This year brings a handful of new mobile platforms to the market: Firefox, Ubuntu, Tizen, and the new BlackBerry software.
That should be good news for mobile workers. Given the growing adoption of BYOD policies by businesses, it would seem that workers will have even more choice of phones.
But the term BYOD sounds better than it really is.
"BYOD was a fancy term for 'yes, I support your iPhone,'" said Chris Hazelton, analyst with The 451 Group. "That's changing to 'I will support your iPhone and Android, including tablets.' But there's still a ways to go before a majority of companies will support every device."
iOS drove the BYOD trend. Historically many companies would only support BlackBerry phones and maybe Windows Mobile phones, so that those were the only phones you could get corporate email on. But companies eventually reacted when so many people started bringing their iPhones to work by first supporting corporate email on the devices and now often going so far as to build internal apps for them.
But in some regards the current environment can be as limited as it was before. Now instead of BlackBerry and Windows Mobile, businesses support iOS and Android, and possibly but not always, a third. "As more new platforms come into the enterprise, it's harder for enterprises to support multiple platforms," said Srinivas Krishnamurti, senior director for Mobile Solutions in the CTO Office at VMware.
That's because with limited resources IT departments prioritize for the platforms with the most users. It's the same for companies building apps. When Hazelton hears from companies building new business or consumer apps, they almost always are available first on iOS, with Android and other platforms following.
"We urge our clients to take an approach where you can support as many OSes as possible… but pick your battles. Go for iOS, Android, Windows; or iOS, Android, and BlackBerry, because at the end of the day it's a resource issue from a support standpoint. Supporting everything isn't probably realistic," said Chris Silva, an analyst with the Altimeter Group.
It's not all doom and gloom though. If mobile workers do decide to buy Tizen, Firefox or Ubuntu phones – and it's not at all certain they will – the BYOD trend will help a bit. Say your company has built an internal app for iOS only. If your company has a BYOD policy, there's a chance you'll be able to use your Firefox phone to access the web version of that app. It might not be as nice as the iOS app though.
Eventually, more companies might start using tools that make it easier to develop apps for multiple platforms so that additional mobile platforms aren't left in the cold, said Hazelton.
But they are likely to wait until the new platforms are being used by a significant number of users and then they'll take a phased approach to supporting them, said Krishnamurti. Initially, your IT department might let you get corporate email on the device. If the device supports Microsoft's Active Sync, IT administrators can remotely wipe the emails in case the phone is lost or the employee leaves the company.
Businesses will also be reliant on the vendors of their device management products. Those companies must build support for the new OSes into their products. "If enterprises are deploying newer platforms, the onus is on us to support our customers. Those of us that can move fast and support more platforms will win. Those that can't keep up will get left behind," said VMware's Krishnamurti.