Friday, March 30, 2012

What is a mobile app?

mobile app (n.) a software program that runs on a smartphone, tablet or similar device.

Many people ask this question about the definition of mobile app because they are looking for a precise technical definition.  As with many commonly used technology terms, mobile app does not refer to a specific standard or protocol but rather to a general category of technology solutions.

what is a mobile app?
What is a mobile app?

Mobile app is, of course, a shortened form of mobile application. Mobile apps are software programs that run on mobile devices including smartphones and tablets. Many use Internet protocols for transport and communication layers while others are standalone applications that run entirely on the mobile phone without any need for server side communication. They may run in the web browser of a smartphone, within a native rich client container or as a standalone native application. 

Similar to other applications, a mobile app has a data layer, a business logic layer and a user interface layer. As with other client-server and web application architectures, when mobile apps interact with a server,  there is also a need for a communication and transport layer as well as server context management.

The Magic RIA clients for Android and iOS are native operating system (OS) applications for any of these devices, implementing the Magic RIA client protocol. They are essentially mobile apps themselves that interact with metadata to run the client side of the mobile apps created using the development studio of the Magic application platform. This same development studio can also create the server side application running on backend enterprise systems (Windows, Linux, Unix and IBM i).

So with any of these Magic RIA clients for the different mobile devices, developers can deploy enterprise connected, highly interactive RIA applications on the different Android and Apple iOS mobile devices. Mobile apps for Windows Phone, BlackBerry and other operating system platforms can be written using an HTML5 Merge approach. Magic's end-to-end enterprise mobility solution allows a developer to work with visual form editors, mobile preview mode, and without tedious line-by-line coding. For this reason, the Magic Application Platform is considered by Gartner to be a Rapid Mobile Application Development vendor. Magic is the largest company in Gartner's Rapid Mobile Application Development vendor list.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Metro UI Debate: Planned Obsolescence Ahead

With all the debate suddenly surrounding the Metro design spec introduced by Microsoft as part of Windows 8, one cannot help but wonder whose PR department is whipping up the controversy: Apple’s or Microsoft’s? On the one hand, the discussion can be viewed as an attack on Microsoft by the Apple Dumping Gang while on the other hand it could be a “no publicity is bad publicity” ploy by the MSFT Gang That Can Only Design Straight. In my view the attention ends up helping Microsoft and Android while hurting Apple.

The differences in the UI design and interactivity standards are rather ironic. Microsoft has generated literally billions of dollars in revenue by releasing successive generations of its operating systems and driving their adoption by pushing user expectations towards increasingly complex and interactive design standards. Early windows design looked very gray, gradually became more colorful, then beveled, then shaded, then ray traced, then transparent, then animated. Each time the clear intent was to create a graphical case for the latest coolest operating system version and a feeling that applications using the older design standards were passé. It was plainly and simply a form of planned obsolescence little different from design trends in the fashion, automotive and consumer packaged goods industries.

With mobile devices, Microsoft correctly identified a conundrum. If you bring today’s highly sophisticated desktop design standards over to mobile devices then there isn’t really much of a look and feel upgrade path left. Planned obsolescence becomes difficult when your design trends have reached their logical plateau. And this plateau was evident on the desktop as well. The solution: bring the desktop and mobile UI standards down together to a simpler level and yet one which is so clean and crisp as to feel modern and chic.

Metro is not nearly as bad as most of its critics make it out to be. Sure, it is simple. But there are plenty of Swedish designers who will tell you that design simplicity is a value to be upheld. If you think they are wrong, take a visit to your local IKEA store. I disagree that Metro is classic or retro in any way, it is quintessentially modern and sleek. In this sense, I do not disagree that Metro is a workable and pleasant design and interface standard. Whether or not it is a superior standard is a bit of a subjective argument in my view. I disagree with the Metro advocates who suggest that it is the only effective GUI. It is an effective GUI and it can beat chaos design in side-by-side comparison tests. So what? Is Microsoft really going to enforce Metro UI principles with police-state like efficiency? No. As a result, design creep and chaos will eventually eliminate the consistency that is currently Metro’s primary advantage in UI metric comparisons. Once you eliminate its newness and therefore its consistency, the Metro UI will compare similarly to any other well conceived GUI.

