Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: The perils of BYOD

Some people love the movement known as bring your own device (BYOD). Some even insist that it's their right to bring their iPhones, Chromebooks or iPads to work. But I've always been wary of BYOD. Recent developments in how businesses see BYOD have moved me from being concerned to being downright worried.

What I have distrusted about BYOD is its potential to become the attractive carrot for the stick of cost-cutting. The BYOD concept was introduced with an emphasis on employee choice, but I never really bought that spin, and the recent developments confirm my fears. The whole point of BYOD, from the point of view of the senior executives who have embraced it, is to save money.

Take, for example, the state of California with its estimated $16 billion shortfall for the fiscal year. Money doesn't grow on trees, even in fruitful California, so Chris Cruz, deputy director and CIO at the state's Department of Health Care Services, decided to cut costs by no longer supplying or paying for smartphones at all but instead requiring employees to use their own smartphones -- at their own expense. The state employee unions aren't happy about this, so it isn't a done deal yet. But it's still a bad sign of what's in store for workers.

Inevitably, requiring employees to use their own devices for work will happen at other businesses -- possibly including yours. One day soon, the CFOs at many businesses are going to sit down with their CIO counterparts and mandate IT budget cuts of 10% (there goes your company-supplied phone), 20% (there goes your company-paid mobile phone and data services) or 30% (there goes your PC).

BYOD is a slippery slope. It started because we loved our tech toys and wanted to use them for work. That was great for executives who could afford to buy the latest and greatest iPad every time Apple released one. But when BYOD becomes a requirement, it's a pain for those in the upper salary brackets and a de facto cut in pay for those who don't make the big bucks.

And we're talking about some major expenses. For instance, in my own case, my Verizon voice and data plan runs me over $1,500 a year. I'm self-employed, so that's part of my cost of doing business. It shouldn't be part of an employee's cost of keeping a job.

Now, take this one step further. Say you don't have a job. Interviews at one potential employer go well and they say they want to hire you -- but your job will require you to have a late-model Android or iPhonesmartphone with a minimum data plan of 1GB per month. Don't have them? Well, be prepared to fork over the $500 to get the high-end gear and services, because if you don't, they'll find someone else.

Sound like nonsense? Not if you've been following the unemployment news. To quote from a recent Brooking Institute report, "It has always been harder to find a job the longer you are unemployed. But the situation facing American workers today goes well beyond historical norms. For all unemployed workers, the probability of finding new employment in today's economy is considerably lower than it was prior to the Great Recession."

In other words, the less likely you are to be able to afford the kind of gear and services that BYOD requires, the less likely you are to be able to find a job. It's a vicious cycle, and BYOD feeds right into it.

Let's set aside the financial issues. What about the problems with mixing work and personal life on the same device? Say you write to your sweetie from your phone and then the company wants to dig into your text messages and e-mails. Where are you then? It's your phone, but it holds a lot of the company's data. Whose rights will prevail in these situations?

What happens if the office insists that you update your software and you're left with a brick instead of a phone or tablet?

Say that your device goes on the fritz but you still need to get your job done -- and there's no device to loan you. Is your boss going to give you any slack? I don't think so. And, by the way, a CTO told me this has happened often in his company.

Or say you're working on a personal software project on the same device you use for work. Who owns your project? This is an eternal problem in tech circles, but BYOD is only going to make it messier.

As I see it, we're on our way to an economy where the reaction to BYOD goes from, "Gee, it's so neat that I can use my gadget at work," to,"Jeez, to keep this lousy job, I have to pay for my own hardware and services, and I have no privacy."

In other words, BYOD is going to transform from being a neat benefit to being a painful job requirement. Just remember, I warned you.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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