Mobile development looks inwards as internal facing apps gain traction

As enterprise moves forward to provide employees with the apps they need for maximum productivity, everything is on the table for reinvention. A mix of standardized and customized solutions will be required by big business to meet the needs of an internal workforce that is ready to truly mobilize.

By now, most enterprise-class organizations have figured out that going mobile is a necessity for competing in the modern marketplace to capture and keep customers. The average consumer assumes they will be able to interact with every business online, and now they expect to be able to carry out transactions on-the-go using their preferred mobile device. Big business has poured big money into mobilizing consumer-facing applications because the benefits are just too significant to ignore.

But 2015 may be the year businesses start taking a more introspective approach to mobile. Van Baker, a Gartner analyst who specializes in mobile and wireless, revealed this as a key trend for the coming year. "Most organizations have applications that are customer facing. But the average enterprise has still only built about 10 mobile apps. They are just now starting to spend money to create employee-facing mobile applications to improve business process, workflow, and employee productivity." The needs of these internal consumers will drive the direction of mobile development for enterprise in the near future.

What do business users want from a mobile app?

Unfortunately, employees often want more than they end up getting. Karsten Bugner Torp, technical director with Pernexus Systems, explained the conundrum this way, "People have a tendency to expect that you can do everything on a mobile device as on a desktop version of the same system. I think it's a fair assumption, given the mobile computing power that's walking around today. But it doesn't always make sense. A lot of office work requires a big screen. On the other hand, a mobile device has a lot of features like geo-location, photos, and video that you can do a lot of stuff with." How will enterprises deal with these expectations?

Behavioral engineering meets software engineering

Developers have to make tough decisions about what to make available on the mobile version of an internal enterprise application. Screen size, computing power, connectivity, and battery power all pose challenges. There are also some activities that simply don't lend themselves to mobile work. While manipulating a spreadsheet across dual monitors is clearly an office task, real-time chat and video-collaboration can be done on-the-go. As employees learn what's available and developers use ongoing feedback to adjust functionality and better support the work activities that typically take place using a mobile device, the road should get smoother.

Challenges of integrating enterprise backend with mobile

Baker pointed to integration as one of the most common pain points with mobilizing the enterprise workflow. "The part you see on the app itself is really just the user interface. A lot of the functionality in a mobile app doesn't come from the application running on the client device. It comes from the services that are delivering content or functionality to that application. If you are integrating with CRM, ERP, or your supply chain system, there's that integration issue that has to be overcome."

Third party vendors that provide push notifications, collaboration, and social network integration bring another set of issues to the table for linking the backend with mobile. "Invariably, development platforms and tool providers claim to have out of the box connectors for backend applications. Yes, they have the connectors, but they are set up to facilitate standard implementations for backend applications. Almost nobody has a standard implementation. The connectors end up just being the starting point. There's a lot of work to be done to get the APIs built to give you the level of access you need to be able to utilize that information."

Scaling is a problem—even for enterprise

From a big picture perspective, the challenges don't stop with how mobile users interact with the backend—it's also about how MANY do it at the same time. Protecting the enterprise backend from usage spikes requires additional forethought. Baker made the point that, when a new product is rolled out, every person on the sales team might want to check on the lead time simultaneously. The backend isn't prepared for that type of traffic. One solution is to host a subset of the data in the middleware tier. The mobile applications can interact with the subset and the data can then be synced with the backend at appropriate intervals. 

What mobile trends do you see emerging? Let us know.

This was last published in April 2015

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