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Could a Smartphone Solve the Notebook Security Problem?

One of the big trends I’m watching for the next several years is the move to next-generation smartphones instead of laptops as the primary means of mobile access to increasingly cloud-based IT solutions. With the launch of the second-generation iPhone – as well as high-profile competitors based on Google and Microsoft technologies from vendors ranging from HP to Palm to RIM’s own Bold and Thunder – maybe it’s time we took a look at whether a smartphone could be part of the security solution.

Granted, up until recently the smartphone was seen as an unprotected problem. But with improvements to security and centralized management tools from a variety of players, it no longer needs to be. But could a laptop user really live on a smartphone – and what would be the security advantages?

Recently, I’ve been playing with a unique accessory called the Redfly Mobile Companion. What makes this accessory really interesting is that it's a laptop hardware emulator that works with a Windows Mobile phone. It doesn’t run an OS and doesn’t have any persistent storage. It simply re-displays what is on the phone on a laptop-sized screen, which is coupled with a laptop-like keyboard and touch pad. In effect, it turns your Windows Mobile-based smartphone into a laptop-sized device.

What's fascinating is that when you take the Windows Mobile user interface and blow it up to PC size, you actually get a much more livable experience. And although it is limited, the number of things you can do on a smartphone today exceeds what you could do on early laptops. If you are like me and mostly live on email, you can almost live on the result – the only real problems are the limitations of the browser and the bandwidth, both of which are improving rapidly.

There are performance issues with the current generation of smartphones. But both Apple’s new iPhone and Nvidia’s recently announced Tegra promise to address these shortcomings.

But how could smartphones be more secure than laptops? In a word: capacity – or the lack of it. One of the big problems with laptops is that people keep putting large databases of customer information on them – then find them lost or stolen, resulting in a public relations nightmare. And no matter how well this information is encrypted or protected, if we can’t certify that it has been destroyed, we are still pretty much screwed.

Smartphones, on the other hand, don’t have the capacity to hold that sort of data, so the exposure is vastly lower. And, unlike laptops, which are only occasionally connected to the network, smartphones are virtually always connected when they are turned on. They can more easily, and more assuredly, be wiped if they are lost or stolen.

Granted, this last point requires the use of relatively sophisticated management tools. But these tools are readily available, and they are very similar to tools that were developed for PCs. The combination of low memory and more persistent connectivity potentially makes smartphones much more secure than laptop computers.

There are drawbacks with currently available smartphones. I still think most current models are still too heavily reliant on password-based security. They should use biometrics or some other more secure access method.

In the end, though, I think it is past time we started looking at smartphones differently. We have to secure them and pay for them anyway. As the technology gets better – and it will, with Apple's introduction of the new iPhone later this year – we should see them as new, and possibly more secure, alternatives to laptops.

— Rob Enderle is President and Founder of Enderle Group . Special to Dark Reading

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