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Three questions to ask before developing mobile apps for business

Considering mobile apps for business? Take into account your users' needs and developers' skills. Developing mobile apps is a whole new ballgame.

LAS VEGAS -- Without proper planning, developing mobile apps can quickly become complicated and expensive.

Enterprise mobility has taken off largely because employees use their own devices with their own apps. As organizations look to get more out of their mobile workforce, however, the question of whether or not to build corporate apps often arises.

The process of developing mobile apps for business is very different than what traditional Windows developers may be used to, and the goals are different too. Mobile users have more specific needs and less tolerance for jumping through hoops.

Speakers and attendees at last week's Interop conference shared their advice and personal experiences around developing mobile apps for business. Before following in their footsteps, ask yourself these three questions:

What do your users need to do?

"Going mobile" doesn't mean replicating the desktop experience on a smartphone or tablet.

Mobile users don't always need the full set of features available in desktop applications, and trying to cram those features in can hinder performance and usability. Consumer apps typically have a narrower focus and cleaner interface, and mobile apps for business should aim to do the same, said Srinivas Krishnamurti, senior director for mobile solutions at Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware Inc.

"Smaller apps that do one or two things really well" are advisable, he said.

What do your developers know?

Apple Inc.'s iOS platform runs apps written in Objective-C; Android relies on Java. If your developers don't know these languages, that will shape your approach.

"A lot of the decision is dependent on your organization," said Peter Traeg, a solutions architect at Universal Mind, a development firm in Golden, Colo. "What skill sets do your developers have?"

More on mobile apps for business

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Mobile cloud vs. native apps: The developer's perspective

Simplifying business processes with enterprise mobile apps

Traeg outlined other development options in his Interop session, Building Mobile Applications: Strategies and Technologies.

PhoneGap, a tool from Adobe Systems Inc., allows developers to build mobile apps using common HTML, CSS and JavaScript languages.

"This is an attractive option if you're familiar with those tools; if you're a Web developer," Traeg said.

Another alternative, Appcelerator Inc.'s Titanium software, also creates apps for multiple platforms so developers don't have to recreate the same app from scratch for each operating system.

What OSes do you support?

Device diversity will also affect your mobile app development decisions.

For example, at MGM Resorts International, which is in the process of rolling out mobile apps for its casino and hotel guests, 80% of guest network access comes from iOS devices, said John Bollen, senior vice president of technology.

"We just look at the market and what is coming into the building," he said.

At Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa., administrators can't control what devices students show up with, so they went the HTML5 route instead, said Phil Komarny, chief information officer.

It can also be easier to get Web apps up and running because there's no app store approval process, like what Apple puts all developers through.

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Does your company develop its own mobile apps?
Yes, my company has developed its own app in order to allow customers to easily access information and learn more about our products.
Yes. We developing more and more as demand for mobile needs expanding. I see no end in site either. As better tools are reaping benefits. 
My company just started developing a mobile app to compliment it's enterprise offering. Just as described, they made the focus for the mobile app very narrow and simplified the interface. Since they're .NET developers working exclusively on Windows-based products, they've chosen to develop the app for Windows tablets, which made the transition a lot easier for them, and meets our client's expectations/needs.
Yes, we have a mobile app that compliments, rather than replicates, our primary web product. It's much more limited in scope as compared to the primary app, but I think it does a good job for the areas it focuses on (could be faster, but that's a perennial topic for mobile apps ;) ).
That seems to be the best approach, Michael. Feature creep can make apps slower and harder to use.
No, the strategy chosen is to have a Web based app that also works well on mobile. The results are mixed, though the customers seem to be satisfied.
Seems like a lot of us are thinking the same things.
One of our biggest concerns would be the ROI. If it is for a few users that may use it on occasion, is it work tying up resources for the amount of time to develop, test and implement the application 
I think that depends on who the few users are.  What if those few users are your most pricey customers? And having it makes them not look to take business elsewhere?