CIOs say ROI on mobile devices not a big concern

Wireless technology and mobile workforces have become so ingrained in companies that return-on-investment concerns rarely become an issue when new wireless devices or applications are being deployed, according to CIOs who spoke at a conference this week.

For example, Northrop Grumman CIO Keith Glennan said the aerospace company views Research In Motion's BlackBerry handheld systems as essential to its global operations. The Los Angeles-based company has rolled out 5,500 BlackBerry units to its employees, making it one of the largest users of the wireless devices, Glennan said at a CIO forum sponsored by the Wireless Internet for the Mobile Enterprise Consortium at the University of California.

In fact, every time Research In Motion releases a new model, Northrop Grumman tests the technology in a corporate jet to ensure that it can provide mobile services to executives while they're in transit.

Scott Griffin, CIO at The Boeing Co. in Chicago, said his company also uses BlackBerry devices extensively, but not within its airplane division. The CIO of that business unit -- not its chief financial officer -- decided against deploying the devices for cost reasons, Griffin said. That choice notwithstanding, the company does "not do an ROI on mobility," he said. "Some people must be connected, and then we figure out how much mobility they need."

Because Boeing seems to move each of its workers to new locations on an annual basis, building wireless connections into company facilities makes sense, Griffin said. It's easier and less expensive to hook up transplanted employees via wireless links than by installing new Ethernet jacks, he said.

But Griffin said that IT managers also have to think through how to deliver all of Boeing's applications so they can be used on small LCD screens. That includes applications now used by Boeing's engineers on high-end scientific workstations.

Lance Perry, vice president of IT infrastructure at Cisco Systems Inc., said the networking vendor has about 30,000 remote users in 100 countries. "Even 9-to-5 workers have mobility needs when they go home," he said.

Corporate IT executives can't afford to ignore or dismiss mobility requirements because of ROI concerns, Perry said. Mobile computing capabilities have become "a critical component of a company's success."

Perry said companies can better manage their costs by using wireless technology to its fullest. For example, they could give end users IP-based "soft phones" built into PCs for use in making international calls over public-access wireless LANs.

Ken Venner, CIO at Broadcom, a semiconductor maker, sees the growing ubiquity of public-access WLANs as a boon to laptop-toting mobile workers and said it's up to IT departments to ensure that business users have access to solid, secure connections, no matter where they're working.

Venner also emphasized the downside of wireless networks: security risks. Protection from security threats needs to be built in from the start, not as an afterthought, he said.

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