Enterprise mobile development begins with business needs

Successful mobile app development depends on numerous factors, but business needs should take precedence.

Some organizations think of enterprise mobile development as something they must do to extend existing applications to smartphones or tablets. That, however, is the wrong mind-set.

The true value of mobile apps is in making things simpler or reimagining business processes, said Adam Bookman, co-founder of Propelics Inc., an enterprise mobile app development shop based in San Jose, Calif.

Whether that means outsourcing enterprise mobile development or staffing mobile app developers in-house depends on the company. In any case, "IT and DevOps need to work with the business to make sure the mobile apps they're building are actually ones employees will want to use and, importantly, continue to use," Bookman said.

It's the application plus the device that ends up being a transformative tool for the business, Bookman added.

Mobile app development: Outsource or DIY?

The ultimate goal of developing mobile apps should be to deliver employees a task-focused app that they want to use and makes their job easier, but many companies face a challenge in just getting started, said Matt Bridges, chief technology officer at Intrepid Pursuits LLC, a mobile development shop based in Cambridge, Mass.

IT departments that don't have mobile app developers on staff hand off their projects to companies like Intrepid Pursuits, which gets customers' mobile app initiatives off the ground, then hands the projects back when the customers are ready, Bridges said.

More on mobile app development

In a rush to capture a piece of the enterprise mobile development market, vendors large and small have begun offering tools for mobile application development and integration with existing data repositories.

  • Rackspace's new mobile cloud stacks are preconfigured modules for application testing, deployment, scaling and more, in order to cut down the up-front configuration time of app development.
  • Salesforce rolled out Developer Mobile Packs that make it easier for developers to build mobile apps using JavaScript frameworks. It also updated its mobile software development kit, which helps developers integrate existing Salesforce data into custom mobile apps.
  • Xamarin, a cross-platform development tool, just acquired LessPainful, the commercial entity behind Calabash, an open source mobile test automation framework.
  • Microsoft offers mobile back-end services for both iOS and Android devices through Azure Mobile Services.

The cost of outsourcing the development of a mobile app can run organizations upwards of $20,000 for a single app, industry watchers said. Large enterprises might be able to afford that cost, but it might not be an option for smaller organizations.

Rather than outsource its app development or hire additional developers to write native mobile code, PoweredNow, a field service application vendor based in London, decided to build its app with Sencha, a cross-platform development tool that combines Javascript frameworks with HTML5. "We have a traditional software background using Microsoft programming languages, which means we'd have to double or triple our development team if we wanted to write native apps for iOS and Android," said Ben Dyer, PoweredNow's founder.

Instead, Dyer and his team are able to use their existing programming skills to write one version of the PoweredNow mobile app. The compiled app then is fed into Adobe's PhoneGap, which allows the development team to hook into the application programming interfaces and the interfaces unique to each mobile platform to make the app function more like a native application.

Organizations with existing investments in on-premises systems also face the challenge of building mobile apps that tie into the data housed by those systems.

Just Born Inc., a global candy manufacturing company based in Bethlehem, Pa., needed a tool to give its sales brokers more accurate sales projections. The tool needed to get forecast data into and out of the SAP system, plus integrate with such other systems as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and supply chain management. Further, it needed to work across a range of personally owned devices, and couldn't be an installed client to reduce support overhead.

It took about six-months to develop the application through the Soujourner Mobile platform from Sita Corp., but that was because the company was attempting to integrate multiple systems at once. "We wanted to keep things extremely simple so they could use the app on a tablet when they were keying in data on-site at Wal-Mart," said Ed Broczkowski, director of ERP implementation at Just Born. "We need that real-time sales data because we can't sell this year's Peeps next Easter. We need to know how much product to make to meet projected demands."

Where to start with enterprise mobile development?

The good news for organizations struggling with their roadmap for mobile app development is that they can start small, with one app tailored to the business needs of just one department, said Regev Yativ, CEO of Magic Software, based in Laguna Hills, Calif. The speed of mobile requires that organizations change their mind-set to one of jumping in, learning what works and what doesn't, and adjusting the process for future mobile developments. They can even use the tools and resources already available to them, he said.

That's the case at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas, which wanted to replace the paper blueprints used when events are set up with a mobile app, said Jeff Moore, the center's database administrator. He was able to bang up a mobile prototype with Filemaker Go, a database tool the convention already used.

"We quickly built that in a short period of time to solve a concrete business problem," Moore said. Now, instead of having every employee share one blueprint binder, they can access a digital version of it on a mobile device and turn over the convention center floor much more efficiently.

Agility is increasingly important when it comes to mobile app development, which is another big change for large organizations used to long development cycles for Windows applications. "The mobile cycle is three weeks long," Propelics' Bookman said. "It's fixing code, improving features, just constant iteration to get the app out the door. It's really crazy how different mobile development is."

Forrester has forecast that the mobile application market size could be worth $54 billion by 2015. Of this, $17 billion will be for mobile application development services.

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