COPE: a new idea for an increasingly BYOD world

The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend continues to gain steam in the mobile enterprise market: A recent study from and Intel found that 38 percent of U.S. CIOs were estimated to support BYOD policies by the end of last year, and 82 percent of surveyed companies planned to allow some or all of their employees to use personal devices for work purposes in 2013. And a TechRepublic survey found that 62 percent of companies already have BYOD guidelines in place or plan to by the end of the year.

The increasing popularity is easy to understand, of course. BYOD policies allow employees to choose which devices they can use for work (although those choices can be limited), and it helps businesses cut — or even eliminate — their hardware costs. But reported last week that a new study from Nucleus Research throws cold water on the entire BYOD strategy. BYOD policies can save companies roughly $8 per month per device in up-front costs, Nucleus determined, but those savings amount to less than 10 percent of a typical annual mobility budget. BYOD doesn’t allow businesses to take advantage of bulk device pricing and pooled monthly plans, and it often requires processing expense reports and reimbursements.

There are other concerns about supporting employee-owned devices, too. In some markets in Europe and Asia, legislation prohibits companies from wiping information off devices they don’t own, which could lead to security problems when an employee loses a phone or tablet carrying sensitive data. Regulators and law enforcement agencies can hold businesses accountable for security breaches even when they occur on employee-owned devices, which can be much more difficult to manage than business-owned gadgets. And we could see a wave of lawsuits from employees who feel their bosses use BYOD as a way to intrude on their personal time.

The pros and cons of COPE

The challenges with BYOD have given rise to COPE: corporate-owned, personally enabled devices. COPE has been around in theory, at least, for more than a year (Philippe Winthrop of the Enterprise Mobility Foundation first wrote about it here) as a way for businesses to manage the consumerization of mobile IT. The idea is that employees can buy any device they choose as long as they agree to give IT departments full management and control over the gadget. End users can download approved apps for personal use, just as they often do on corporate-purchased laptops, but the business owns everything about the device: It owns the device itself, it pays the monthly bill, and it may even lay claim to the phone number.

COPE attempts to strike a balance between two primary models: traditional corporate-led deployments where IT departments dictate which devices and apps employees use and the BYOD model, where employees agree to accept IT-chosen mobile device management (MDM) software on their phones, tablets, and laptops. It’s another effort to manage mobile security concerns and costs when the line between personal and professional is blurrier than ever and mixed use is the rule.

A bigger toolkit = a better toolkit

But while COPE is often an attractive middle ground, it also has its pain points. Mobile devices are very personal to many of us, and some employees who have grown accustomed to using their own devices for work purposes are sure to balk at giving IT departments complete control over how they use them. Businesses will have to decide whether to support any available mobile device — a prohibitively costly proposition in many cases — or at least offer options that are attractive enough that employees won’t complain. And the question of who owns the mobile number will be particularly difficult in an era where users take their numbers with them from phone to phone, job to job, and carrier to carrier.

COPE is clearly no panacea for businesses struggling to manage the costs and security issues that are linked to mobility. Like BYOD, it doesn’t preclude the need for clearly defined policies that are explained to every mobile worker, and it requires MDM solutions and IT workers than can address the range of devices offered. Some small and medium-sized companies may find that BYOD or traditional deployments are still the best strategies, and few tech-savvy businesses of substantial size should view COPE as a single strategy for all of its mobile workers and devices. But there’s a lot to like about COPE, and CIOs and IT executives looking at BYOD should certainly reconsider whether it’s worth owning at least some of their employees’ devices after all.