by Matt Neigh
Date Published - Last Updated February 25, 2016

I am the Cherwell service desk’s worst nightmare. There, I said it (and they’d tell you so, too). Why? Because I’m in love with technology, but I’m a minimalist. Laptops are too bulky; I want to be able to do everything I need to from my phone...or, better yet, from my watch. I’m constantly looking for ways to do more with less (a familiar refrain), regardless of what our company policy says, and I want the service desk to support me in that endeavor.

Take my recent speaking engagement at the FUSION 13 Conference & Expo. I wanted to use my iPad, not my laptop, for my presentation, and I was using an app called Slide Shark. It’s an awesome app when it works, but in this particular case, it didn’t. Was it the projector? The application? The iPad? The VGA dongle?

I needed someone to help me figure it out, so I called my service desk.

IT: “What app are you talking about, Matt? What does it do?”

Me: “Why can’t you guys figure out what the issue is? I thought that’s what we had a service desk for!” [My blood pressure rises as I explain. On the other end, silence.]

IT: “Sorry, Matt. We don’t know much about how iPads and that projector interact. We know even less about the app. Does anyone else use it?”

Me: “I don’t know. It’s made my life easier, that’s all I know.”

IT: “We’ll look it up on a forum and troubleshoot. Will that help?”

Me: “Sorry for my frustration. My session starts in fifteen minutes, and I don’t want to use a bulky laptop.”

IT: “We know, but it is what it is. Sorry.”

Ever encountered that scenario before? Maybe it’s the managing partner of a law firm who shows up with a new iPad mini and wants it configured. Maybe it’s the professor who just downloaded a new app to facilitate collaboration with students. Maybe it’s the salesperson who just bought a new Google Nexus that doesn’t work with Office 365. Whatever the issue, the service desk is faced with supporting an ever-growing variety of mobile devices. If only the transition was as simple as moving from desktop support to laptop support, or as easy as upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7. But it’s not. There are now more mobile devices than people on Earth, and more than two billion of those devices were shipped in 2013 alone. So, let’s explore some of the differences between mobile and traditional support and discuss how service desks that aren’t supporting mobile devices yet can get started.

The Differences Between Traditional and Mobile Support

There are three key areas where supporting mobile devices differs from supporting desktops or laptops, hardware, operating systems, and applications.


Like my friend’s father who still longs for the days when you could disassemble the engine in a car and troubleshoot that knocking sound without having to hook it up to a computer, IT is feeling the same pressure. The service desk and desktop support teams have traditionally had the luxury of focusing only on software, as the hardware has been fairly generic. Even with the advent of the laptop, the biggest challenge was learning a new keyboard layout and figuring out what key, if any, I had to hold down to use one of the F-keys. Those days are gone.

What is a mobile device? The lines have blurred: tablets, phablets, and smartphones, even watches and glasses, are technically mobile devices. And there is no hardware standard. Asking the service desk to stay current on all of the different mobile devices on the market, and to have a working knowledge of all of the differences between them, is simply not feasible.

Operating Systems

Adding to the hardware complexities, service desks must also support multiple operating systems. With traditional support, the vast majority of devices use known operating systems, and service desk technicians and analysts who have an in-depth knowledge of Windows and lightning-fast troubleshooting skills are in high demand.

Mobile devices use three primary operating systems: Android, iOS, and Windows. But each of these operating systems behaves differently, even version to version: for example, on iOS 7, you swipe up to close an app on an iPad, but on all previous iOSes, you tap on the app icon and hold until it vibrates and the red X appears. How can technicians stay on top of it all?

Exacerbating this challenge is the fact that mobile operating system upgrades are released much more frequently than traditional desktop/laptop operating systems. Some of you probably just completed your Windows 7 upgrades, even though Windows 8.1 is now available. Why? Because operating system upgrades are a major project. You have to test the new operating system to make sure it will “play nice” with the organization’s enterprise apps; you have to train employees on how to use the new system; and you have to plan and execute a rollout to all of the machines in your organization. This isn’t a project to be undertaken lightly, and even with all that work, there will still be the inevitable glitches.

Mobile operating system upgrades are much simpler. My iPad asked me if I wanted the latest iOS upgrade, I tapped a button, and now I have iOS 7 on my iPad. Nothing stops me from doing that, even though it’s a company device. There’s no testing, no consideration for known errors (which I found out only after I’d installed the upgrade!). My iPad prompted me to upgrade, I accepted, and it was done in less than five minutes. How can the service desk keep up? Will it know whether new operating systems will work with the organization’s approved applications, across devices? And, if there’s an issue, will the service desk be able to troubleshoot the problem, isolate the issue, or roll the device back to a previous version of the OS?


