Magazine Article | August 23, 2013

The Benefits Of Mobile Development Tools

By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine

More companies are opting to develop their own mobile apps using MEAPs (mobile enterprise application platforms) to address deployment complexity.

In a 2011 report, Infiniti Research predicted that the MEAP market would reach $1.6 billion in 2014. Companies are going the development route rather than purchasing off-the-shelf (OTS) applications because of the unique processes and requirements of these line-ofbusiness mobile solutions. “[For] most large enterprises, OTS mobile applications just do not work,” says Jim Somers, chief marketing and strategy officer at Antenna Software. “While mobile extensions of certain enterprise applications may address some aspects of what companies are trying to accomplish, they typically require extensive customization and only serve as a Band-Aid to the true mobility problem. Frequently we see OTS applications that aren’t designed with the mobile experience in mind — but are simply desktop applications shrunk to the mobile scale. This just isn’t the way that mobile workers do their jobs.”

According to Gartner’s Magic Quadrant report in 2012, companies are turning to mobile application development platforms (MADPs, a term used interchangeably with MEAP) because of the proliferation of mobile operating systems, each of which has its own presentation style and software stack, as well as multiple types of mobile devices with different capabilities. Until 2009, the majority of enterprises wrote OS-specific native applications but rapidly shifted to hybrid and Web-oriented architectures. In 2011, just 40 percent of developers were primarily targeting native platforms, and by 2015 Gartner predicts that 80 percent of all mobile apps will be hybrid or Web-oriented.

That, in turn, has pushed interest in these new mobile development platforms that allow companies to write the application once for multiple platforms and devices. That reduces cost and risk, while providing a more customized application and business-specific functionality than an OTS mobile product or a standard mobile extension of a desktop/ server-based enterprise software product. “MADPs enable business agility, empowering information workers to do their jobs more efficiently,” says Mark Goode, senior VP of sales and marketing at DSI. “OTS applications cannot anticipate the individual requirements of an employee.”

Cross-platform functionality has become critical, because companies are deploying such a wide range of devices, even within the same application in some instances. “With true multichannel support, a developer can write once and deploy across mobile devices, tablets, and desktop,” says Dipesh Mukerji, senior director of product strategy at Kony. “This centralized approach results in efficiencies for the organization’s mobile development team and consistency of experience across all channels for their users.”

Multiple MEAP Options
According to Gartner, there are three general types of MEAP/MADP toolkits: Native tools developed for a specific mobile OS, Web toolkits that enable the development of entirely Web-based/browser-based apps, and crossplatform suites that allow an application to execute on multiple devices. There are also companies that sell packaged mobile applications or application suites and make their development platforms available so that users can either customize the solutions themselves or work with the vendor to integrate their unique business requirements.

Native tools typically provide the most capability for their given OS but are limited to that one platform. Web toolkits may be hampered by some performance and platform limitations and usually require a strong network connection. Cross-platform suites allow for faster development and can even generate mobile Web, native, and hybrid apps from a single set of code. However, these systems are often more expensive and require development personnel to learn some additional skills to use the tool.

The advantage of using a MEAP rather than relying on a packaged application is that these tools will usually provide automatic support for changes in the various supported mobile operating systems. Depending on the vendor, these changes and upgrades may be implemented more quickly than would be the case with an OTS solution.

According to the experts I interviewed, larger enterprises frequently benefit from MEAPs instead of relying on OTS solutions, while smaller organizations tend to gravitate toward packaged software. “Larger companies typically have unique business processes, workflows, and requirements. That’s really the main requirement for leveraging a mobile platform, and it can apply to companies of any size. The unique business requirements simply make OTS solutions unworkable or require so much modification that the effort is greater than simply developing the right app for the job from the start,” says Somers.

With the right platform, new mobile applications can be quickly developed that fully integrate to each company’s enterprise requirements. “By contrast, OTS applications are typically proprietary and require a specialized skillset to configure and implement,” Goode says. “Moreover, because they only solve specific problems, OTS applications have a cost of ownership that is significantly higher. MADPs lower [costs] because companies can build and deploy applications across the entire enterprise without requiring significant reinvestment or reconfiguration.”

MEAPs: Not For Everyone
There are instances when an OTS solution might be more practical than developing a new mobile application. And many companies that offer MEAP tools also offer packaged software solutions for field service, field sales, and other applications. Mukerji recommends this approach for what he calls “lightweight” business-to-consumer apps that are being used to test the waters in a new market. “But if you have predominantly B2E apps and large-scale B2C apps in mind, where security is a premium concern as well as proper native enterprise integration into back end enterprise systems like SAP, Oracle CRM, Salesforce, etc., then a MEAP is the right method to pursue for scalability, availability, reliability, infrastructure, etc.,” he says.

Companies that are unsure of what they want to accomplish with their mobile applications, those that are unclear of which business processes they want to automate, or those that have limited resources to develop an application may also start with OTS solutions. “For many companies, mobile is still very new, and they don’t know what they don’t know,” Somers says. “An OTS application is a good first step for a company that is just looking to do one app for an internal organization. Particularly if the function for the app is not business-critical, an OTS app can be a good place to start to identify exactly what the business requires.”