Magazine Article | April 27, 2012

The Must-Knows Of Mobile Applications

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Pedro Pereira, Field Technologies magazine

Build vs. buy, cross-platform, HTML5 — experts help you navigate the landscape of mobile apps.

When deploying a mobile application, one of the most important decisions to make is whether to build or buy the solution. A prebuilt application can offer lower deployment and maintenance costs, expediency, and platform compatibility. “The only time you would develop your own solution is if you have a need for something truly unique,” says Aaron Taylor, product manager at developer DSI. Still, he adds, “You’d be surprised at how many applications are available for your use. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to."

In some situations, however, in-house development makes sense. “A company with highly customized business processes and thousands of field service technicians could benefit from building a custom application,” says Loren Corbridge, senior product manager for enterprise mobility at Sybase, an SAP company. But, that isn’t always advisable, she adds. “At this stage in mobility, many sophisticated workflow and business apps are available from third-party developers, and integrating those may prove to be far less expensive than building a custom app.”

“It comes down to knowing exactly what you need the app to do and the resources you can dedicate to supporting it,” says Joe Granda, EVP of marketing at developer Syclo. “By factoring these elements into the projected total cost of ownership of the application, you can always make an informed decision,” he says.

Whether to keep development in-house is only one of many considerations of deploying mobile apps. A host of decisions comes into play, such as whether to deploy cross-platform solutions, how to choose a vendor, and how to figure out whether to pick the application or the device first. On the latter, explains Granda, the application should always come first. “But, that doesn’t mean that it always can,” he concedes. “In brand-new deployments, it is extremely important to understand what the application is designed to do before selecting the device it will run on. This plays a major role in the speed of adoption and the level of worker productivity.” However, a company with an installed base of a particular device may have no choice but to alter a new application to fit device capabilities. “In such situations, it is extremely important to plan ahead and to understand how difficult it will be to refresh the application when the devices are replaced,” he says.

The Benefits Of Building Cross-Platform Applications
Whether built in-house or bought off the shelf, a mobile application should be compatible with multiple platforms, say experts. The need to support a variety of devices and form factors continues to grow. Also, cross-platform applications are more likely to leverage all device functionality, such as GPS capabilities, cameras, bar code readers, and address books, and to incorporate third-party libraries such as Sencha, JQuery, and Dogo.

In some enterprise settings, where multiple devices already are in use, the choice for cross-platforms has already been made. In such cases, organizations must balance the cost of development and maintenance for each device and OS with application performance and user experience, says Ron Perry, CTO of Worklight, an IBM company.

Corbridge stresses understanding the volatility of mobility platforms, considering those that are most popular today, such as the iPad and Android devices, have been squeezing out former market leaders such as the BlackBerry. “A cost-effective mobility strategy needs to support building an application once, so it will run on all supported device types. This has a significant impact on the expense of initial deployments as well as software maintenance and updates,” she says. Granda says to also beware of vendors that claim platform compatibility but still require compiling code for each device, which necessitates having developers on staff to support each device. True cross-platform development allows an organization to configure an application once and deploy it to all supported platforms.

Native Or HTML? It’s Functionality That Counts
Among the choices organizations must make when selecting a mobile solution are native and HTML applications. Native apps typically offer reliable performance and full access to a device’s APIs and capabilities but can be expensive to develop and maintain. This is why an organization may opt for HTML apps, which are cheaper, cross-platform apps that run in the browser and can be easier to update.

HTML apps, says Granda, “are much less expensive to deploy to different devices because they’re created using relatively uniform Web languages like HTML4 and HTML5. These Web technologies ensure the app maintains all or most of its functionality regardless of which device it’s used on.”

HTML applications are onlineonly apps that run on various devices without the life cycle concerns associated with native applications. HTML applications, however, require reliable, fast Internet connections, which aren’t always available, for the best performance. In addition, they have limited access to device capabilities, which may be okay for light, specific uses, but not when you want to leverage a platform’s full functionality.

Fortunately, HTML and native applications aren’t an either/or proposition, as a growing category of hybrid applications has hit the market. “These provide the best of both worlds — cost savings due to the cross-platform nature of HTML, full access to device APIs, and app store availability,” says Perry.

Don’t Neglect The Mobile User’s Experience
While enterprises need to weigh various considerations when choosing a mobile application, experts warn they must not neglect user experience. If an application is hard to use or requires too many steps to accomplish a task, it could frustrate users and work against the organization’s productivity goals. “Putting extra effort into how you build a user interface and the workflow for each app will lower call volume to the helpdesk and increase end user acceptance,” says Corbridge.

Of course, an overemphasis on aesthetics can hurt productivity, slowing down the workflow process, says Taylor. That means enterprises need to find a balance between an intuitive interface and productivity needs.