Apple is quite literally selling up a storm when it comes to the iPhone, and a big reason is all of those apps -- about two zillion of them, at last count. Their main competitors -- Google Android, RIM BlackBerry, Nokia Symbian and more, and Microsoft Windows Mobile/Phone all have app stores of their own, emphasizing that that the PC-era (and earlier) model of having lots of software available for one's hardware products is a great way to build competitive advantage.
After all, we don't buy computers because we can't live without hardware or systems software, but rather because both of these enable us to run applications that help us get our jobs done and provide a wide variety of other life-enhancing benefits (with reasonable frequency, anyway).
So, no surprise that apps are showing up big time on handsets, and that folks just love them. But, from an IT perspective, are they a good idea? Well, I'd argue, no, they're not. In fact, apps can become the obvious trap that's nailed both IT organizations and users in the past.
Why, you ask? Because of the very nature of the apps themselves. Underlying vendor development tools are designed fundamentally to bind a given app to a particular operating system and, often, particular hardware as well. Apple leverages apps to sell iPhones – and makes a pretty penny as the sole distribution channel for these apps as well. Don't get me started on that now, but apps are a big win for Apple in more ways than one.
And that's what makes apps bad for IT -- apps are a lock-in. Once we adopt an app, whether proprietary or purchased, we're stuck with a particular handset and perhaps even a particular wireless carrier. Flexibility in both the platform and services domains is vital if we're to hold down costs, a core, essential objective in every IT shop today. Sure, some apps like games really do require local execution, but most IT managers don't cater to the entertainment needs of their user base. Rather, it's all about data (and apps!) in the cloud.
Perhaps even more important, the vast majority of enterprise-class apps today are really front-ends to web and cloud services regardless. OK, it can be argued that a local app is at least desirable here, as information display and user interaction needs to be modified to address the constraints of the mobile device, But there's a better way -- almost.
And that's to design all mobile apps to work within a browser. One would simply go to mobile.whatever.com (or perhaps use the .mobi domain for non-proprietary apps), authenticate, and then, well, that's it. Except for the almost part, and that is the fundamental lack of browser standards in most (Oh, what am I saying? All!) mobile devices today.
I've argued for some time that the protocol-layer interfaces to browsers must be treated in precisely the same way as the whole IP domain, i.e., via a formal standards process, and rigid shunning of proprietary extensions put in place for (here we go again) assumed competitive advantage.
To be fair, some of these extensions do indeed have value, but silly arguments between vendors, like the Apple/Adobe tiff over Flash, only serve to irritate customers and limit end-user productivity. It's 2010 -- why are we still putting up with such asinine behavior on the part of our suppliers?
I'd encourage all enterprise IT departments to think in terms of those hallmarks of what made this industry great -- choice, flexibility, open systems, and productivity. I think any IT manager pursuing these goals will quickly move to make their operation as platform-independent as possible. And I'm sure you'll join me in urging suppliers to adopt standards at the browser level.
And, OK, fine, let's keep apps -- but just for fun.
Craig Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, MA. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies. He is a well-known industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and trade shows.