Enterprise mobile apps: meet the Internet of Things

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright August 5, 2014
Enterprise mobile app strategies are missing out on an important dimension: they have to take the impact of the Internet of Things (IoT) into account

In the rush to embrace mobile applications, enterprises and vendors are missing an important dimension: the Internet of Things (IoT).

The reason this is happening is the same reason that every first wave of adoption ultimately fails to satisfy — we use the new platform to do the same stuff we did with the old platform. So in the case of mobile, we are taking existing applications and simply making them available on mobile devices.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing. When done well, a mobile application can transform a process by making it truly digital. The classic example of this is travel expense reporting, where the use of on-board cameras and data connections has eliminated multiple paper-based steps that used to add delay, error and inconvenience to the process of filing expense claims.

But if instead of merely thinking in terms of mobile platforms you think of the entire universe of connected Things, then all kinds of new possibilities arise.

IoT and mobile

Instead of tying the mobile application to a specific device, think of it instead as something that runs across the network of devices and sensors around the individual. Some of these may be wearables, but many others will likely be what Techcrunch writer Natasha Lomas this week called anti-wearables:

Instead of having our bodies cluttered with electronic bangles that continuously quantify our existence, there's an opportunity for more targeted applications of sensor technology, based on locating it in proximity to us — within objects we use, handle and interact with for specific purposes.

The examples Lomas quotes are single-purpose devices: a car seat that monitors a driver's physical condition, or a child's teddy bear that unobtrusively monitors health data during a hospital stay. But imagine instead that these devices and sensors can communicate information to a master application that collates it and delivers outcomes, either on the individual's smartphone or in the cloud.

The application is still mobile, but instead of being physically contained within a single device, it acts across all the relevant devices and sensors it has access to.

We are already seeing mobile operating systems from Apple and Microsoft beginning to incorporate this concept of syncing data and actions across more than one device, enabling the user to move their interaction from one device to the next. It makes sense to supplement this by opening up access to data from a larger range of devices.

We are also seeing the beginnings of applications that control the devices around us. Honeywell's Lyric smart thermostat, for example, uses geolocation data from your smartphone to monitor when you're arriving or leaving home, and adjusts its settings accordingly.

Enterprise parallels

These examples are all drawn from the consumer environment, which is familiar to us all, but they have many parallels in the enterprise. We already see enterprise mobility management utilities, for example, which are able to shut off or enable certain capabilities based on a smartphone's location. It's only a short step from there to use it for clocking on and off or to interact with devices in the office or shop floor.

A second field of applications opens up in the enterprise, this time where all the interaction is between machines rather than being centered around human beings.

The enterprise IoT landscape is in many ways more established than its consumer equivalent. Factories, warehouses and offices have used sensors and robotics since long before anyone had invented the IoT buzzword.

What's different today though is that we have the ability to embed much more sophisticated technology much more cheaply. Those sensors and robots can use smartphone technology and take advantage of many of the standards established in the smartphone world.

Thus there's an overlap between the strategy for IoT and the strategy for mobile. Enterprises should treat both as two sides of the same coin. They are already finding they have to overhaul their infrastructure to be able to support and connect into their expanding universe of mobile applications.

Soon, if not already, that same infrastructure must connect into a new universe of IoT applications.

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