Mobile devices and smart phones from the likes of BlackBerry, Nokia and Apple, and their accompanying applications, have become ubiquitous in the consumer space, where the advantages are clear and considerable. Something about the nature of the workplace, however, has created a lag in the uptake of enterprise mobile applications.
There may be a number of reasons for this, some psychological as well as material. Whereas 'consumer' often implies a certain level of mobility, we generally think of the workplace as a static environment, with the worker seated behind a desk. And while some industries are inherently mobile, employing field technicians, production line workers, vehicle fleet tracking or inventory management, the mobile worker as a concept has yet to be fully embraced by the enterprise mainstream.
But things are changing, and sometimes a crisis can spur that change. The economic recession may act as a force for good in this respect, where the economic equivalent of the survival of the fittest compels companies to focus on business innovation and cutting the fat from wasteful operations. In such an environment, the advantages of enterprise mobility are now coming to the fore.
The potential of mobile apps
A common mistake among enterprise decision-makers is to think that a mobile app must necessarily replace a back-office system entirely, one for one. The truth is, it simply can't. Back-office systems cost millions to develop and are far more powerful.
Instead, mobile applications are perfect for enabling workforces to complete tasks. By smartly designating certain back-office tasks to a mobile app, staff can be more efficient both on and off-site. Greater business productivity is attainable with a smart mobile strategy, as long as enterprises sufficiently understand the practices and organisational psychology of their workforce.
But that will remain only a theory if the industry cannot get over the technical and economic limitations of current mobile application platforms. There are three main issues that are currently a concern: development complexity, performance consistency and security.
Firstly, there are the design hurdles that developers face when building mobile applications.
The nature of business requires that enterprise applications be rich in terms of functionality and user experience. If you’re building a mobile system that lets workers complete tasks that integrate functionality from the CRM, SCM, or ERP back-office systems, you’re going to need powerful dashboards that display moving graphs, histories, up-to-date inventory levels, sales figures and orders, all via the internet. An enterprise mobile application must therefore combine the powerful business functionality of desktop apps with the common availability of the internet; not an easy task.
Developing a mobile application also means creating a smaller display and limited input mechanisms. The application must be lightweight enough to fit the limited memory and processing power of the phone or device, but powerful enough to enable workers to complete their essential tasks.
Then there is the issue of performance consistency and reliability. Enterprises can rarely afford the growing pains associated with a new application, workers will rapidly become disillusioned and stop using it and costs will spiral as developers attempt to fix problems after deployment.
In addition is the growing issue of security. Addressing the myriad of growing internet threats is expensive and can detract developers away from the core business performance of an application making it harder in the long run to compete with the large enterprise mobile app providers such as Salesforce.com, Workday and Rackspace.
Metadata application platforms - a way out?
Enterprises looking to develop a mobile application do have options, particularly if they use a new breed of application platform. Based upon metadata, these application platforms pre-compile and pre-configure the hard coding process, thus going a long way towards simplifying the application development and deployment process.
Less development complexity
Developing a mobile application with rich functionality is not easy, rich internet application (RIA) technology requires two kinds of programmers. RIA programmers for the client-side user interface, and traditional business logic programmers for the back-end server side of the application.
A metadata application platform, however, pre-compiles and pre-configures this labour intensive code-writing process. So a single programmer can create and deploy the entire business application, from end to end, without the use of multiple programming languages or development teams. With fewer skill-sets to manage, the enterprise benefits from lower development costs and faster time to deployment.
Better performance consistency
A metadata platform, by its very nature, isolates the underlying technology from the application’s business logic. Less technical coding means a more interactive development cycle and easier prototyping. This means developers are able to uncover deficiencies in the mobile application before it goes to full deployment - after which faults become much more expensive to fix.
Higher internet security
Security threats to internet based applications also continue to be on the increase, with the strong growth being attributed to factors such as new viruses, malware and hacking attacks.
And it doesn't seem to matter which browser you use, whether it's Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari or others. Even the latest versions, such as Internet Explorer 7, probably won't be able to keep up with the robbers who always seem to be one step ahead of the cops.
The metadata-driven application platforms have their own dedicated client-side sandbox, so the mobile applications don’t run on, or depend upon the browser. Creating a browser-independent mobile application will go a long way to ensuring it is more secure; enabling enterprise to focus on perfecting their application’s business functionality. The end result is that the mobile application will run on the internet, will feel like a desktop app in terms of functionality and performance, and will have a level of security approaching a desktop application as well
The key, then, is for enterprises to recognise that mobile applications deliver a niche value - and that developers should not try to bite off more than they can chew by developing a mobile app that covers the entire functional spectrum of heavy back-end systems.
By using a metadata-driven application platform, enterprises can simplify the mobile application delivery process. By creating mobile applications using smarter and more cost-effective platforms, any size enterprise will be able to generate measurable improvements in work productivity that will serve them well, whatever the economic climate.