Mobile Apps: More Than Just Good Looks!

The explosion in mobile apps has led many to explore the possibility of mobilising existing applications to drive better responsiveness, productivity and performance. And, to the uninitiated, the process looks pretty simple. With a market awash with frameworks – often free – promising easy app design, virtually every brand is now offering free apps.

But such developments are a world away from the corporate solutions that must be integrated with legacy applications and support two way information sharing. With employees increasingly preferring to use their own mobile devices, these apps must not only run across an astonishing number of mobile platforms and operating systems but also offer the performance, reliability and availability demanded by any critical corporate system.

The issue of multiple mobile operating systems, development languages and their associated platform-specific extensions, has prompted a recent shift away from native developments towards HTML5, CSS and JavaScript solutions.

One option, of course, is to take a hybrid approach that enables the app to exploit key phone facilities such as SMS, contacts list and camera, whilst being written as a web app that always exists on the phone. Browsers will not be identical but differences are manageable.

However, there remains a lack of understanding about the issues surrounding the deployment of viable mobile apps. Too many organisations are, perhaps understandably, focusing on the look of the app rather than the essential elements such as integration with the back end systems and the constraints associated with the network infrastructure and battery life.

Flawed model

There is no value in an app, however stunning, if it does not fulfil its business purpose. One of the key challenges facing organisations today looking to deploy apps to mobile workers is the mistaken assumption that phones are always connected. In reality, this is simply not the case – from the signal interruptions caused by buildings and tunnels to the lack of coverage outside major cities.

A common approach used when implementing Web applications is to use Ajax – asynchronous http connections running in the background to send and retrieve data. A popular mobile framework advocates this approach and provides full support for it in a hybrid app.

However, this model only works in a simple data collect and send app. If the business wants to push data to the user, the app has to work when the phone is asleep. And, while this works on Blackberry, it doesn’t work on Android when the programme is not on the front screen, while on an iPhone it can stop running at any time. The result? An app that appeared to be a great solution is fundamentally flawed.

Communications framework

The problem for organisations that have attempted to deploy such apps – to delivery drivers, for example, to improve contact, provide real-time rescheduling or immediate response to questions regarding direction – is continuous communication failure.

When the phone goes to sleep, the organisation does not know if the new directions or job schedules have been received or not; whether the driver has failed to acknowledge the message; or whether information has been sent – and received – more than once. Conversely, a driver waiting for updated directions does not know if the request has been received or not; or whether directions have been sent but not arrived. The whole process is totally unreliable.

Such issues can be overcome: organisations need to add a communications framework solution to the overall toolset being used to develop mobile apps. With a library that provides two-way, reliable real-time communication, instant messaging and geo-location reporting, an app can be available even when the user is offline; enabling organisations to deploy both data collection and data push apps across multiple devices with confidence.

The key is to understand the issues associated with the current, highly diverse, mobile technologies and determine the possible implications for the desired app before deployment. This is a market that is evolving at phenomenal speed but, in many cases, perceptions continue to outstrip reality and understanding of the infrastructure demands is limited, leading to significant wasted development investment.

Conclusion

Mobile apps offer huge potential to minimise employee downtime, improve real-time processing and deliver a very fast return on investment. Indeed, the use of mobile technology is fast becoming a corporate necessity – from complying with Government demands for the adoption of Business Information Modelling across the construction industry with on-site mobile information by 2016, to attaining European goals for faster financial processing by avoiding authorisation bottlenecks.

Without standardisation, mobile app development is not without risks. Organisations cannot afford to embark upon strategic implementation without understanding exactly what objectives the business is trying to achieve; what devices will be supported – and the limitations of those devices; or, where possible, using standard tools, such as HTML5, to avoid reinventing the wheel or taking the organisation down an expensive cul-de-sac.

Armed with a good understanding of the technological challenges and an insight into business objectives, it is not only possible to deliver apps today that can overcome current technical challenges but developers can also build in future proofing enabling a business to embrace innovations such as Near Field Communication, as they become mainstream to deliver on-going commercial value.

Tim has over 35 years experience in computing. He studied Computer Science at Cambridge University where he received his Ph.D. in 1979, writing one of the world's first relational database systems. He is perhaps best known for writing the operating system AmigaDOS for the Commodore Amiga in 1984. He founded system software company Perihelion in 1986, then moved on to start pioneering ISP UK Online in 1994. Tim continues to be at the forefront of technological innovation, utilising his knowledge and expertise as an independent consultant specialising in providing technical due diligence. He founded privately funded 5app in 2011.