Getting to “There’s an App for That”

Maribel Lopez is the CEO and mobile market strategist for Lopez Research, a market research and strategy consulting firm that specializes in communications technologies with a heavy emphasis on the disruptive nature of mobile technologies. AT&T has sponsored the following blog post.

Companies realize that mobile devices will become a main source for accessing applications and business processes. Businesses need a mobilization strategy that focuses on improving and changing business processes to create competitive advantage and improved operations. A linchpin in the strategy is determining what applications and processes make sense to take mobile. For example, apps that benefit from location make sense but an app can also be expressed as a single process such as an approval or a call for a piece of data such as inventory.

Companies should look to rank deployments by what business results can be defined. For example, will it improve billing cycles, inventory turns, or sales close rates? Can I gain insight with real time data delivered to and from the field? If the answer to any of these is yes, you probably have a great candidate for mobile deployment.

Fragmentation to Dominant in Mobile for 3-5 Years

Sadly for IT, device and OS fragmentation will dominate the landscape for at least the next 3-5 years. Given that IT must support multiple operating systems, IT should review several areas. First, what languages must be supported and does IT have the necessary skills in-house? In the past, IT could use a wide variety of development tools but businesses look to support multiple OSs such as Android and iPhone you are looking at Java and Objective-C. One grey area in the mobile landscape is developer support. Before committing to any OS, IT should evaluate the vendor’s support for the developer community and if IT can get a development SLA from the vendor. Other areas of concern are how do you debug apps in mobile world. IT’s strategy should also define how applications will integrate consistently with different devices such as a bar code scanner, NFC (Near Field Communications), camera etc.

Once IT has the answers to these questions, it must decide on an architectural approach.  Today there are three main choices for how to develop apps.

A) IT could choose to custom code for each platform.

B) Use a cross platform development framework (CPDF) for multiple platform support.

C)Use a mobile enterprise application platform (MEAP).

Building with a MEAP

A MEAP is a comprehensive suite of products and services that enable enterprises to design, build, deploy, and manage dynamic mobile applications.  Examples of MEAPs are Antenna Software, Syclo, and Sybase but some consider Microsoft and RIM as single platform MEAP providers. Cross platform development frameworks (MDFs) allow you to easily build  clean, functional applications that have a native look and feel for multiple platforms. Examples of MDF vendors include Rhomobile, PhoneGap, Appcelerator, and Sencha.

These tools often combine web technologies such as HTML with native wrappers. There are both similarities and differences in the approaches of MEAPs and CPDFs that enterprises should review. For example, pre-built applications in areas such as field service and sales automation can be purchased from MEAPs but not MDFs. Meanwhile both solutions try to deliver cross platform support. In most costs MDFs are focused on consumer apps but platforms like Rhomobile could fit into either category.

Both Cross-Platform and Native Apps Needed

While there is intense fragmentation, IT will likely need to build both cross-platform and native apps. The choice depends on the richness of experience that you are trying to create and connectivity requirements. Native apps have full access to device features (e.g. accelerometers, camera, etc.), the benefits of local processing, persistence, and integration with other native apps such as contacts and calendar. However, mobile web development provides multi-platform support, a large pool of developer talent and rapid deployment cycles. The latest advancements in HTML-5 also bridge some of the gaps between native and mobile development by providing support for a small amount of local storage, Web SQL databases and geo-location.

In fact, the choice isn’t that stark in contrast as most native apps are built with a substantial amount of web technologies such as HTML-5. If you need access to specific device features and if you are concerned with intermittent connectivity, you’ll probably build native. In short, IT will build a mix of native and web-based applications for some time. The trick is to figure out how to minimize coding while maximizing the exposure of data by selecting the proper tools and/or services.

Your Turn: What do you think is the biggest challenge in creating a businesses mobilization strategy?

Maribel Lopez CEO Lopez Research About Maribel