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Quocirca's Straight Talking: Time for mobile apps

Are we at a tipping point?
Written by Quocirca , Contributor

Are we at a tipping point?

Is your organisation's strategy for mobility the right one? Does your organisation even have one? Quocirca senior analyst Mark Boulding looks at how to approach this evolving way of working properly.

If information is power, then isn't having access to information anywhere and at any time infinite power? This is certainly a vision that has been shared by suppliers to businesses (in principle, anyway) for quite a while.

Many expected that ‘going mobile’ would simply be a question of plugging in the appropriate device and getting on with it. In reality, mobile enablement of business applications has been a much slower and more painful process than anyone originally anticipated.

In part, this is due to the lack of application vendors’ understanding of the opportunities that ‘going mobile’ could provide to end users. Mobility raises a raft of questions that simply did not compare to the typical approach that has been reflected in a fixed network client/server model, the existing architecture of many enterprise applications.

Consider the differences between a fixed and mobile network. Sending a message down a fixed network cable, the bandwidth available is known (approximately) as well as that the message will almost certainly get there. In comparison, a mobile connection could be via a variety of networks - including GPRS, Wi-Fi and UMTS - all of which operate on different speeds and each with their own eccentricities. In addition, there is no guarantee that network coverage - and therefore application connectivity - will actually be available.

From a vendor’s perspective, mobile applications pose at least two fundamental problems. The first is concurrency and the second is the device.

First, concurrency. If you take a snapshot of the database and continue working with that snapshot while everyone else works on the original, what happens 12 hours later when the two versions are synchronised? Has your field force been working against data it assumed was up to date but which had changed dramatically in that time? Has an order been placed and promised against an assumed stock inventory, which has also been taken by another sales person?

Second, the device market is highly fragmented. There are at least four different operating systems (Palm, Pocket PC, Symbian and Linux) and no two devices are the same. The device may also have a different screen size and colour depth and it will have a number pad, keypad or a touch screen or a mix of these.

Needless to say that writing applications for mobile devices has been non-trivial. These problems show no sign of being resolved in the foreseeable future. Not surprisingly, this added complexity translates to considerable additional costs and infrastructural impact for the customer.

Ensuring that a mobile application actually reflects the task in hand may also prove to be quite a challenge. The array of applications and vendors that offer a solution, each with its own different perspective on solving your problem, proffers a bewildering choice to the end user. At the same time, few mobile solutions will revolve solely around a single backend system. For example, while on the road an engineer is likely to need access to the CRM or field force management system to know whom to visit, but will then need to interact with the ERP system as parts need to be sourced or ordered.

Justifying the cost of such applications has not been easy, even where the value of providing mobile workers with direct access to back end systems could offer incredible cost savings. Quantifying these savings can be a challenge in itself with factors such as increased data consistency, better awareness of employee location and more efficient stock control being the key (yet 'soft') benefits in many situations. However, Quocirca believes that the sum total of these benefits will promise better levels of efficiency and increased productivity, providing a value proposition that can heavily outweigh any cost considerations.

So how is this landscape changing? From a device and connectivity perspective the technology is fast becoming more stable. Pocket PC is fast becoming the most common PDA operating system and the standard form factor for PDAs is now well established. The middleware that connects these devices to the backend systems is becoming increasingly tolerant of mobile connectivity. As Wi-Fi and UMTS start to become a reality and GPRS more pervasive, mobile applications are changing from being mostly disconnected to mostly connected.

These changes are allowing vendors to treat mobile applications more like other client apps, although offline capability is still required. Equally with the emergence of open standards like WSDL, SOAP, .Net and J2ME increasingly mobile applications are becoming easier to produce and port between devices.

As application vendors understand more about mobility and the opportunities it provides, their perception of mobility is changing. Rather than being an add-on to their product strategy, which is only used by exceptional customers, it is becoming an integral part of their product roadmap, with new opportunities to diversify products and drive additional licence revenue.

Microsoft and Oracle are now prime examples of organisations that are promoting mobility out of the box, with other organisations such as Citrix, PeopleSoft and SAP rapidly moving to provide more effective mobile support within their offerings.

For mobile applications to reach the fabled tipping point, application vendors will need to continue on this tack, integrating mobility into their existing applications – out of the box. This is necessary to reduce the cost and complexity barriers for adopting mobility. At the same time, corporates are starting to gain a better understanding of the opportunities and benefits of mobile enablement. This is being reflected in their implementation of policies and procedures for handling mobility.

As businesses continue to implement mobile strategies, all concerned are realising mobility is not about discovering a single, simple killer application that will solve all problems. Mobility is the next logical extension of the working environment. In due course it will touch every aspect of the fixed network world in ways that will make it almost indistinguishable. A bolt-on mobile corporate strategy will fail to appreciate the opportunities and benefits that can be achieved throughout the organisation by embracing this new approach.

Businesses that have their finger on the pulse are rapidly incorporating mobility into their overall business and IT strategy to realise its potential and their future. These companies will be the ones who will find it easier to differentiate themselves from the crowd – to provide customers and suppliers with superior service experiences. In essence, those with the correct mobility strategies are already defining themselves as the winners – those without will suffer.

Quocirca's latest report on this subject, authored by Mark Boulding, is available now.

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