Call me a cynic on this one, but I see the graphical aspects of Metro as a well-designed platform for planned obsolescence. Time will tell. In the meantime, designing apps for any platform, any device, any time leads me to Magic.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hurdling Barriers to Enterprise Mobility

Have you ever tried running hurdles?  It takes practice. In the beginning, you’re so focused on jumping that you forget about running. Even experienced hurdlers can become so focused on hurdling mechanics that they forget the importance of sprinting mechanics.

A similar problem exists in enterprise mobility. We can become so focused on pushing enterprise data to mobile apps that we forget that the apps are mobile. The context of the interaction changes the functional requirements of the entire app. The danger is that we overload the mobile user with screens and data so that they need to scroll, tab and search until they are frustrated. Usage rates fall off, adoption fails and our app fails to become the solution it needs to be. But the issue isn’t just form factor, screen size or input method. It’s the context of the interaction. Mobile app users are typically remoteand on the move.

Context Shift. To hurdle the most important barrier to enterprise mobility, we need to design applications that are aware of this context shift. In the past, the context of most computer automated enterprise business processes was within the confines of a data center, network, or office. The web extended reach to remote locations such as customer sites, home offices and laptops. But smartphones and tablets reflect an even more dramatic context shift.

When a business user chooses to interact with enterprise IT via a mobile device instead of their traditional laptops and desktops there is a reason: they are not simply remote, they are either on the move or so location and time constrained that accessing a traditional enterprise device is impractical. They might be dining with friends or family at the exact moment they are accessing your app to approve a purchase order.  They might even be engaging directly with a customer on-site at the exact moment they are accessing the sales order entry app on a tablet. Interaction with an enterprise mobile app needs to be direct, unequivocal and brief.  Designing apps that reflect the mobile paradigm is all about good business analysis, application architecture and interface design. These issues become even more accentuated with consumer facing branded apps.

BYOD. Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policies present another barrier to enterprise mobility. BYOD often means some users have BlackBerry, others Android, still others iOS phones and tablets. Each of these devices has an operating system that requires a unique development language and compiler.  With different user devices, comes a different culture of app interaction. An app designed for BlackBerry keyboard control and one designed for an iPad Retina touchscreen are obviously going to be quite different or at least they should be. Some businesses are making the mistake of using HTML5 to sidestep the native development challenge but they end up with unusable apps that are bland, unattractive or simply not functioning properly on certain devices. Overcome this barrier by using a Mobile Enterprise Application Platform (MEAP). A good MEAP will allow you to tailor your app to any mobile device without requiring you to create a uniform app or making you resort to several different programming languages to finish the job.

Backend Integration. Enterprise mobile apps don’t exist in a vacuum. Very few businesses are run with an IT system that is entirely run on mobile devices. No business of any size is. You have backend systems whose processes and data are usually determinative. The mobile app is supplemental. Your MEAP platform needs to be closely tied to an integration server that can automate integration and business process orchestration with large enterprise systems such as ERP, CRM, Field Service Management and other systems. Information from your eCommerce website, employee SharePoint portal or email server may be equally vital to the overall process. Only an end-to-end view as documented in a well designed use case analysis by your business analysts will get you to where you need to be in terms of required integration processes for mobile apps. And then you need to make sure you have the proper enterprise integration platform to facilitate easy integration of backend systems based on your business rules.

Customization.  A lot of business “apps” are being foisted onto mobile devices by using a technique known as screen scraping where there is a one-to-one correspondence with backend screens in an HTML browser on the mobile device. The more sophisticated ones break the big screen and its multiple fields into several tabs and allow you to scroll down a long list of poorly aligned fields. This approach is not simply ugly, it is foolhardy to think any real long-term adoption will take place. These stopgap measures fail.

Furthermore, the new “mobile apps” from large ERP and CRM vendors are simply too generic. Their one size fits all approach does not accommodate your customizations and it the templates are completely constraining. Cookie cutters are fine for making cookies, but what if your business is not a bakery? Mobile apps need to be customized to deliver the proprietary differentiation your employees and customers need for you to stand out in the marketplace in terms of performance and customer experience. Here again, you business analysts and app developers should take extra care to create apps that reflect the true nature of your industry and your company. A MEAP platform will allow you to create integrated apps that are customized to your business requirements to outperform the competition and deliver outstanding customer experiences.

