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At SAPPHIRE NOW on Tuesday, a panel of enterprise IT administrators dished about their deployments of tablets and smartphones. There was some frank kvetching – even with good tools, it isn’t always easy to keep up with the challenges of securing and managing mobile devices – but the panelists were ultimately positive.

Verizon had the most impressive device deployment to talk about. Formerly a BlackBerry shop, the telco began rolling out 3,800 iPad 2s connected via Verizon’s MiFi 4G service to its employees six weeks ago, according to Cliff Cibelli, manager of global product marketing and management at Verizon.

These are all managed by the Sybase Afaria software (Verizon is also a Sybase partner, reselling Afaria as a managed service to companies).  Ironically, one of the initial difficulties of rolling out the iPads was that iTunes was on Verizon’s corporate software blacklist. That was quickly changed, says Cibelli.

Verizon right now supports about 12 mobile apps, though most of them are accessed via the Safari browser. Though the iPads are corporate-owned devices, it plans to let users install consumer apps via the Apple App Store.

There are factions inside Verizon pushing to allow workers to Bring Their Own Devices to work, according to Cibelli, but progress has been hampered by the strict regulations that telecom companies face.

Still, he’s optimistic that change is afoot. Rolling out the iPads is like “eating salty peanuts,” he said, the implication being once Verizon starts on this process, it’ll be hard to stop.

Pacific Gas & Electric, meanwhile, has been using Afaria to secure the 1,800 ruggedized Windows 32-based devices used by its field workers. E-mail remains the killer app for these workers, along with calendaring and contacts, according to George McQuillister, senior IT architect for client computing at PG&E.

Also a BlackBerry shop, the utility is in the early stages of a Bring Your Own Smartphone program that will take 3 years to spread throughout the company. “It’s a bite-sized approach,” he said.

Though PG&E is not on the cutting-edge, it is a fair improvement from several years ago, when McQuillister had to deal with “40 different form factors and 12 operating systems” among corporate devices and PCs. After formalizing corporate standards, he’s whittled that down to just 7 different form factors.

McQuillister continues to “wrestle” with the policies for the Bring Your Own program. He is opposed to “draconian” policies, citing the fact that he “doesn’t care about your photos or music or apps, my only concern is around our [PG&E’s] data.”  At the same time, he’s not sure how to handle if an e-discovery issue arises, i.e. a legal order to pull data off an employee-owned phone.

Abbott Laboratories has been using Afaria for almost a decade. It uses the software to manage about 5,000 devices, including the several thousand iPads it is rolling out to its salespeople now, said Bernie Tucker, a manager at Abbott.

FDA regulations are his biggest concern. “Most content and apps are regulated, which is why it’s so critical for us to know everything about those devices. They always need to be up to date or we could get penalized,” he said.

Like McQuillister, Tucker plans to use Afaria to build a corporate app store, though, to give Abbott more control over that process.

Boston Scientific, by contrast, already has an app store running on Afaria, said CIO Rich Adducci during a separate press conference with Sybase executives.  It needs one: the medical device maker plans to support 100 apps on its 2,000 iPads by the end of this year (it supported 17 when it rolled out the tablets to salespeople six months ago).

Afaria was “key” to the iPad deployment, which Adducci said was the company’s fastest adoption ever.

“We couldn’t have done it without Afaria,” he said.

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In related news, SAP Services recently began to offer an Afaria promotion in which it promises to get enterprises fully running on the software within a week for just $16,000.

Actually, according to Matthew Schwartz, a vice-president at SAP, “we can install Afaria in less than an hour.”

The remaining time is to make sure Afaria users are configured correctly, and, even more importantly, that the Afaria administrators are trained up. That, he says, is a bargain.

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