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).
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.
Is the Best Yet to Come?
Chrysler’s auto-industry rival General Motors has found itself face to face with the same mobile development platform conundrum. “Do you standardize on a device or a plug-compatible structure? To date, we have standardized on a device,” said Fred Killeen, General Motors chief systems and technology officer.
GM issues employees BlackBerry devices for messaging, e-mail, calendaring, Web browsing and telephony. However, like many organizations, GM has yet to go beyond that basic slate of functions.
“We have a small number of Web-based applications, but we have not invested in the BlackBerry development environment and we have not purchased applications, either,” Killeen said. “We want to write applications that are portable across devices, so, as the market changes, we have the freedom to make that move. Our strategy in the short term is to do Web applications.”
One of those Web applications is GM’s so-called “people finder” application, a corporate phone book that enables GM employees to find and connect with one another. Originally a browser-based PC application, the app has been ported to work with the BlackBerry’s browser.
GM also uses Cognos software, and Killeen is toying with the idea of running the Cognos mobile device interface for BlackBerry.
Indeed, in general, Killeen is waiting for the market to shake out before making a greater commitment. “We’re looking at all devices, whether it’s the iPhone, Symbian OS or Android,” he said. “Devices will converge, and employees will need richer capabilities from their personal devices. Android could fill the need, but we’ll have to see.”
The best is yet to come?
Reticence in mobile application development is not confined to the auto industry. Fidelity Investments has a long history of support for mobile devices among its customers, dating back to the pagers of the 1990s. When mobile browsers came into use, Fidelity adapted its mobile investor communications system, Fidelity Anywhere, to accommodate them.
“Way back, we did browser detection by redirecting the browser from Fidelity.com to Fidelity Anywhere,” said Joseph Ferra, chief wireless officer at Fidelity. “Now we’re doing device detection. We know it’s a mobile browser and what type of device it is, including screen size and keyboard layout.”
To perform browser and device recognition, Fidelity developed its own software, which grew out of the mutual funds giant’s earlier pager support. Support evolved to include early RIM and Palm devices, followed by cell phones.
While Fidelity has a uniquely flexible capability for interacting with different browsers, the company has stopped short of device-specific development. “We have thought about it with J2ME, but it’s hard to support one-off applications,” Ferra said.
Smaller enterprises, like their larger counterparts, are often inclined to hold back from mobile application development commitments. Many are happy to use only the capabilities that come packaged with devices. Goldrich and Kest, a real estate company that manages 130 apartment buildings and two marinas in the Los Angeles area, is equipping its property managers with BlackBerry devices so they can access and read PDF documents and Microsoft Word and Excel files-capabilities included with the devices.
“We use whatever comes on it,” said Bob Lauterbach, IT manager at Goldrich and Kest, who was a respondent to the eWEEK survey. “There is no need to edit the files, just to read them.”
Thirty-one Goldrich and Kest employees have the devices, and 19 more are set to get them, the IT manager added.
Francis Rabuck, an independent consultant and an eWeek Corporate Partner, praised the BlackBerry’s potential while lamenting that it often isn’t realized. “BlackBerries can’t just be for e-mail anymore,” he said. “I have seen amazing applications on the BlackBerry. Just doing e-mail is a total injustice.”
With newer and more broadly appealing platforms coming along, that potential may never be realized.
Said Gartner’s Clark, “The pendulum was shifting toward RIM and Microsoft until the iPhone came along. Now, the iPhone is breathing life into the market. Then there is Android.”