Enterprise mobile apps go hybrid

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright May 9, 2013 Audio mode
Summary:
The first wave of enterprise mobile apps have been a disappointment. Either they don't exploit the mobile environment or they're not connected to enterprise data. To get the best of both worlds, a hybrid approach may be the best template.

 

Businessman touching high technology cloud service © ra2 studio - Fotolia.com

Mobile apps are all the rage in the enterprise these days, and the race is on to give employees cool apps they can use on their hip new touchscreen devices. But as in the early days of any new technology, it should be no surprise if the first wave of apps disappoints due to a lack of experience and skills among enterprise developers in a  novel environment. Any vendor that can help organizations bridge those skills gaps will gain an early march on the market, which is why Quinton Wall, director of technical marketing at Salesforce.com, sat down with me last week during the vendor's London event to discuss some of the most common pitfalls and how his company's tools aim to help overcome them.

I put it to him that one of the most difficult decisions enterprises face is whether to write native mobile applications that are specific to each device or to stick with HTML5, which is device independent. The HTML5 environment is familiar ground for enterprise web developers, but the drawback is that it can't access much of the native functionality of individual devices.

The answer to this conundrum, he said, is to build hybrid apps. These combine HTML5 and JavaScript with a native device container that lets you bridge to local device capability such as the camera, GPS, secure offline storage and so on. It should come as no surprise to learn that Salesforce.com offers various tools for developers that wish to follow this hybrid route.

Rehashing existing apps

Many enterprises have made the mistake of rushing to port their existing applications to mobile without first thinking through the potential to do things differently. Rehashing existing apps is quick and painless using HTML5, but the result is almost always a disappointment for users unless they make use of native capabilities on the devices.

"People are becoming more and more mobile. Therefore organizations are being driven to mobilize their existing apps," said Wall. "But I don't think that's how you get the best value. Mobile is changing the way we work. People expect those really next generation collaborative apps that they're used to in their personal lives to be available in their working lives."

The opposite mistake is to hire in mobile developers who understand the platform but who have no experience of working with enterprise applications. The resulting app will have a cool UI but very little business utility.

"The people that are building these killer mobile apps are typically consumer side developers and they don't know how to connect to enterprise data," said Wall. "Connecting to customer data is fundamental and key. Once you connect directly to that central customer data, that's when you can make a big difference."

Connecting to data

One example of how connecting to data can work comes from Philips, which has developed an electronic sales aid for reps in its medical imaging business unit. The app is connected into data collected from the customer's MRI machines so that the rep can show utilization statistics to the customer on their iPad and make recommendations to help them get the most out of their use of the devices.

Another example is from Academy of Arts in San Francisco. The university is scattered across numerous sites around the city, and developed a mobile application that helps students to get directions to classes and other information. Each student's details were already inside Salesforce and that made it possible for the app to deliver relevant information out to each individual on their mobile device.

To aid developers, Salesforce has recently released mobile packs based on open source Javascript frameworks that are popular with mobile app developers in the consumer market — Backbone, AngularJS, jQuery Mobile and Bootstrap (developed at Twitter). "We connected those frameworks to the Salesforce platform, to the enterprise data, so you can make those killer business apps that just weren't there before or had these very poor UI designs," said Wall. "With these new modern frameworks that make it very easy to build responsive UI applications from the browser, business IT departments can use their existing web development skills to build these next generation mobile apps."

The dearth of good enterprise mobile apps was noted by Jon Reed earlier this week in his post on Enterprise mobile storefronts struggling. Of course it suits Salesforce.com to have enterprises solve those problems using toolkits that leave the apps locked into the Salesforce platform. But Wall's advice to plug apps into both the native functionality of the mobile devices as well as the data resources, user profiles and workflow of the existing enterprise infrastructure makes very good sense.

Photo credit: © ra2 studio - Fotolia.com