As if the hardware and software considerations weren’t enough, the support challenges are compounded by applications and how they interact with mobile devices. This isn’t limited to “rogue” applications, like my Slide Shark, either; support can be tricky even when it comes to approved, company-endorsed applications. Office 365 behaves very differently on an iPad than it does on a Galaxy or a laptop. Does the service desk know all of the tips and tricks, limitations, and quirks of each application on each device, on each operating system?

Where to Start?

So, we can easily understand why a service desk would feel helpless or overwhelmed when the VP of operations is frustrated when Outlook won’t work on her Nexus Tablet after downloading and installing the latest Android OS. How can the service desk get back into the business of providing valuable service when it comes to supporting mobile devices?

The first thing a service desk has to do is accept the reality of today’s mobile world. People are their devices: the devices and applications they choose to use are a reflection of who they are and how they operate. Accept it. It is what it is. With that out of the way, service desks need to answer the following questions.

What Will Be Supported?

It would behoove the service desk to decide what it will and will not support, and publish that list in the self-service portal or service catalog. This goes for hardware, software (operating systems), and applications. Does that mean that the service desk gives a thumbs-down to anything that’s not “officially” supported? No. But it does mean that if an employee wants to use a device, OS, or app that falls outside of the service desk’s official parameters, support will be a “best-case effort,” with a limited amount of time spent on troubleshooting, accessing forums, etc. As long as employees have reasonable expectations, they will know what to expect going into the situation—and managing expectations is half the battle.

Who Will Support It?

I was talking to someone at our service desk recently when I noticed a Samsung Galaxy lying in pieces on the desk. I asked him what happened. He said the phone had broken and, as long as it was already broken, he wanted to learn more about how it was put together. So who do you think I’m going to call next time I have an issue with my Galaxy?

Once the service desk has identified what it will support, it’s important to decide who will support it. There are undoubtedly individuals in your organization who want to take on new challenges, are self-taught in particular areas, or want the chance to become specialists (versus generalists). These individuals should become your subject matter experts (SMEs) for specific devices, OSes, or apps.

How Are You Going to Support It?

As daunting as answering the two previous questions may be, that’s the easiest part of the process! Actually supporting a device, OS, or app is not as straightforward as it seems. Here are a few examples of some of the issues service desks may have to contend with:

  • Is the device a company-owned or personal device, and what level of customer service do those types of devices receive? 
  • How much access must employees grant to their personal devices during the troubleshooting and resolution process? 
  • How much actual support is there for a given application? (Many apps have limited or no support.) 
  • Do your SMEs receive formal training, or is participating in an online forum enough?

On that day at FUSION 13, I had to collaborate with our service desk to try and figure out the issue. There was no SME on our service desk, no knowledge article in our knowledge base. Together, my technician and I figured out the problem and solved it, and I was able to give my presentation. Ultimately, successful mobile device support is a collaborative effort between IT and employees. These initiatives just won’t work if IT and employees compete against each other, each trying to one-up the other and win; if employees “abdicate the throne,” turning over all responsibility to IT and assuming they will figure it out; or if IT goes on the defensive, attempting to resist the inevitable onslaught of mobile devices. Employees have to do their part, but the service desk needs to recognize that it’s no longer possible to be an expert on every device, every operating system, or every application. The service desk and employees have to accept that providing service sometimes means taking a best-effort approach (within reason, of course).

Our world is changing at an extremely rapid pace. Even doctors cannot consume enough information to stay current on all developments in modern medicine. That’s why they specialize in pediatrics, cardiothoracic surgery, and dermatology; they become SMEs. Service desks are in the same situation: there’s no way they could consume enough information to stay on top of developments in mobile technology. That’s today’s reality. Even if each group’s goals are different, both IT and mobile users must work together to solve problems and arrive at acceptable solutions.

Mobile technologies are getting smaller and smaller. In the not-too-distant future, we may swallow pills that communicate with our doctors’ mobile devices and diagnose our health problems. What happens when something goes wrong then? Maybe I’ll no longer be the service desk’s worst nightmare!


As Cherwell Software’s technology evangelist, Matt Neigh works closely with existing customers and industry peers to understand how ITSM software solutions are currently being utilized, to explore how customer behavior is driving innovation, and to discover how emerging trends might impact service delivery. Matt has extensive experience with service management solution integration in organizations of various sizes and in a range of industries.

Matt will be presenting on this topic at the HDI 2014 Conference & Expo. Register today and plan on attending Session 509: The Death of Laptops: The Promise and Challenge of New Mobile-Based Platforms!

Tag(s): byod, future of support, mobile device support


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