Magazine Article | October 26, 2012

Mobile Apps Take Center Stage

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine

The focus shifts from devices to applications as enterprises embrace new mobile computing paradigms.

Enterprise mobility deployments have become increasingly complex as a variety of new mobile devices has come to market and new methods of deploying and managing mobile applications have developed. In the past, mobile deployments centered on device selection, but with the proliferation of platforms, selecting the application has become more complicated.

“Today, employees may have a range of different devices and operating systems,” says Daniel Chu, senior product manager at Google. “As a result of that diversity, field service companies are faced with the challenge of finding workforce management software that is consistent across platforms and then training employees on how to use that software on their individual devices.”

Rather than the traditional centralized approach to solution/device management, individual users are gradually gaining more control over the applications running on their mobile devices. “Today, that authoritarian approach to device management has given way to a finer set of controls aimed at the app layer: MAM (mobile application management),” says T.L. Neff, executive VP for global client services at Verivo Software. “There is a focus on efficiently provisioning the right apps to each role within the enterprise.”

Multiplatform Solutions Present Challenges
If multiple platforms are already in place within a company, selecting or developing a mobile app can be extremely complicated. Not only does the application have to run on multiple types of devices with multiple operating systems, but it also must meet IT requirements for authentication, application management, and connectivity.

“Some of the challenges of working on a multiplatform solution are the differences between the platforms in supported features, the need to redesign and reconfigure the same app for different platforms, and the management of different platforms. You also can’t forget the differences in the look and feel for the user and the user experience when switching between platforms,” says Hadar Shafir, product manager at ClickSoftware.

Device- and platform-agnostic applications based on HTML5 or other open mobility platforms (preferably utilizing an adaptive user interface) can eliminate these headaches. “With an enterprise mobility platform, businesses can build, deploy, and manage both native and hybrid apps,” Neff says. “Certain enterprise mobility platforms provide a dragand- drop integrated development environment offering true configure-once, run-anywhere capability with code-free architecture, unlimited data integration, enterprise-grade security features, and simultaneous cross-platform deployment.”

According to Scott Lutz, VP of global marketing at Data Systems International (DSI), you should focus on the user experience and the application itself, rather than the myriad of devices available. “Companies need to ignore the devices and focus on the end-to-end environment or platform that will allow them to have a high availability connection/integration to their enterprise systems, an integrated app development environment, and the ability to deploy to all the device operating systems,” Lutz says. “Trying to develop and manage apps based on the device market is a losing proposition. Devices shouldn’t be ignored, but they can’t be the driver.”

Mobile App Development Tools Come of Age
For companies trying to create new mobile applications, selecting the right development tools is critical to overcome this complexity. “Developing a solution that can run on multiple platforms is challenging because each mobile platform takes a different approach to some key areas, including running background processes, location sharing, and notifications,” Chu says. “These differences can make it nearly impossible for the app to perform exactly the same way across platforms.”

Cross-platform suites are now available that can help companies deploy field service, proof of delivery, and other applications, while providing complete application life cycle support (from design to testing to management) in a consistent way. A good platform provides the logic to script a mobile process or application with objects that can handle any device exceptions, regardless of platform. “For example, an app requires the user to log the location, and the app designer included a function in the workflow to call on the device’s GPS function to populate that field,” Lutz says. “What if the end user has a device that doesn’t have GPS? You either have to create two different apps for those with and without GPS, or you can use a platform that allows for just one app but has the logic built in to accommodate both variations and manage the exception automatically.”

The Role Of Enterprise App Stores
What about deploying mobile apps once they’re developed? Many are turning to a familiar model: the app store, pioneered by Apple and now widely adopted for other platforms. Many companies have designed “enterprise app stores” so that employees can selectively deploy whichever apps they might need.

“While mandatory apps can be automatically provisioned to an employee when they get a new device, corporate app stores can be a useful way to distribute optional apps,” Neff says. “Other companies prefer the use of an enterprise mobility platform in order to steer them in the right direction with app stores. The key benefit to these platforms is allowing developers to make changes without having to recode, generate new code, recompile, perform regression testing, or resubmit. The changes are instead pushed out over the air. Of course, it is worth noting that for major undertakings, like wholesale redesign of a mobile app, some app stores require the app to be resubmitted to stay within compliance.”

Complex enterprise applications can also be broken into separate modules to provide a modular solution, which gives companies flexibility in choosing the modules they need. “Instead of working with a single monolithic application, work with a set of tools that can be integrated to provide a single solution, but can also be easily detached or replaced without affecting the main flow and without going into extensive upgrade projects,” Shafir says.

The advantage to the app store approach is that companies can support a diverse workforce of information workers by allowing them to control their own approaches to doing their jobs. It easily accommodates the “bring your own device” trend in enterprise mobility, and makes IT support more decentralized.

The shift to cloud-based applications is also changing the way companies manage their mobile deployments. “Traditionally, companies have hosted their enterprise mobility apps on dedicated servers, requiring them to plan ahead for data storage,” Neff says. “The elasticity of the cloud allows companies to easily and cost-effectively expand their server space, allowing them to scale the scope of their mobility initiatives over time.”

Using cloud-based applications also helps companies manage frequent app changes and deploy them quickly. “It helps companies have access more quickly to new functionality,” Lutz says. “If this was maintained on-premise, it would be like any other major enterprise platform: upgrading is disruptive and expensive, and rarely do companies keep up with the latest release.”

Companies will continue to move away from the traditional application management paradigm, which was originally established for desktop deployments and relied on standardized devices and software. “Today, the availability of Google Play, Apple’s App Store, etc., means that devices are much more customizable and that deployment is much more in the hands of the end user rather than IT,” Chu says. “That has both its opportunities and its challenges. It’s an opportunity because enterprise mobile apps can be much more mainstream and live in the same app store deployment model as their consumer cousins. It’s a challenge because enterprise mobile app developers must try to still assume that upgrade rates are going to be slower and inconsistent across the deployed devices.”

The vendors I interviewed emphasized that the device has to play a secondary role to the application. “New technologies come out every day, so an organization’s mobile strategy should not be built around the device but around a strong mobile solution,” Shafir says. “The right mobile solution is device agnostic, so that when the selected device becomes obsolete, the mobile solution will be flexible, modular, and adaptive to continue in a seamless way on another device.”