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As SaaS takes off, mobile browsers start to matter more

Mobile browsers have long been an afterthought on smartphones: Rendering was poor, and actually navigating a Web page required Zen-like patience. Forget about casual surfing. Today, however, the rise of Software as a Service (SaaS) and the deployment of 3G cellular networks with faster browsing speeds have spurred device manufacturers to revamp the quality of their browsers. Browsers can now deliver enterprise software to smartphones through Web-based applications.

Mobile browsers have long been an afterthought on smartphones: Rendering was poor, and actually navigating a Web page required Zen-like patience. Forget about casual surfing.

Today, however, the rise of Software as a Service (SaaS) and the deployment of 3G cellular networks with faster browsing speeds have spurred device manufacturers to revamp the quality of their browsers. Browsers can now deliver enterprise software to smartphones through Web-based applications.

"If you want to deliver an application to a mobile device, a browser is a fairly easy way to do that," said Mike Jude, an analyst with Nemertes.

A recent survey Nemertes conducted found that about a third of enterprises factor the quality of mobile Web experience into device purchasing decisions, Jude said.

"It's not anything that would be a major trend right now, but at least there is some interest in that," he said, adding that 25% of respondents said they were looking to move past basic personal information management (PIM) and deliver customer relationship management (CRM)-type applications on their mobile devices.

Chuck Dietrich, vice-president of SalesForce.com's mobile division, said the movement was natural and was spurred along by better mobile standards.

"As people become more and more aware of mobile email, they increasingly ask, 'What else can I do on my device?' " Dietrich said. "It was very easy to mobilize our programs because our infrastructure is one application running that we build a mobile solution for that works for all of our 1.3 million customers."

Salesforce.com is one of the most popular SaaS platforms today, and Dietrich said the company had seen strong demand to mobilize its products for customers who are always on the go but who almost always have with them a smartphone with a capable browser.

"The demand has been increasing at a pretty rapid rate," he said.

Adoption of mobile SaaS has not, however, been as quick across the board, Jude said, and it will probably remain niche-oriented for the next year or two at least.

"For example, Google, with its Google Apps -- some of those won't even display at all on a small-form-factor device," he said. "It has to have a large enough potential market to make it worthwhile."

And for those Web applications that do support mobile use, not all browsers are created equal.

The Apple iPhone, for example, sports Mobile Safari, which has been widely praised for both its usability and faithful rendering of websites. Mobile Safari is one of several mobile browsers based on the open source WebKit, which Dietrich highlighted as being particularly strong right now.

Other WebKit-based browsers include the Nokia S60's native browser and Google's forthcoming Android browser.

The default browsers for BlackBerry and Windows Mobile haven't traditionally fared as well. They commonly suffer graphical abnormalities or fail to load complex pages. Developers for both browsers have reportedly been hard at work improving their customers' Web experiences. Research in Motion is trialing a new version of the BlackBerry's browser and Microsoft is experimenting with a brand-new platform, dubbed Deepfish, that offloads much of the rendering work to a central server.

Today, however, few mobile SaaS applications need a fully compliant browser to be useful. Most offer a specialized, stripped-down mobile site, perhaps utilizing the mobile-specific Wireless Access Protocol, which gives access to core functionality in a quick, no-frills fashion.

Designing these mobile-specific sites, Jude said, lets companies support a vast array of devices without having to tailor the application for each OS.

"As soon as you start writing applications specific to the iPhone or BlackBerry, the overhead becomes unbearable," he said.

The more interesting mobile Web advances are probably still to come, however. Despite the rave reviews the Safari Mobile browser is getting, developers are still searching for a better browsing paradigm that would make browsing on a mobile device as seamless as it is on a desktop, Jude said. Early demos of Android's browser, which combines a preview box with a zoomed-in view, left him hopeful, he said.

Dietrich summed up his mobile goals a bit differently.

"The key is that the customer experience is basically mindless," he said. "They shouldn't need to understand the technology to view the pages."

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