Enterprise Tablet Apps: The Path Forward

By  James Harnedy — March 25, 2011

“Our strategy on tablets is very different to that of smartphones in our organization” was how a financial director at an international trading company recently started our conversation. He went on to explain that, for the most part, his company skipped the smartphone hype, aside from mobilizing e-mail for a select few employees with a solid business case. However, with tablets his company plans to invest heavily. The decision is quite different than other hardware purchases: this time the apps are as important as the hardware. In fact, the apps are dictating the hardware purchase decision.
 
I prodded a few CIOs across a range of industries—from banking and finance to retail—into telling me why they believe tablets are more compelling than smartphones when it comes to apps. The short answer goes something like this: “We can mobilize our entire enterprise applications given the screen size and battery life of a tablet versus point features on smartphones.”
 
Screen size is an important factor when it comes to display of sufficient information for many business cases—and battery life of tablets surpasses that of laptops—so it solves a real business need when it comes to mobility. The combination will bring about real change in the IT mobility landscape, and planning for it is key.
 
 
The tablet platform wars
Tablets are still coming to market, so it’s a little premature to cast judgement on the various tablet offerings today. IT decision-makers should carefully consider a set of factors during the platform selection process.
 
First, battery life must surpass that of laptops—end of story. Apple has done a great job of customizing the A4 and now A5 CPU architecture to get the most out of the batteries. It’s the main reason tablets will use low-power chips and optimized operating systems versus the laptop movement, which merely adapted the existing desktop software stack.
 
Connectivity needs will vary, but for field and salesforce workers its important to enable cellular connectivity, even if your phase one project does not take advantage of it. Other apps on the tablet such as e-mail and mapping will take advantage of continuous connections to the Internet.
 
Screen size depends on your needs. A number of enterprises are waiting to field test the PlayBook for this very reason. The 7-inch form factor is more pocketable with a screen resolution close to the iPad. Don’t be fooled by the resolution myths, however; a screen resolution of 1024x600 on a 7-inch screen does not equal the resolution of the 10-inch screen at 1024x768—buttons and controls on the screen must be sufficiently large to easily touch with a finger so it’s key to pilot some tablets with your user base before taking the plunge.
 
Operating systems matter—but how much? The OS and apps should be intuitive to non-technie users. Corporations frequently cite this user-friendliness as the reason to even consider the iPad—it is immediately obvious how to use Apple’s tablet. Some would argue that smartphones need a physical keyboard, but few would make the case for physical keyboards on a tablet. On the usability and intuitiveness front, Apple’s iPad and the BlackBerry PlayBook seem to win the votes today—HP WebOS for tablets will come close while Android’s Honeycomb will need to evolve beyond the techie crowd.
 
Decision-makers should consider ease of deployment, security, and integration of these tablet platforms into the enterprise. Issuing iPads could be a beast, which is something worth investigating for those without previous experience deploying iPhones. How secure is your tablet platform? How robust is its native security features? Will add-on security solutions be required? And last but not least, how well will the tablet platform integrate with your mobile device management processes and systems?
 
Build versus buy?
Enterprise application vendors may offer a tablet app for your platform of choice. This should be evaluated along with your vendor’s tablet roadmap. However, few vendors actually offer tablet applications today, and those on the market appear to be marketing exercises rather than truly ready-to-use apps. So if you’re unable to buy the apps you need, what are your options? Building the application to meet your specific needs is a viable course of action and gets you going on the road to mobilizing on tablets pretty quickly—but it’s not for everyone.
 
Enterprises shouldn’t look to tablets as a panacea that will fix everything so it’s wise to take precautionary steps towards tablet apps. For instance, review the paper-based processes in place today in your organization and pilot tablets with a select few employees. Many apps don’t need to be feature rich to solve a real problem; often it is access to information that is already available in PDF format that is the key benefit. Consider what assets you can repurpose for your tablet solutions before undertaking the project.
 
In-house versus external
The decision to build an app in-house or turn to an outside source comes down to skill set, availability of resources, and project timelines. App development is significantly different than traditional enterprise IT skills. Apple uses the age-old Objective-C language to build iPhone and iPad applications but the language never gained traction outside of Apple’s developer ecosystem. Moreover, many Objective-C practitioners today are indie developers building the next big thing to sell in the App Store and not focused or experienced in the world of enterprise-grade software. Alternatives such as HTML5 are an option but don’t suit every requirement and need to be evaluated in terms of applicability to the project’s technical specifications.
 
Another common option for larger deployments is mobile enterprise application platforms (MEAPs) such as Sybase Unwired Platform, Antenna Software, or Pyxis Mobile app platforms. The selling point of MEAPs is around rapid cross-platform application development. Many of the platforms require coding skills to customize the platform, which requires learning scripting languages or other proprietary tools. MEAPs tend to appeal to larger enterprises taking on more than one mobilization project. Therefore investing in a platform approach sounds wise. MEAPs are especially useful when managing multiple mobile platforms within one organization.
 
If you decide to use external resources, there are many options from specialized enterprise mobility consultants to iPad app developers. Although an iPad app developer might get your phase one project done, working with this kind of provider probably is not the best strategy for the long term. Indie app developers have different priorities and long-term support for your specific app is always a concern. Enterprise mobility consultancies bring domain knowledge but not all are abreast of the rapidly evolving tablet market and the needs of a mobile enterprise when it comes to these new devices.
 
HTML5 versus native
HTML5 is a set of standards, not one standard, and it is not yet ratified. However, the tablet platforms today all support the essential HTML5 concepts but experimentation is recommended before committing to a large project with HTML5 as the core technology.
 
Generally speaking, native development comes at a higher cost. It’s also more difficult to find the right resources given the demand from the consumer space. The native app will only be as good as the developers building it, so keep this in mind when choosing your development partner.
 
One last approach that fits into both Web and native development modes is using a cross-platform framework such as the open source PhoneGap or WebWorks from Research In Motion. Both frameworks require Web developer skills such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. If you have these skills available to your organization then it would be worth investigating the viability for your mobile project.
 
 
James Harnedy is CEO of Appesque, a mobile applications company with offices in New York, Belgium, and Ireland. He is available at james@appesque.com.


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