App delivery techniques: Virtualization and Web-based apps

Web-based apps and mobile desktop virtualization are gaining traction as valid mobile app delivery techniques, but each option has specific use cases.

As enterprise IT attempts to assert uniformity and control over a variety of mobile devices, application delivery

and access are primary concerns.

The challenge of proper mobile app delivery is an opportunity for new tools as IT shops explore their options. Organizations that want to deliver mobile applications to workers across devices can benefit from examining different ways to do so, such as using the Web or virtualization.

Web-based apps for mobile devices

Until recently, Web-based applications were considered an unrealistic strategy for providing services to mobile users. But better processors, faster connectivity and the latest generation of the Hypertext Markup Language, HTML5, have altered the landscape forever. HTML5 has been particularly instrumental in this transformation. Web apps can now better deliver multimedia and graphical content as well as support offline operations through local storage capabilities without requiring special plug-ins.

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App delivery techniques: Virtualization and Web-based apps

Unlike native mobile apps, users access Web-based apps through their browsers, which makes the apps more compatible across a variety of devices. IT can develop, deliver, maintain and upgrade Web apps more easily than native apps, and it doesn't need to build multiple versions or provide a distribution system or private cloud.

Browsers are also delivering more native-like capabilities within their interfaces. In the iOS version of Safari, for example, you can make interface elements disappear as you scroll through the page content.

But Web-based apps still pose many hurdles for IT. For instance, whenever application-state data -- the data stored in memory during a session -- must be updated, a screen refresh is required. If the user's connection is less than optimal, this refresh can affect performance.

Mobile device browsers are also limited when it comes to functionality. For example, pop-ups and multiple windows are not available on mobile devices, which makes displaying alerts and error messages more difficult.

Another issue to contend with is that Web apps, unlike native mobile apps, can't take full advantage of device features such as cameras. One way to get around this is to create hybrid Web apps. The core of a hybrid app is still Web-based, but it is wrapped in a native app that can interact with other device features. This approach lets developers reuse code and create apps whose core remains platform-agnostic, which reduces development time and costs while taking advantage of the flexibility of Web-based apps.

As the Internet world continues to solidify around HTML5, we'll likely see a steady growth in the number of mobile Web apps. So promising is this technology, in fact, that even Amazon is now accepting HTML5 Web apps for their Android and Kindle Fire customers.

Mobile desktop virtualization

Desktop virtualization delivers a traditional PC environment to any endpoint, from a desktop or laptop to a smartphone or tablet. With mobile desktop virtualization, users connect to secure in-house computers that run the operating systems and applications needed to conduct business. These computers can either be servers set up for this purpose, or they can be the users' own desktops. On the mobile device, a remote access app acts as a thin client that connects to the target computer via the Internet in order to render the virtual desktop.

Remote access services and technologies that support mobile desktop virtualization are popping up every day. Microsoft Virtualization Desktop Infrastructure, for example, lets IT deploy remote desktop services for access to Windows desktop environments and their applications. In addition, services such as LogMeIn, GoToMyPC and Splashtop make implementing remote access from supported mobile devices fast and easy wherever they're connected to the Internet.

One of the biggest advantages of desktop virtualization is that sensitive data remains within the organization's secure environment and is never stored on the device itself, unless the remote-access service specifically supports file transfers and those transfers are permitted. Desktop virtualization also makes it easier for IT because there are no special apps to develop or app stores to implement.

For desktop virtualization on mobile devices to work, however, the user must have reliable network connectivity. Some products support offline desktops, but consistent connectivity is the key to an effective user experience.

In addition, apps that are delivered virtually don't always translate well to mobile devices, particularly on small smartphone screens. And any app that relies on intensive keyboard input and mouse actions can be particularly challenging for mobile workers. Not surprisingly, desktop virtualization is much more effective on tablets than on smartphones.

Despite the limitations of desktop virtualization, the remote-access services sector is a fast-growing market, and apps are constantly improving, providing features such as zoom capabilities and mouse-like controls.

At this point, though, these services and their apps are still used primarily to augment existing infrastructures and provide quick and easy access to desktop resources when needed. But the industry still has a long way to go before virtual desktops deliver the level of ease and productivity found through native apps.

Pick and choose

Native apps aren't going away, but Web apps and cloud-based services, as well as virtual desktops, provide flexible alternatives that will only improve as they mature.

Determining which mobile app delivery method to use is no easy choice, and the options are changing rapidly. New products and technologies come along frequently, and old ones are evolving all the time. Whatever you decide, you must remain flexible and willing to shift strategies as new technologies emerge.

This was first published in February 2014

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