Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mobile Clients of Business Applications

As of today, there are over 200,000 applications in Apple AppStore targeting iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad. Android Market has over 100,000 applications. Windows Phone 7 will start selling in November, and there is already a rush to fill up its Marketplace. Now, overwhelming majority of all these applications are consumer-oriented: games, social networking, news, and much more (even books these days are often made into phone applications). Does that mean that business apps (sometimes they are called "line of business" apps) don't have a place on a mobile client?

Given the huge popularity and widespread adoption of modern smartphones, combined with changes in the workplace, the answer must be a resounding "no". However, creating a mobile client that really adds value to the system as a whole is not a trivial task and requires careful planning. In this post, I will try to highlight some of the challenges involved in designing a mobile client for a business application.

Challenge 1. Define a Reasonable Subset of Functionality
Typical enterprise app has a very large scope, which tends to grow as business users demand more and more features with each release. Trying to squeeze as much as possible into the mobile client is probably not a good idea. First of all, consider the form-factor: will user be able to accomplish the task with tiny screen and soft keyboard? Then take into account specific needs of the mobile user - they are guaranteed to be different from someone who is comfortably sitting in front of a computer. For example, the latter may need the ability to sift through large sets of data with different search/sort criteria, while the former wants to see just the relevant data - and upfront.

Challenge 2. Mobile-Specific Features
Modern smartphones like iPhone or Windows Phone 7 have advanced hardware, and developers can incorporate such compelling features as multi-touch interface, camera, microphone, location services, and accelerometer. Naturally, applications can also have the ability to place phone calls and send email. These features may or may not be applicable to a specific business system. A mobile client for a customer-relationship management application is likely to take advantage of location services, phone and email, but it's difficult to imagine why it would need an accelerometer.

Challenge 3. Choose Appropriate Architecture
When it comes to choosing a specific technology, there are two main choices: develop mobile client as a web application or a native one. Although a web application is often a better choice for a desktop client, the situation is opposite in the mobile world. Even if the business system already has a website, a special version will be required to support small form-factor of the mobile device. On the other hand, browsers that are included with mobile operating systems vary in their support for various features of HTML, JavaScript, and CSS. The lowest common denominator website will probably not satisfy the users. Another drawback is the inability to tap into the mobile-specific features, such as location services or camera.

Going native allows full control over application UI, plus it enables access to hardware features, but it's hardly an easy task. Sheer number of available platforms is the main difficulty, with little or no code reuse between them. Android development should be done in Java, iPhone apps are written in Objective C, and Windows Phone 7 relies on C#/.NET.

Challenge 4. Security and Session Management
Pretty much all enterprise systems deal with sensitive data one way or another, and mobile clients will most likely need to work with it, too. Mobile devices have a security disadvantage compared to office computers: they are easily lost or stolen. It is therefore important not to store anything sensitive on the device itself and employ two-way authentication mechanism. User sessions cannot be open-ended and user activity within the application must be logged on the server for auditing purpose. Another potential vulnerability is the network: smartphones communicate over public Wi-Fi and 3G networks. This can be mitigated by using SSL protocol.

No comments: