If you want a full-function app, choose mobile not desktop

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright November 16, 2014
Those who say that mobile apps can't provide the full function of a desktop application have not thought through all the functional benefits of mobile

Technology in the hands of businessmen
I've often had enterprise application developers tell me that a mobile app can't have the full functionality of the original desktop application. What they mean is that, if you start with everything that's built into the desktop application as your requirements spec, then you'll find much that is impractical or inconvenient to do on a mobile device. But is that the right starting point?

You can equally well argue that the converse is true. While a mobile device has some limitations in terms of screen real estate, let's just take a moment to list all the ways in which a typical desktop computer can't achieve the full functionality of a modern-day mobile application:

  • No geolocation — the location of a desktop device is assumed, not tracked.
  • No touch input — while some up-to-date laptops have a touch-sensitive screen, desktop computers assume keyboard-and-mouse input.
  • No voice input — reliable speech recognition normally requires an add-on microphone.
  • Limited camera capabilities — On the rare occasions when there's a built-in camera, it is designed for web conferencing rather than high-resolution photography and video — and of course you can't just pick it up and point it anywhere you like.
  • No direct cloud connection — the desktop is dependent on a single corporate network for its connection to the cloud, rather than being able to switch independently between different wifi and mobile data networks.

Good mobile apps will make use of all those capabilities, leading to a more efficient process that's recorded in more detail. For example, the time and location of a service engineer's visit to a customer site can be recorded automatically. The engineer can scan the serial number of the defective device, make a voice recording of their report and take a photo of the completed repair. Then the customer can sign digitally on the touch screen, removing the need for any printed documentation, yet recording far more information than a paper-based process would ever capture.

Other examples yield similar advantages, whether it's sales call, a job interview or a supplier meeting. Even on company premises, mobile apps have many uses, from performance reviews to stock checks and security patrols. The large screen and keyboard-and-mouse input of a desktop computer is only really necessary when inputting or reviewing large volumes of data or creating complex documents. Perhaps we should reconsider why we feel we need such activities in an increasingly digital world.

Digitally connected

Given all these extra capabilities, on what basis can we say that the mobile application lacks any functionality? Clearly it offers far more than a traditional desktop application that relies on a fragile and error-prone paper trail of inputs and outputs.

The truth here is that the only full-function mobile can't do is to fully replicate the pre-digital world — which would be pointless anyway. If you can't read a PDF invoice on your mobile phone, is that really the fault of your mobile phone? Or is it actually a limitation in your invoicing app?

Done properly, mobile apps give enterprises the chance to thoroughly rethink their processes and eliminate much of the wasteful inefficiency built into pre-digital ways of working.

This goes further than merely taking advantage of all the sensors built into an individual mobile device. Again, we must beware of porting an outdated mindset to the new environment. It's an error to think of a mobile app as an application that runs on a single device.

It's no coincidence that people who talk about mobile-first also talk about cloud-first at the same time. The two are fundamentally interlinked. Mobile apps are inherently connected, and thus they're no longer tied to a single device.

It's the user that's mobile, and the application they're using may interact with several devices or sensors in the vicinity to deliver the outcome they need. A mobile app is not an application that runs on a mobile device, it's an application that follows you around, plugged into all your context. In most cases, it will also be connected to resources in the cloud that augment its capabilities.

For example, we're beginning to see mobile applications taking advantage of cloud-based machine intelligence to reduce the number of choices or actions the user has to take. This development is in part a response to the reduced screen estate, which makes it necessary for the application to do more of the forethought that, in a desktop environment, might be left to the user. The happy outcome is that the application supports a faster decision, maximizing the user's productivity.


The key to realizing the full potential of mobile applications is to stop thinking of them as a reworking of existing desktop applications. Instead, enterprises should use the connected digital functionality of mobile to completely rethink the underlying processes that these applications automate.

Acknowledgement: Hat-tip to participants in last week's EuroCloud UK meeting on mobile, especially Ian Moyse of Workbooks.com and Peter Chadha of DrPete, for their help in crystallizing this train of thought.

Image credit: © Warakorn - Fotolia.com

A grey colored placeholder image