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Rich mobile applications can boost productivity, user experience

Rich mobile applications have the potential to change how users interface with enterprises' applications.

Rich mobile applications are to the smartphone what rich Internet applications are to the browser -- they enable...

the use of more business applications while also offering the user a better overall experience.

In a pair of presentations slated for this week's Catalyst Conference 2007 in San Francisco -- "Rich Mobile Application Platforms" and "The Evolving User Interface" -- Burton Group senior analyst Richard Monson-Haefel detailed several aspects of rich mobile applications and the benefits they can offer enterprise smartphone users.

In the past, typical cellular phones had limited access to mobile applications. They offered text-based communications tools like SMS and some email, but the environment was far from rich.

Rich mobile applications are basically GUI applications that are deployed and run on smartphones and use a mobile network for data communications with back-end systems. Rich mobile applications run on a smartphone platform, which provides an open application development environment.

Now, however, end users and application developers are putting more sophisticated applications on devices, giving users a more aesthetically pleasing and easy-to-navigate experience while interfacing with those applications. And though the screen is much smaller, some more advanced mobile applications are beginning to mirror their desktop-based counterparts, though there are limitations with the form factor, smaller amount of memory, and other attributes common to smartphones.

Interestingly enough, Monson-Haefel said, Apple's yet-to-be-released iPhone has fueled a surge in the rich mobile applications arena, with its detailed interactive user interface and access to several consumer-focused applications. He said the iPhone is a trendsetter.

"The thing that's really sparked the imagination of people is the iPhone," he said. "Suddenly everyone's interested in owning a smartphone."

He added that users are now realizing, "Hey, the mobile phone can have this great user experience, too."

And though rich mobile applications have the greatest potential in the consumer space, Monson-Haefel noted, there won't be much traction there because the diversity and variety of rich mobile application platforms can make mass commercial applications difficult.

"If [you] want to develop an application to run on Motorola, Nokia and others, it's not something you can do easily," he said.

The sweetspot for rich mobile applications, Monson-Haefel said, is in the enterprise, where mobile managers can control the device that end users carry and the mobile operating system the company uses. In essence, he said, users are "captive." Limiting users to one or two rich mobile application platforms makes a deployment much easier to control. Mobile managers should have a good grasp of which smartphone makes and models are in use, and the mobile operating systems, mobile application development toolkits, mobile network standards, and mobile network operators that are used.

Monson-Haefel said pretty much anyone who works in the field can benefit from rich mobile applications, especially when they need to send and retrieve information quickly while on the job. Sales reps can use them for CRM applications; the shipping industry can use maps, directions and logistics coordination; field technicians can retrieve information and process service orders; and management can send and receive content and collaborate -- more or less any role where "on the go" access to information is critical, he said.

"Do you want them to crack open a laptop and run to the car every time they need something?" he asked. "This is improving the productivity of the workforce by making the user experience more sophisticated."

And while the smartphone offers a smaller user interface than the desktop, it offers a point of interaction with corporate back-end applications.

"The rich mobile experience is a limited but enhanced terminal to the enterprise," he said. "People are starting to realize these mobile devices and smartphones have great utility. They interact nicely with the enterprise as a way to best meet their needs."

And with the iPhone becoming widely available this week, Monson-Haefel expects interest in rich mobile applications to grow. He added that other device and platform makers will probably have to play catch-up.

"The iPhone is generating so much hype," he said. "Not just because it's from Apple, but when you look at it, it's an order of magnitude richer than what we're used to. BlackBerry is in for a rude awakening. The iPhone is eventually going to become the smartphone of choice for mobile workers."

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