What next for mobile enterprise applications?
Providing mobile access to enterprise applications delivers very real benefits to businesses. Staff can become more productive, making the best use of time spent away from the office, while still remaining up-to-date with the efforts of their colleagues. In addition, they can respond to urgent requests at any time, from any place, enabling improved customer service in the fast-paced corporate environment.
When assessing mobile application deployments, perhaps the most important consideration is which employees need mobile data access, and what information it is they need -- criteria which can vary dramatically depending on role, even within the same company. In many cases, mobilising email, corporate address books and calendars will provide executives with all of the information they need when on the move; in contrast, sales staff and field services workers require access to specific corporate applications.
Currently, much of the focus is on enhancing existing services, which already have an established user base but can benefit from the addition of new features -- work here is being driven by the GSM Association's Rich Communications Suite initiative. For example, the addition of "presence" information, similar to that offered by PC instant messaging applications, will enable users to inform their contacts about their availability, status (in a meeting, etc), location, and preferred contact method (voice, text, IM or email), in order to effectively manage incoming communications. And the ability to share multimedia information during a voice call will add a new dimension to enterprise collaboration.
Research In Motion proposes a model where information is seamlessly integrated across applications, for example with calendar entries and emails linked to data from customer relationship management systems, so that staff always have access to the latest information.
The addition of location support also adds a new dimension to enterprise software, driven by the increasing availability of GPS technology in smartphones. At its most basic level, corporate address books can be enhanced to provide employees with navigation assistance; on a more complex level, in industries where field services staff are used, location tracking will enable the most effective management of resources, maximising return-on-investment.
There have been technology issues which have hampered the deployment of mobile collaborative working in the enterprise, some of which still remain. The increased availability of mobile broadband connectivity eases the issue, as collaboration cannot be particularly effective if participants spend a significant amount of time waiting for downloads. However, it is still difficult to conduct voice calls and internet sessions at the same time, and device limitations also affect the overall user experience.
Handset apps versus web services
Reflecting a trend that is also apparent in the traditional computing sector, there are two main methods of mobilising enterprise data: native device applications and web applications. Native applications are installed on a device in a similar way to programmes on a PC, while web applications deliver data to devices via the internet, and are accessible via web browsers or small handset-installed viewers.
The pros and cons for native applications on mobile devices:
- FOR - Native applications can deliver an improved user interface, tailored for mobile devices.
- FOR - Native applications are better suited to working where network connectivity is not available, for example when on an aeroplane.
- AGAINST - The development effort needed to create native software is a barrier to entry, especially for many niche applications.
- AGAINST - Different versions of applications need to be supported where enterprises have devices running different platforms (i.e. BlackBerry, Symbian, Windows Mobile, Linux netbooks, iPhone, Vista-based laptops).
The pros and cons for web applications on mobile devices:
- FOR - Web apps are available from any device with an internet browser and Java capabilities, meaning even basic handsets can access information.
- FOR - Data is always in-sync with servers, removing the danger of discrepancies arising between different sources.
- AGAINST - The format in which data is presented will vary depending on browser and display size, and may not be optimised for devices with limited computing power.
- AGAINST - Web apps may not perform well when outside of network coverage, for example when devices are in "flight" mode.
- AGAINST - Data costs may be prohibitive for roaming users.
- AGAINST - Currently, many web apps are unable to interact with information stored on a device, for example in the address book.
In general, there is something of an industry trend toward web applications, because of the cross-device support they can offer, which is especially appealing for applications targeting niche markets - the cost of developing different variants is prohibitive when a small number of companies are likely to buy the final software. However, many large enterprise systems companies, including IBM, Microsoft, Oracle (and Siebel), SAP ( working with Sybase) and Sybase itself have created mobile clients for their products, which will deliver a superior user experience.
Looking forward, the best compromise will see the evolution of a hybrid model, marrying the flexibility of web apps with improved off-line capabilities.
There are, of course, limitations for enterprise applications when accessed from mobile devices. Numeric keypads are not well suited to intensive data entry, giving devices with QWERTY input or touch screens the edge; screens are limited in size, meaning only small amounts of data can be displayed; device processors and memories limit computing power; and heavy use also impacts battery life.
For users who need to undertake more intensive data processing activities, the new generation of mobile-broadband enabled netbooks may prove a better option -- but at the expense of portability. Indeed, for "nomadic" workers, who travel regularly but spend significant times in one place, a mobile broadband enabled laptop remains the best option.
Smartphones are perhaps best used to view information rather than to manipulate -- despite arguments from some camps that it is "time to leave the laptop behind".
Perhaps the big question for enterprises is the extent to which users will be allowed to add consumer applications to their devices, which will need an extension of corporate IT policies to cover mobile terminals. While some businesses will see the need to lock-down handsets so no third-party applications can be installed without corporate support, some may permit users to access selected consumer services, providing a "perk" for employees - perhaps publishing a "white-list" of permitted non-business applications.