised system.

This means that while Apple can closely control how it updates its software – with the vast majority of users being automatically rolled over to the newest version of iOS as soon as it becomes available – this is not the case for Android.

Traditionally, Google’s operating system updates have been rolled out in a very gradual manner, with priority given to some of the most popular flagship devices and those sold under Google’s own brand – from earlier Nexus gadgets to today’s Pixel line. This meant that other devices, often older and less expensive smartphones, could be waiting months or even years for updates, as new software has to be tested and approved for each device individually.

While Google has made efforts to improve this, there is still a lot of work to be done. As of March 2019, figures from Statcounter show just how fragmented the Android ecosystem is, with around 18.83 per cent of phones and tablets worldwide running version 8.0 Oreo, with a further 18.33 per cent running version 8.1, 16 per cent using version 6.1 Marshmallow and 11.69 per cent using version 7.0 Nougat.

By comparison, almost three-quarters of iOS devices run the newest version 12.1 of the operating system.

The challenges businesses face

But what does this mean in practice? For many businesses, having so many different devices and operating systems within their network will mean extra work ensuring that key business apps are able to work effectively across all devices, especially if they are creating their own solutions.

On a basic level, the need to support both iOS and Android solutions greatly increases the work required to build business applications. This is an issue that even large firms can struggle with, with many facing customer complaints from one faction or the other that their consumer-facing apps are only offered for iOS not Android, or vice-versa.

The same is true when building internal solutions, as more devices means greater need for testing to identify any bugs or issues that may only crop up on certain devices, which adds time and money to developments.

It also requires businesses to look closely at issues such as user experience. If employees will be using a wide variety of smartphones and tablets with different screen sizes, for instance, it can be a challenge designing a user interface that scales effectively for each device without distortion or misalignment of key features.

Even seemingly straightforward issues, such as charging and connecting devices directly to PCs and laptops, can pose challenges. Many businesses may now, for instance, run devices that feature a mix of micro USB, USB-C and Apple Lightning ports for their wired connectivity, which means more work in ensuring everyone has the right cable in the right place when they’re needed. This may seem simple, but across a large company, it can add up to a lot of lost productivity if they aren’t taken into account.

Keeping control of your network

In a perfect world, businesses would ensure all of their devices were from the same manufacturer and used the same operating system, thus ensuring full consistency at all times. But because we don’t live in a perfect world, this is never going to be the case.

The fact that certain employees may need different devices for specific purposes, staggered upgrade schedules that may mean some employees get handset with different capabilities than others, and the addition of BYOD devices to the network means there will inevitably be issues of fragmentation within your business. The task for IT professionals is how they deal with this and minimise any issues or disruption it may cause.

A major part of the solution is having visibility into your entire estate to identify where the most likely issues will be. For instance, if all your Android smartphones are running on version 7 or later, this may not make a huge difference to the user experience. But if you still have a few older devices running version 6 or even version 5, you need to be able to quickly spot these and prioritise them for upgrades.

Having this visibility also helps with longer-term planning and replacements. For instance, if a user has been working with a particular manufacturer or operating system for years, this should be factored in if they need to be issued with a replacement device due to a repair, and indicate any areas of difference they must be aware of through training should they upgrade to a newer environment.

As more businesses shift towards a mobile-first approach to IT, keeping control of devices will become ever-more crucial to ensuring productivity and cost-effectiveness. Therefore, solutions that can tackle fragmentation issues will be a must.