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The New Enterprise Application Landscape – Enterprise Mobility

chrissorel Blog

In my last post , we explored the state of the enterprise, how Mobility, Security, Usability and Actionable Data are core functionality and must be considered in every system. Today we’ll dig a little bit deeper into the first of those areas: Enterprise Mobility.

The State of Enterprise Mobility

The mobile revolution has been a remarkably quick one. In less than a decade we’ve gone from rudimentary “smart” devices that were at best useful for checking email or texting to full-fledged computers in our pockets and tablets in our bags that rival our desktops and laptops in power and functionality. Moreover, the ubiquity of smart mobile devices has only occurred in the last five years or so. We used to speak of BYOD as something that we supported simply because users could access their email and maybe check the corporate intranet from their phone. We understand today, however, that BYOD is no longer just about simple communication. Users want to work on their devices, they want to be able to perform critical functions of their jobs and access critical data from their tablet or phone. Increasingly users are asking for lightweight, task-specific apps that integrate with systems of record and support line-of-business processes. The industry is in a state of chaos as we try to find the right platforms and products that allow us to develop these lightweight, multi-device, platform agnostic apps rapidly without having to reinvent the wheel every time.

Approaches to Supporting Enterprise Mobility

Unfortunately, the reality is that there is no silver bullet, no single platform that can support our user’s demands for increased information access and business process functionality on mobile devices. We can, however, make some good investments to provide the services and functionality our users need. Let’s look at a few options and approaches toward rationalizing our enterprise mobility support.

UI Refresh

We’re fortunate in the fact that most of our systems are web-based or at least web-enabled. This makes our mobility job much simpler. It’s often the case that we can invest in a UI refreshing effort that specifically accommodates mobile. With CSS3, HTML5 and some of the new JavaScript frameworks such as jQuery and Bootstrap, we can design new interfaces or rebuild existing ones that dynamically adjust to accommodate different form factors. Such an approach is commonly referred to as responsive design, that is, the system responds to the capabilities and dimensions of the device and browser on which it is being viewed.

If we’ve done our jobs well on the back end by decoupling our presentation layer from our data and logic layers, such refreshes can be a very cost-effective way to extend the life of line-of-business systems and to meet the needs of our mobile users. Of course, not every system is a good candidate for such a refresh, and code and architecture analysis should be undertaken to identify and prioritize these efforts.

Task Apps

Often our users don’t need or want the full set of functionality offered in a system when they are accessing it from a mobile context. Indeed, most mobile usage of line of business systems tends to be focused and task-specific; users need to review some data and kick off a workflow or business process, or they need to find a small amount of information such as the status of an order or a sales contact. They don’t need all of the chrome and bells and whistles that are available in the full product.

Task Apps are rapidly developed, function-specific apps that provide our users with the ability to perform core tasks. It’s fair to align these with the Pareto principle, to say that 20% of the functionality in a system supports 80% of the work done in that system. Identifying that 20% and developing apps that support it is a cost-effective way to provide enterprise mobility without introducing costly platforms or replacing legacy systems.

Task-Services

A challenge we face in enabling these task apps is how to expose functionality and data in a secure, standardized fashion for consumption by these apps. We are fortunate that most contemporary line of business systems and systems of record have some form of web-service API. Moreover, service frameworks such as WCF, and standards like ODATA have made it much simpler and more cost effective to develop APIs for our legacy systems. In keeping with the Pareto principle, we don’t need to expose every bit of data and support every system function in these APIs. Rather, we should be looking to implement task-services that are, like the task apps, rapidly developed and function-specific.

Platform Upgrade

Software Vendors are well aware of the fact that their systems must support mobile access, and that that support must include access to core functionality. As such, they are racing to introduce such functionality, often by performing UI refreshes onto their existing codebases. This presents us opportunities to upgrade our systems for mobile support at far less cost than a full version upgrade. A core component of any effort to support enterprise mobility should be to identify any systems which have such upgrades available. Additionally, where such upgrades are not available, many vendors are willing to implement such functionality for you at a reduced cost given that they can then re-sell that functionality to their other customers. Subsidizing their development efforts is not always an ideal option, but with effective negotiation and project management these types of initiatives can be very cost effective.

The Future of Enterprise Mobility

So, we’ve looked at where we are, and what we can do in the short term to support enterprise mobility, but where are we going? As I noted above, there is no killer app that will instantly transform your enterprise IT stack into a fully mobile-enabled platform, and frankly, I don’t see that happening any time soon. The fact is that many of your systems of record should not be directly accessible through mobile, and many of your legacy systems would be too costly to upgrade or refresh.

The good news is, that’s ok. The future of enterprise mobility is one where all of our systems of record and line of business applications are task-service enabled, and small, task-specific apps are rapidly developed to provide users with that critical 20% of the functionality that allows them to complete their core duties from anywhere on any device. What we will be seeing in the near future are platforms that facilitate the rapid and often code-free development of these task-services and apps. Such platforms will revolutionize the way that we access and interact with our systems and provide far more flexibility to mash-up data and functionality not only from our own systems of record and line of business applications, but also from our SaaS systems like Salesforce, as well as public APIs like Google Maps.

Imagine a task-service enabled global ecosystem, a world where data and functionality from disparate systems can be rapidly integrated, where apps on our mobile devices provide us with focused, usable and secure access to our key business data and functions. That is the future of Enterprise Mobility.

About Chris Sorel

Chris Sorel is a senior architect with Statera, focusing on enterprise application architecture and application development. Chris has spent many years in the industry evangelizing user-centric design and the role of custom software in helping companies stay innovative. When he’s not helping our clients, he can be found hiking one of Colorado’s 14ers or rock climbing in one of the front range canyons.