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IT sees little demand for complex mobile apps

These days, plenty of desktop apps have a mobile equivalent or can be converted. But mobilizing business-critical apps may be futile.

Many organizations don't see much demand to deliver complex business applications to mobile devices, making it critical for companies to focus first on the basics.

Demand for mobilizing business-critical apps depends on the industry, but in general, workers tied to an office simply want to be able to email, read and send documents on their mobile devices from anywhere, experts said. Mobile application development and delivery tools have matured in the last few years, but office workers tend not to require access to custom, task-specific mobile apps.

Fewer than half of the 122 companies referenced in the February 2015 Gartner report Mobility Is Having a Major Impact on IT Support said they were delivering line-of-business applications to mobile.

"For a lot of workers, mobility does still essentially mean access to email and maybe a couple of productivity apps," said Richard Absalom, a senior analyst at U.K.-based research firm Ovum.

Delivering productivity apps such as email, notes and calendars is usually the first order of business for organizations going mobile. That's because those are the apps users need the most and that IT can most easily manage and secure using mobile device and application management tools, said Andrew Cohen, CEO of application refactoring vendor PowWow Mobile.

"If you're going to empower everyone to be on their iPads, you have to get the productivity stuff on there before you get the complex apps on," he said.

That's the case for one global law firm based in Boston. The firm allows mobile users to connect to their corporate Outlook email through either the Apple iOS Mail app or a third-party app called Touchdown for Android.

"It is basic, but communication is 95% of a lawyer's life," said a managing director of IT at the firm. "That manifests itself in email or documents attached to emails."

To protect corporate data within email and other mobile apps, the firm's IT enforces encryption, password length and complexity, screen lock and remote wipe policies on all employee-owned devices using MobileIron's mobile device management software.

The firm also plans to roll out a Web-based app to help lawyers more easily locate the names, titles and phone numbers of other staff.

"It's not technologically exciting, but it's what most people really need on mobile devices," he said. "We don't really have demand from the lawyers for custom apps."

It ain't easy being business-critical

Aside from a lack of demand, there are several other reasons companies aren't eager to deliver mobile enterprise apps. For one, business-critical software such as CRM and workflow applications tend to have more custom coding and complex interfaces, menus and features, making them difficult to pare down and make usable on a touchscreen.

"That's the big scary piece that I think everyone is struggling to find a reputable way to do in a finite period of time," Cohen said.

Application refactoring vendors make mobilizing enterprise apps easier, but the use for refactoring is often tweaking legacy apps such as SAP to work on mobile devices -- not transforming customized business-critical apps organizations deliver to targeted users for specific tasks. IT shops also need to deploy mobile apps on multiple OSes from iOS and Android to Windows as employees bring in different platforms.

When it comes to accessing business apps, users just want the simplest, fastest, most consumer-friendly user experience. For instance, the Boston firm offered lawyers a mobile app provided by its document management software vendor, but users didn't take to it because it required a VPN connection and lacked a stable user experience.

"It's not well-adopted because it's still kludgy," the managing director said.

Another obstacle is the cost of separately licensing and supporting enterprise desktop apps on mobile devices can be prohibitive. The law firm keeps costs down by delivering mobile apps such as legal research portals, Outlook, and newspaper consumption with the The Wall Street Journal app -- all of which come free through services they already buy.

Changes in IT budgets and new vendor partnerships could help drive more deployment of business-critical apps on mobile, Cohen said.

If you're going to empower everyone to be on their iPads, you have to get the productivity stuff on there.
Andrew CohenCEO, PowWow Mobile

"It's just now that budgets are starting to open up for deploying complex operational apps," he said. "That's what the IBM-Apple partnership is all about -- getting not productivity apps but the actual operational apps into the hands of end users."

Apple has also partnered with VMware AirWatch and MobileIron to develop application configuration templates for enterprise apps.

Field workers seek business apps

The need for access to basic mobile apps like email is common among field and task workers, too. Neovia Logistics Services, LLC, a global logistics company in Irving, Texas, allows its employees to access their corporate email hosted on the company's Office 365 cloud from any mail app. And, allowing warehouse workers to access email in the field rather than having to travel back to their offices boosts productivity.

"You can eliminate that step … to check email, respond, make phone calls," said Hector Cortez, an IT architect at Neovia.

But organizations in industries such as Neovia's, that has a lot of field workers, also experience more demand for business-critical mobile apps than office-centric organizations do.

Damm Group, a Spanish beverage company, sees demand for mobile app support among its salesforce. The organization this year developed a custom app that integrates with SAP CRM to provide sales reps and distributors with real-time customer data, including point of sale image and geo-location features, on Windows 8 tablets.

"We needed a solution that provides immediate updates on sales-related activity across [our] network of distributors, while enabling sales teams to work on a tablet, accessing and inputting data when on or offline," said CIO Luis Miguel Martin. "They are not using laptops anymore."

Other end users who tend to need business-critical mobile apps include stock traders who want secure access to trading transactions and evaluations away from the office; oil and gas employees in the field who need apps to take notes and monitor equipment through sensor technology; nurses who require patient information and medication ordering applications; and managers with time card processes and financial review processes that are not standard, according to Cohen.

"Any other industry with similar requirements [to Damm Group's] -- huge number of customers, sales team working in the field -- will face high demand of mobile apps," Martin said.

But delivering complex apps to mobile is often easier said than done.

"It's about getting brave enough to get out of the norm," Cortez said.

Cortez said his company plans to replace the RF scanners supply chain workers use to scan and process packaging barcodes with a mobile scanning app, which would then integrate with SAP on the back end. RF device hardware can cost around $4,000, so deploying a mobile app that can achieve the same business process on a user's personal device could save a lot on provisioning and maintenance costs.

Ultimately, it comes down to comfort: Once organizations feel they can successfully deliver, manage and secure basic productivity apps on mobile devices, they will start moving toward mobilizing more complex apps.

"The real benefit for the enterprise will be in identifying the everyday … tasks and activities across the business that can be transformed or improved by being mobilized," Absalom said.

Alyssa Wood is the managing editor for TechTarget's Modern Mobilitye-zine and End-User Computing Media Group. Follow her on Twitter at: @AlyssaLaura22.


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