Archive for September 2013

Sunny Skies for iOS and Android, Cloudy for Windows Phone, Stormy for BlackBerry

When I speak with an enterprise application vendor about their mobile strategy there is always the perfunctory question about which platforms they support. As I interviewed companies for my upcoming paper on Mobile CRM: The Evolution of CRM Systems, a pattern emerged. It is not a new one. I saw the same pattern every time I spoke with a vendor about mobile application support for social collaboration, social media marketing, project management, ERP, etc. over the course of the past 18 months. It goes something like this:

  • Apple iOS is the first choice of software vendors. As an ardent Android user, it pains me to say it but Apple is where most enterprise mobile applications begin life. Let’s face it, the Apple mobile operating system has two distinct advantages. First, it was the first widespread, viable mobile device platform adopted by business people. That means that software vendors, including enterprise application vendors, have a lot of expertise in developing applications for Apple devices. The second advantage is the single, controlled environment. Unlike Android, iOS is only available on Apple branded phones and tablets (iPhone and iPad) with a tightly controlled ecosystem. While that may have disadvantages for vendors, such as extra cost and being kept on a short lease by Apple, it makes the actual development more predictable.
  • Android is hot on the heels of Apple. Even though Android followed iOS into the market, one would think that by now most developers would begin with Android if only because of its huge share of the market. One would think so except for the problem of Android fragmentation. Android is not really a single operating system. Instead, it is a base operating system that is modified by device manufacturers to fit the unique architecture of their devices. On top of that, many vendors modify the user interface to make it more unique or add (presumably) useful applications and widgets. Finally, there are a number of versions of the base Android system that are still in service. The result is potentially hundreds of combinations of base operating system and modifications. If a customer owns more than one device, an increasingly common occurrence, they are assured of having as many versions of the Android OS as devices. The result for application vendors is a development and support nightmare. Apple’s monoculture is much easier to manage then the highly variable Android market. That said, developers are biting the bullet because Android devices are proliferating like kudzu.
  • Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT are “under consideration.” With the exception of Microsoft themselves, most vendors say that they are thinking about adding Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT applications to their product mix. In general, they are waiting for customers to demand it. Except that customers will not buy mobile devices unless they support their most important applications. As long as software vendors hold off developing Windows mobile applications, customers will stick to Android and iOS. Vendors of enterprise applications are, in effect, listening for market demand that they themselves are suppressing. This is a pity since most business users I’ve spoken to like and recommend their Windows mobile devices, both tablets and smartphones.
  • BlackBerry is in an application death spiral. Poor BlackBerry. Along with Palm OS phones, BlackBerry (called Research in Motion at the time) was the forerunner of modern smartphone. Things have worked out for them about as well as they have for Palm. Alas, neither of them understood what the touch screen capable Apple iPhone represented. Now, even longtime supporters of the BlackBerry devices and operating system are phasing out development for what was once the business mobile device. Losing business application support spells the death knell for BlackBerry.

There are a number of alternative mobile operating systems that are on the horizon including the upcoming Firefox OS from the Mozilla Foundation. It’s unlikely that any of these will have much impact in the business community. Almost all of these new mobile operating systems are targeted at low cost consumer devices. More important to their success will be whether Facebook supports them. For the business application customer, it’s going to be an Apple-Android world with maybe a bit of Windows.

All Devices Are Not The Same When it Comes to Enterprise Applications

I was thinking about the different roles mobile devices play I our business lives while watching one of those new Microsoft iPad attack commercials for the twelfth time the other. In this version, an iPad Mini’s Siri tries to talk to someone using a 7 inch Windows tablet. Or maybe it’s talking to the Windows tablet which is strange. Part way in, the Windows tablet user starts playing Halo. Halo? Do customers really buy a tablet to play Halo on? I tend to think not. A business user is even less likely to do that since that’s simply not how people view these devices.

There is a tendency to talk about mobile devices as if they were a single entity. Software vendors especially talk about their “mobile” strategy and not their smartphone and tablet (or smartwatch) strategy. That’s unfortunate since that’s an attitude that will eventually lead to some pretty bad software. It’s not just the screen sizes and limited hardware that are different between devices and desktops. It’s true that different screen sizes drive user interface design choices and the limited hardware means making hard choices about certain types of features. These are small compared to the differences in the way people use these devices. What a business professional is trying to get out of a tablet versus a smartphone, or desktop for that matter, should be the bigger driver.

Here’s how I view the different ways we use these devices:

  • Smartphones are for communication. Yes, we access all types of information on a smartphone but we focus the most on interactions with other people. Social networks both corporate and personal, email, text, voice and video calling, contacts and calendars – the stuff of business relationships – are how we spend our time on a smartphone. While there is a lot of attention on new location-based services that leverage the portability and GPS in a smartphone, that’s not what business users do. Smartphones are for interacting with people.
  • Tablets are a view into the cloud. Let’s face it – tablets are a convenient and portable way of accessing cloud applications. They allow us to interact with data somewhere else without hauling around a laptop. Most business users read documents, view reports, look at graphs, show presentations, and perform simple workflow operations in our cloud based enterprise applications on a tablet. It gives that view into corporate data without hurting our backs. The fact that we can read email and access corporate communications is gravy not the meat.
  • Desktops and laptops are for real work. Intensive work such as writing, creating spreadsheets, data entry, and graphics, require the full sized physical keyboard, 22 inch plus display, big chunks of memory, massive hard drives, graphics co-processors, gigabit Ethernet network connectivity, and serious processing horsepower of a regular PC or MAC with a full service operating system. Tablets and smartphones are great for what they do but have limited resources even when running an application in a browser. Desktops and even laptops are not limited by the power and portability constraints of mobile devices.

This is why more and more business users regularly use three or more devices. None is a replacement for another. Just because something used to be done on a desktop PC or phone in the past doesn’t mean it was optimal. You can make Skype calls from your desktop after all but is that the best way? A smartphone is designed for voice communications and you don’t have to go looking for a set of headphones with a microphone.

The reason this matters so much is because the one size fits all application model is falling apart again. The ability to deliver an enterprise application in a browser was great for application developers, cloud or otherwise, since they no longer had to write code for lots of operating systems. Unfortunately, we are back to that situation but not because of form factors or operating systems, though they are part of the problem. Instead, it’s because business people want to use different devices differently. They want to leverage unique capabilities more than overcome limitations. At the moment, that means at least three versions of everything, each tailored to the way tablets, smartphones, and desktop applications are expected to behave.