The barriers to enterprise mobility can be overcome. To do this, create mobile apps that are both enterprise connected and mobile aware.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Enterprise Mobility: They Also Claimed Women Have No Place In Business

In 1948, my mother was fired from her job as a writer for KFOX radio station in Long Beach, California because she got married. In the 1950s, she was denied a raise because her male coworker supposedly needed a raise more in order to support his family. In my mother’s lifetime, people sometimes said and often believed that women had no place in business. The attitude seems preposterous and antiquated only fifty years later but these attitudes, which were predominately intransigence to change persisted for a long time.

So today, when I hear some people say and even more people act like the Android, iPhone, BlackBerry,  iPad (and other tablets) have no place in business, I tend to smirk. Resistance to technology adoption within IT departments is rather ironic. Theoretically, the IT department should be in the forefront of new technology. But this is usually not the case. Too often, IT plays a game of vested interests and tries to defend the IT department’s turf against change. When barriers to change break down, it is usually because of competitive pressure or overwhelming evidence.

The role of the CTO or CIO is to push the business into productive use of technology. I think the time when anyone could claim that smartphones and tablets have no place in business and still retain their credibility has passed, any CIO or CTO who harbors such resistance is at extreme risk of being shown the door.

Businesses that pursue enterprise mobility are more productive, competitive and profitable.  The iPAD is quickly being adopted in progressive enterprises as a business tool that delivers functionality in a mobile way. But tablets are much more than just mobile and the main benefit of their size is not simply the enhanced functionality that comes through more screen real estate.

The phenomenon that makes tablets a particularly compelling mobile device is that they are social.I am not referring to social in the modern sense of social media. But rather that tablets are a social technology in a more literal sense in that they allow for easy interpersonal interaction with technology on a single device. In other words, with a tablet it is easy for me to hold it and for you to see it. In some respects, it is the modern day equivalent of the clipboard. I can face the clipboard to myself and write things privately or I can position the clipboard for you to see it and involve you in the interview. But unlike a clipboard that has a few sheets of paper and a pencil for interaction. I have the full power of an interactive media device and enterprise IT behind it. Well, I should have the power of enterprise IT behind it, but in some corners resistance persists.

Fortunately, there are many examples where businesses are making great progress through the use of smartphone and tablet technology. Cleveland Golf has armed their sales force with iPad’s for order taking. Since Cleveland Golf has retail customers spread across more than 1400 locations, mobility is essential. The ability to approach a store a manager on site, show them pictures and videos of new products, and then instantly process orders for those new products is an awesome way to accelerate business performance through the use of smarter technology and a collaborative way of working.
The iPad is also ideally suited to assist in Direct Store Delivery applications. Route sales industries such as beverage manufacturing and food wholesalers are dependent on the ability of their mobile workforce to process orders and deliver product instantly on site. Tablets accelerate their ability to process orders, help store managers visualize current stock, and aid the route salesperson in the delivery of cross-sell, up-sell and other special incentives and offers for retailers.

The iPad can also be applied effectively in Field Service Management applications.  Field service personnel can use tablets on-site to update service records, process parts and labor orders, query a knowledge base, and even watch video tutorials on how-to handle particular issues.

Multi-level Marketing, may be regarded as the red headed stepchild of business, but the nature of their “workforce” is prime for the advantages of enterprise mobile technology. Here again, I like the tablet for its ability to facilitate business interaction between two people engaged in a conversation.  Not only can orders be processed and marketing messages be delivered, appointments can be kept, destinations can be routed, and organizational structures and contacts can be easily managed and updated on the fly.

Franchise Businesses are also prime candidates for enterprise mobility. Both franchisors and franchisees have need for mobile technology. The sales and operational teams of the franchisor tend to be highly mobile frequently involved in managing, servicing or selling multiple locations. A tablet is an ideal technology for working on the go from the car, in a franchise location ot back in the home office or main office. There are a wide variety of franchise businesses, but one of the commonalities is that franchise owners and their employees tend to be highly engaged with the public – their customers. They are frequently on their feet and on the go within a restaurant, store or field service environment. Taking time to sit in front of a stationary device to transact business takes them away from their main environment: the store, kitchen or field. With a tablet or smartphone, their information technology can keep up with them while they are on their feet doing their jobs across multiple points of interaction. Anyone who has experience mobile checkout in the middle of a store without having to walk to the register knows what I am talking about.

Mobility enhances the conduct of most any kind of business: financial services, manufacturing, retail, government, energy, distribution and more. Enterprise mobility solutions are just the IT department’s way of keeping up with the times.