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The challenge of using corporate apps on mobile devices

Much to the dismay of users, many enterprise apps don't function properly on smartphones. IT pro Mike Nelson explores the root of the problem and proposes a solution.

In theory, being able to access corporate applications with a mobile device is a great idea. The reality, however, is that many business apps don't function properly on these devices.

The key differences between mobile device apps and desktop apps are in how they are developed, how they are coded and how their presentation is scalable to a variety of devices. Unlike the apps you purchase from the iPhone App Store or a similar vendor, most of the software on your company's local network wasn't developed with mobile devices in mind. These applications include Microsoft Office (although, as of this writing, Microsoft has released Office for Windows Mobile); ERP apps like SAP and OneWorld; and financial apps like Extensity and Dynamics.

These applications need more screen real estate to function properly and for users to understand what is being presented. One user tried to load an Excel workbook with more than 20 worksheets, including charts and graphs, onto his iPhone via Citrix Receiver. Not only did the file not load, but it also locked up the phone and crashed his session. The user said to me, "It works on my laptop; why won't it work on my iPhone?"

Mobile users are also frustrated with the size of the screen and the gestures that are involved in order to make their experience productive. For example, another one of my users received a document as an email attachment, downloaded it to her mobile device, and then complained that she had to pinch, squeeze and swipe to comprehend what was in the document.

Although larger devices such as the iPad have more screen space and interfaces that are easier to navigate, they aren't problem-free. Some users still have problems with the iPad's interface and its proprietary iOS. Tablets like the Dell Streak, HP Slate and the soon-to-be-released Toshiba Folio use the more flexible Android operating system, but some of the same pain points remain. All of these larger mobile devices need to simplify user input, improve flexibility with keyboards and pointing devices, and increase their screen size. But if vendors start creating tablets with 14-in. screens like those in laptops, will they still be considered mobile devices? What direction do corporate users take then?

Two things need to happen before organizations can successfully deliver remote applications on mobile devices. First, everyone needs to have the same set of expectations, which is an IT standard for any new shiny object that users and management want. Second, your corporate application developers and vendors have to jump (or be pushed) onto the mobility bus.

Many websites have both a standard version and a mobile version, and the same flexibility should be available with applications. When an application is developed, it should have the intelligence to determine what type of device is accessing it -- a desktop or mobile device -- and it should accommodate the characteristics of the device. Since most applications today are being programmed as Web-based apps, integrating this bit of code shouldn't be a problem. But if it's a client/server application, developers will need to get out their propeller hats and figure out how to satisfy a broader group of end users. Until that happens with your apps, remember, pinch, squeeze and swipe.

Mike Nelson has been in IT for over 20 years, with exposure to a very diverse field of technologies. He has devoted over half a decade to virtualization and server-based computing. Nelson is currently a senior analyst at a Fortune 100 company in the U.S. Midwest.

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