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App virtualization, refactoring tools and development: Which is right for you?

If you're trying to mobilize Windows apps, there's no shortage of options, including app virtualization, refactoring tools and native development.

When bringing your Windows applications to mobile devices, it's important to know what your options are.

Most companies have a large investment in Windows applications. For some, developing mobile or Web-based versions of this software is the best approach. Others may want to meet the demands of the increasingly mobile workforce but do not have the time, resources or money for such development. In these cases, it's worth investigating desktop virtualization, application virtualization and application refactoring to see if these technologies can help.

Perhaps the most common virtualization method is to virtualize your existing applications with tools like VMware Horizon 6 and Citrix XenDesktop and XenApp -- or through the emerging area of Desktop as a Service. Virtualization allows software hosted on remote servers to be streamed to a remote client, meaning Windows apps can run on mobile devices.

The biggest advantage of virtualization is that it's a proven technology. Virtualization can be cheaper than building new applications for mobile, and once you have enough licenses, it is easy to deliver new features and services to users. Virtualizing applications is also secure, thanks to applications being isolated from each other and data being stored on servers in a remote data center rather than on the mobile device itself.

On the other hand, virtualization does not substantially modify the Windows application to run more efficiently or be easier to use on a mobile device. As a result, the user experience is generally poor. Usually only minor concessions, such as wider scroll bars and mini-mouse pointers, are offered to make the application usable on mobile, meaning those applications are really only feasible on a tablet, not a smartphone.

An emerging alternative is called application refactoring, and it allows companies to make their virtualized Windows applications more mobile-friendly. The leading application refactoring platform is from a company called PowWow, which uses HTML5 to translate desktop applications for mobile interfaces. For example, the screen layout for refactored applications will adapt to different sizes.

The user experience with refactored apps is still not great when it's compared to that of native mobile or even Web apps. But developing an app from the ground up comes with the tradeoff of having to invest more time and money.

Your company will also need the expertise to develop apps. The app development team will have to continue support of the app post-release, including bug and compatibility updates. And depending on your company's needs, you may require multiple versions of your app for multiple platforms.

There's no universal answer to enterprise mobility. Virtualization and app refactoring platforms may work for some, while mobile and Web applications are a better choice for others. Many organizations will use a mix of approaches.

This was last published in November 2014

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How does your organization deliver apps to mobile users?
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Within my enterprise the mobile user apps are setup via a pre-determined menu. This menu is then set up for access by the mobile users who can then go into the menu and custom download the system apps. We have a set of apps we allow our employees to use for work and keep the menu germane to work related mobile apps. The apps are accessed internally through  the employee sign in authentication process.
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We've developed and distribute an extensive list of recommended apps. We even have a few of the approved apps on our server. But after that, we expect every person to decide which tools work best for their individual jobs. The tasks we face are far too diverse to hand-hold every user's personal computer  
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Typically it's virtualization. Some apps don't work well on virtual desktops though. In particular, any users' customization is a problem as it's retained during the session only.
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