Mobile App Development Idles

Exclusive eWEEK research finds mobile application development stuck in second gear; the popularity of the iPhone and the standardization promise of Android may leave the BlackBerry and others behind.

Enterprise workers of all ranks seldom leave the office these days without a mobile device in hand. But despite their ubiquity, mobile devices often are used to only a fraction of their capability, thanks to the absence of an industry-standard platform for application development.

That state of affairs is leading many enterprises to settle for the next best things: to pick a single device as their corporate standard and thereby achieve some commonality, or to serve up only browser-based content to a broad range of mobile clients.

When a single device is chosen, it's increasingly the Research In Motion BlackBerry, according to results from an exclusive survey of eWEEK readers conducted by Ziff Davis Enterprise Editorial Research.

The survey also found that larger enterprises are more likely than smaller businesses to pick a single standard device as a platform for application development or to purchase packaged mobile applications for such devices.

"Only the well-heeled enterprises can stomach the investment required to make those apps run well," said Bill Clark, an analyst at Gartner. "Lots of smaller companies have taken a browser-based approach." Clark said Microsoft Windows Mobile-based devices have the largest market share for mobile application development, followed by the BlackBerry. However, respondents to the eWeek survey favored the BlackBerry, followed by Windows Mobile-based devices, among enterprise platforms.

Stephen Drake, an analyst at IDC, said interest in device-specific application development will be strong as long as the user experience with browser-based applications is lacking due to uncertain wireless connections and slow response times. "The experience of a browser on a mobile device today is inadequate," said Drake. "There are gaps in coverage. Even on the desktop, with high bandwidth, people prefer desktop-based applications to browser applications. It's painful today on a mobile device."

This quandary has led many organizations to do what they can with a browser for now while waiting for a standard application development platform to emerge.

Such a platform might be Android, which is sponsored by Google and the Open Handset Alliance; Symbian OS, which is used by Nokia on its smart phones; or an Apple iPhone SDK (software development kit).

Two tracks

Chrysler has two initiatives under way that demonstrate the mobile application development choice-browser-based or device-specific-enterprises are facing.

Chrysler's browser-based application is a device-agnostic portal for dealership employees designed to serve up content to a laptop computer, Palm device, BlackBerry or other smart phones. "A sales consultant on the lot may be away from the dealership building but can answer a question from the lot or while out on a test drive," said Bob Hoyer, strategy and learning center manager for Chrysler.

"The content is filtered through XSL [Extensible Stylesheet Language], which translates it to a readable format for whatever the end device is," Hoyer said.

The Chrysler application was originally written for nonmobile client devices and is being adapted to work with mobile equipment. Currently running as a prototype, the application is ultimately intended for some 200,000 users in 5,000 dealerships, according to Hoyer.

The other major mobile application project at Chrysler is a BlackBerry-specific solution for the carmaker's field staff that supports its dealers. The application, which serves up text and pictures, puts the automaker's so-called "book of knowledge"-which includes competitive comparison data, vehicle specifications and best practices-on a mobile device so the field staff can be armed with the information when calling on dealers.

"This way, [the field staff] can look up the information in their car before they walk into the dealership," Hoyer said. In the past, he added, field staff often would call on dealers only to find they could not access necessary information because there wasn't a PC with a reliable Internet connection available.

Chrysler is working with the Latitude Consulting Group to create the application using the J2ME-based (Java 2 Micro Edition) BlackBerry development environment and Ektron's Web content management software. The application is being tested by three members. When fully deployed in the fourth quarter of 2008, the application will reach 500 field workers.