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How Do You Manage Mobile?

Smartphones and tablets were barely visible on most businesses’ radar just three years ago. Fast-forward to today, and mobility is one of the fastest-growing productivity tools.

Since companies need to come up with a mobility strategy that is at least moderately forward-looking, you should understand the mega trends in mobile and plan to cover the biggest of them. In my opinion, that’s got to be smartphones and tablets. But I’d hate for that advice to sound too simplistic, as the issues surrounding this area are fairly complex.

I recently spoke to a group of Fortune 100 CIOs about this very topic. Specifically, I asked their opinion on the idea of portable apps and mobile devices. Enterprise portable apps are small applications that connect to the “behind-the-firewall systems” of a business. They typically run in corporate portals, but can also (without modification) run in Microsoft SharePoint, corporate/partner/external portals, smartphones and tablets.

It was pretty apparent that the CIOs saw this as a very significant part of their future, and they pointed out that the first steps into that future were already happening. They said they needed a plan as soon as possible.

Native vs. Web Apps
The first IT challenge in creating portable apps is narrowing down your approach to a manageable (and hopefully standards-based) set of development tools and frameworks.

There are two types of mobile apps: Web and native. Web apps are HTML5-based apps that run in the devices’ Web browser. (Don’t settle for non-HTML5 Web apps.) The new-generation HTML5-based apps have the look and feel of installed device apps, which include the finger-swipe gesturing common to native apps. You can even “install” a link to the app so users simply click on an icon to launch it in the browser. Notice I said “link” -- unlike native apps that get installed on the device, Web apps are run on demand from wherever the URL points.

Native apps are typically distributed by the likes of Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Market, and they get installed on the device. Unlike HTML5 Web apps, native apps are written using toolkits that are specifically designed for mobile device operating systems. The two major operating system camps are Apple’s iOS -- which runs on Apple’s iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches -- and Google’s Android OS, which runs on many vendors’ Android smartphones and tablets.

This bifurcated set of native tools is also something of a challenge, as third-party “write once, run on both types” software is still somewhat new. You should also keep an eye on Microsoft Windows Phone 7 and HP webOS.

Where to Start
So, which platform do you absolutely have to support? It’s too early to say you absolutely have to support any platform. But if I were to pick the one to start with, I’d suggest HTML5 touch-optimized Web apps. The best place to start is by using the latest-generation HTML5 libraries and toolkits, such as Sencha Touch, jQuery Mobile, jQPad and DHTMLX Touch.

Think About These Mobility Issues
Whether you choose native apps or Web apps, you still have to be concerned with a few things that become more relevant when deploying to mobile devices. These include issues such as:

  • Single sign-on authentication: The last thing you want is to create a specialized authentication mechanism for mobile apps.
  • Who has access to which apps: Users should only see apps they’re entitled to run.
  • App data authorization: How do we protect the data underlying systems that the app uses? This is the most neglected of all mobile corporate app requirements today. It’s also the most difficult to resolve because it requires all app data and system traffic to be protected by an authorization layer.

My advice to a small business looking to create mobile apps for its users or employees is to adopt a portable Web app strategy so that any newly developed custom corporate Web applications also run out of the box on mobile devices using HTML5-based UI technology. Lastly, organizations need to create a security and governance strategy for mobile apps that is built on their existing data security and governance.

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