Enterprise end users have become highly mobile, using both personal and company-issued smartphones and tablets to access corporate data and get work done from anywhere. Naturally, enterprises must exert some control over the types of applications that mobile workers use to access data. Mobile enterprise application platforms (MEAP) can offer enterprise IT the control it needs while delivering the productivity tools and data access that mobile users demand.
A mobile enterprise application platform serves as both a development environment and a management tool for mobile enterprise applications. Many MEAP solutions overlap with the management features of broader mobile device management (MDM) platforms; however, in most cases, MDM is a distinctly separate product. Mobile device management products manage mobile devices, while MEAP solutions manage the enterprise applications running on those devices.
MEAP platforms actually predate smartphones, with roots in personal digital assistants (PDAs). Without persistent wireless data connections, early mobile enterprise applications mostly served as data collection devices on PDAs. Whether gathering meter readings or keeping a salesman’s notes current, these applications collected information while the user was mobile and offline. When the user returned to the office, the applications would sync this information with enterprise databases. When PDAs and mobile phones merged, ubiquitous wireless data access extended the value of mobile applications from a simple data store to a real-time interactive experience.
Core elements of mobile enterprise application platforms
At its core, a MEAP solution consists of two components. It offers a mobile application development environment and back-end services that manage those mobile applications and link them to enterprise applications and databases. Centralized management enables administrators to control which users can access an application and what enterprise databases that application can pull data from.
Mobile enterprise application platforms provide an environment where enterprises can develop an application once and run it on any mobile OS. This approach is essential to enterprises that support a mix of devices, especially those that allow end users to run mobile enterprise applications on personal devices. Most MEAP products offer template applications, which enable quick deployments of mobile versions of collaboration products like Microsoft Sharepoint, as well as common sales and field service products. Organizations can modify these template applications to meet their own specific needs. Developers can also start from scratch, using the database links of the back end to build mobile applications that integrate with in-house custom enterprise applications.
Choosing a mobile enterprise application platform
Before evaluating MEAPs, an organization should first determine if it even needs one. Many enterprise application vendors offer mobile versions of their products. Salesforce.com, for example, offers mobile clients for nearly all mobile device platforms. For one-off applications or an off-the-shelf solution, the simplest approach might be to direct users to the mobile app store for their device. If an enterprise wishes to develop custom applications or deploy multiple applications on many device platforms, a MEAP solution makes sense.
The mobile device market is filled with operating system and device makers, so compatibility with a wide range of mobile operating systems and devices is a top priority for mobile enterprise application managers. Many enterprises are adopting a bring your own device (BYOD) mobile strategy. Enterprises with BYOD policies should evaluate MEAP vendors both on their ability to support multiple mobile platforms and on how quickly their MEAP is able to adapt to new platforms. The mobile market is still a moving target, and your MEAP vendor should be agile enough to support the latest offerings shortly after they are available.
An organization must also evaluate the development environment provided by a MEAP. Many MEAP vendors offer customization and development capabilities, but they vary in how they achieve this. Some rely on proprietary programming and scripting languages. Others use more traditional application and Web development languages such as Java or Ruby. If an enterprise plans to use a MEAP product to simplify cross-platform development, it must ensure that the chosen product matches the skill set of the teams that will be tasked to use it.