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Considerations for Building Mobile Enterprise Applications in 2010

Employees are the new Consumers

Considerations for Building Mobile Enterprise Applications in 2010With the growing technological capabilities of mobile devices from leading vendors such as Apple, Microsoft, RIM and Google we are now seeing mobile devices and their applications becoming relevant to every type of business activity. The difference between consumer and business user requirements is blurring and driving the advance of consumer-like mobile applications into the business space.

One of the mobile sector surprises of 2009 was to witness the iPhone become equally popular in the enterprise as well as consumer space. According to Apple Chief Operating Officer Timothy Cook, the iPhone is now being deployed or evaluated in more than 50 percent of the Fortune 100 companies in the U.S. With the release of Microsoft Windows Mobile 7 later this year intended to leapfrog iPhone, RIM and others, we can expect the enterprise/consumer convergence trend to intensify even further.

When building and deploying a mobile enterprise application, it’s important to remember that in many ways, the challenges are identical to those that already exist for enterprises and software vendors looking to deliver Rich Internet Applications (RIA) and SaaS-style Cloud applications. These challenges stem from the fact that any application that combines ‘rich’ functionality and internet ‘mobility’ demands a unique development effort to host the computing and functional power of traditional ‘desktop’ applications over the Web as opposed to local servers.

In addition to these challenges however, are a series of new ones born of the fact that mobile devices demand compact software applications that operate with low bandwidth. This places more demands on mobile vendors to produce applications that are simple, light and yet functional enough for workers to complete essential business tasks without having to resort to their desktop or laptop.

So, what factors should enterprises and software vendors consider when looking to build and deploy mobile enterprise applications in the year ahead? And how can they ensure that their mobile application is brought to market in a timely and cost-efficient manner?

Simplify your Development and Deployment Effort

Mobile devices entail a whole new development effort and deployment channel that software providers and enterprises first need to take into consideration.

Mobile applications featuring Rich Internet Application (RIA) technology involve two clear tiers – a Client tier (taking care of the presentation, interaction logic and some business logic), and a Server tier (taking care of most of the business logic, the data and backend integration). In addition there is also a Session tier (the inter-lying communication layer between the Client and the Server that requires system programming skills).

A typical mobile application development effort requires gathering and managing a number of different teams to work on the different sides of the application.

When development involves gathering and coordinating separate programming teams and programming languages, there is simply less chance of the end result being deployed cost effectively or quickly – not to mention the fact that it becomes more challenging to deliver an application that will fully meet corporate standards and expectations.

While many enterprises and software vendors are using pure programming languages such as Flex and C# to create mobile applications, there are also business-focused application platforms that can simplify the mobile application development effort. Metadata-driven application platforms such as Magic Software’s uniPaaS use pre-compiled and pre-configured business logic engines that enables enterprises and software vendors to avoid much of the hard-coding and build mobile applications with a single tool, from end to end i.e. from Client to Server using a single paradigm.

In today’s economic climate, it’s a great advantage for any enterprise or software business to be able to keep the mobile development and deployment effort as simple as the Client/Server desktop effort. This helps to ensure a cost-effective and easily maintainable mobile application.

Integrate with Back-End Systems

Building a front-end for most mobile applications is often the simplest part of the process. The challenge is rather to effectively and efficiently connect front-end transactions to back-end systems.

For instance, a typical business in the manufacturing or distribution sector may opt to use a mobile application to help staff rapidly receive and process part availability requests. However, the ‘in between’ steps require automatic and real-time integration with multiple applications and back-end systems. The part request has to be validated with the company’s ERP system to determine stock availability. Then a dispatch must be made and an invoice raised from the back-office system. The customer service details must also be updated in the company’s CRM system and this must be then synchronised with the ERP system. Only once all this is achieved can an accurate shipping report be sent out to the customer.

To ensure these processes and systems interact smoothly and rapidly with the front-end of the mobile application, enterprises and mobile software vendors have traditionally manually integrated their mobile application and other enterprise applications using skilled developers and programming such as Java, TCL, Python and others. An alternative is the use of metadata-based integration tools that will automate and synchronise a mobile application with the other diverse applications within the enterprise using a single skill-set that pre-programs many of the common and repetitive developing tasks that otherwise require manual coding.

Realise the Limitations – and Potential of Mobile Apps

It must be remembered that mobile enterprise applications lack the scope to replace heavy back-office systems entirely, one for one. Back office enterprise applications cost millions to develop, are far more powerful and enterprises spend thousands training staff to use these applications. “If a task is not time-critical, they probably aren’t going to do it on the mobile device,” according to Kevin Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. “If they can wait until they get home, they will”.

Mobile applications should therefore be considered as tools for enabling workforces and staff to complete tasks. This also means that mobile applications need to be as simple as possible. Business users on the move are not going to have the patience or concentration to work through multiple screens and commands to get a job done. They will simply leave it until they get home or back to the office.

Greater business productivity is only attainable with a smart mobile strategy that takes the psychology and practices of the mobile worker into account.

Don’t Skimp on Prototyping

Application prototyping is the tried and tested method for ensuring that user demands are met. However, as budgets get tighter, companies tend to find it easier to cut back on prototyping and QA in order to speed up development and get applications out of the door – particularly if the market is rapidly evolving.

In the highly dynamic and rapidly changing mobile market, if an application doesn’t meet the performance and consistency standards workers are accustomed to with their desktop or laptop applications, they will rapidly become disillusioned. Once the horse has bolted, it will be even more difficult for enterprises and software vendors to catch it again as users will rapidly find and stay with a more intuitive and proven mobile application.

It’s therefore important that application providers and developers invest the effort to get a mobile application right the first time around. This requires adequate prototyping and feedback integration from business users and focus groups. A successful prototyping effort requires fast and interactive development cycles to uncover deficiencies in the mobile application before it goes to full deployment – after which faults become much more expensive to fix.

To achieve all this means getting more productivity from the development process and people resources. Application platforms that utilise pre-configured business application logic and a single skill-set for both Client and Server ends of the application can make a significant contribution to ensuring faster prototyping and higher overall application quality.

Ensure Comparable Internet Experience to Desktop Apps

Mobile application bandwidth is much narrower than the bandwidth we are used to expecting from desktop applications connected via cable or wireless internet. To ensure that the browsing experience of a mobile application is on a par (or close to par) with a desktop experience, application developers and software providers should consider designing their application to run in a dedicated Client rather than on a generic browser. This uses considerably less bandwidth and enables the mobile application to sustain a higher performance.

Conclusion: Be Prepared for Change

Mobile enterprise applications represent a new technological environment for both developers and users. As such software vendors and enterprise IT developers must be prepared to change and adapt their mobile application as they learn more about their customers and user habits.

Time to market is obviously a key factor in such a dynamic industry. It therefore pays to use tools that can simplify and speed up your application delivery process. As in many industries, first to market can often convey a significant and even non-reversible advantage to the business smart enough to get there. If there were a single certainty in the fast-paced mobile industry, then this would certainly be it.

The author

David Akka, MD Magic Software Enterprises UK, EIRE and Nordics.

(ITadviser, Issue 61, Spring 2010)

 

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