In the mobile world of IT today, a device's app store has its fair share of applications and tools that employees can use to get work done. If there's a particular process that needs simplifying, however, you can't always turn to the app store to get what you need. Developing mobile applications in-house could be the right path. Yes, there's an app for that -- but to solve a particular problem, you probably have to build it yourself.
Once you've assessed your need for an enterprise mobile application, you have to figure out some other, more complicated pieces of mobile. How will you deliver the app to users? What are your delivery options? How deep into the company's pockets can and will you have to dig? Adam Bookman, co-founder of San Jose, Calif.-based enterprise mobile application development company Propelics Inc., talks shop.
What kinds of enterprise mobile applications do employees use today?
Adam Bookman: There's a lot of variation in the market. A lot of companies start their quest on mobile with email and calendar. What we see typically is that after the IT teams have gotten over some security and risk concerns, the next place that companies go is bringing the tools that you use on a desktop to a mobile device: access to your CRM [customer relationship management] system, access to SharePoint, access to your business intelligence reporting system. [Companies are] essentially using mobile as another screen which can help make workers more productive. So really, the true value of mobile comes when you use mobile to rethink processes, and some companies are really getting there. There are some great use cases to simplify the enterprise -- to take very complicated tasks and build really nice, basic mobile apps that allow you to get something done [quickly] that might take three hours to do because you're constrained by back-end systems.
As an example, we're working with a pharmaceutical where the researchers in the lab have to look up compound IDs to make their drugs. To look up a compound ID, you have to leave the lab, go to a computer, log in to three or four different systems and get information about the compound. And the process to do that takes about three hours. We built them a mobile app where they can bring an iPhone into the lab and enter in a compound ID number and get all the information that they need in about one second. That's really the beauty of mobile. It simplifies some complex tasks that don't need to be complex. Enterprises are complex, and there are a lot of systems out there that are constrained by bad processes.
What kind of enterprise mobile apps would users and IT like to see?
Bookman: Ones that make things easier or let you do your job. We're building an app for a big retail chain, and they have these district managers that go out, and every month they have to do store audits. They look at the store to see if lights are broken, if the greeters are nice, if the floor is clean. It's a paper-based process that's done very inconsistently by the district managers, and it's not taken very seriously. These district managers can now take a phone and go through the whole process. [It] took 15 minutes to go through each store, then [managers] had to remember what they wrote down and decipher their handwriting and then enter it into a system. That now takes three or four minutes on a phone. [Managers] can take pictures of a broken light if they want, and all the information gets sent in, and now everyone follows the same process and it's very consistent. Now, more than 90% of people do it.
How do companies manage and deploy enterprise mobile applications?
Bookman: The first discussion starts with, "What devices should we build these for, and how are we going to ensure that the information that we're sending and receiving is secure?" And a lot of conversations start with, "Do we do BYOD [bring your own device] or do we provide devices?" Organizations are split on that. Then we have discussions around mobile device management [MDM]. Most of our clients are looking into or have already purchased MDM tools that allow you to manage the device and set up policies and security, and most of those tools come with an app store. A lot of the enterprise apps that we're building are delivered through an enterprise app store, not through Google Play or iTunes.
Are you seeing people use mobile application management?
Bookman: To a certain extent, and that's a space that's converging. A lot of the traditional mobile device management vendors are now building mobile application management features into their products. There are some good companies out there that do mobile application management, but I think what we're seeing -- in big companies especially -- is that they're going the mobile device management route. Companies like AirWatch, MobileIron, Good and Zenprise are [building mobile application management capabilities into] their technologies because they see the writing on the wall. It's not about only managing the device; you need to manage the applications. There has to be a division between the personal and the private [data] at the application level.
Are companies using application virtualization or considering it a delivery technique?
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Bookman: It's something that, from an idea perspective, technology people really like because it really is the most secure. But I really think that's the wrong way to go when it comes to the uptake of mobile, especially for business users. There might be some certain cases where it makes sense to virtualize, like if there's very secure data that you can't get out into the field, or if you're providing tablets for people working at home and they need to VPN [virtual private network] into something, but it really goes against the idea of simplifying the enterprise. It's very difficult to use and it's a very frustrating experience.
How difficult is developing mobile applications in-house versus volume-purchasing them?
Bookman: For the most part, it's more likely that you'll see in-house application development than apps already out there that do these tasks. There are some apps on the app stores that you can buy and maybe modify slightly. And a lot of productivity apps, like time tracking or expense tracking, you'll find apps out there that you can buy and modify to meet your needs. But these process-specific apps, it's very early on in the mobile lifecycle, and we're finding people are building them for their own needs.
Is developing mobile apps in-house an expensive task?
Bookman: It can be expensive, but there's often a pretty good upside. And the expense isn't so much in the mobile application development. The expense comes in the integration, in the data movement back and forth to the enterprise. There are a lot of complexities in moving data around, so if you want to hook into your SAP system and Web services aren't in existence to get data out in a way that you need it for your mobile application, those discussions often take longer and more people need to be involved. It's a little more complex than just building some screens and some pretty designs. That part can go very fast, but when you have to start dealing with big, complicated enterprise systems, that's where the complexity arises. The app itself is the easy part.
This was first published in May 2013