How Intrepid Companies Are Getting Their Business Apps Onto Smartphones
It's a process fraught with trade-offs but critical to a more-mobile workforce.
The iPhone is hip, relevant, and innovative--everything Kraft Foods wants to be. So when Apple denied Kraft's request to join its corporate pilot program for the new iPhone G3 last year, saying it had enough participants, "we didn't take no for an answer," says Dave Diedrich, Kraft's VP of information systems.
About 1,800 Kraft employees have since chosen to spend their company-provided mobile phone stipends on iPhones. They get access to e-mail and contacts in Microsoft Outlook. Next, Diedrich's team is working through the network security issues to let iPhone users access the company's Microsoft SharePoint server, where employees manage documents and projects, and collaborate on internal wikis and blogs. And it's looking to connect with mobile customers via apps such as the iFood Assistant, an iPhone download for recipe searching and ingredient shopping that Kraft posted to the Apple App Store in December.
What Kraft employees can't do is use Research In Motion's BlackBerry to access any of this. They can spend their stipend on just about any device that works with Microsoft's ActiveSync synchronization software--and the BlackBerry isn't one of them. Kraft just doesn't have the infrastructure to support another server software suite, Diedrich says.
Most companies no longer question whether to give at least some employees access to their jobs via smartphones and other handheld devices. Two-thirds of companies are deploying or planning to deploy mobile apps, a recent InformationWeek Analytics survey of 412 business technology pros finds. The questions they face are what to provide access to, how to do it, who should get access, and from which types of devices.
At the core of this complexity is software--software that sits on the devices, on the servers they access, and directs traffic between the two. On the operating system side, the iPhone OS, Google's Android, and Palm WebOS join an already-crowded market that includes the BlackBerry OS, Windows Mobile, Symbian, Palm OS, and various Linux offerings. Device makers race to impress feature-hungry consumers, not to provide the orderly upgrade paths businesses prefer--Apple's already up to the iPhone 3.0 OS in less than two years. Such rapid turnover can quickly make obsolete apps that were built to work with, say, a trackball instead of a touch screen.
There's no standard approach to building a mobile infrastructure, either. Should access be browser-based, to get around device-specific complexity? Ideally, yes--but that approach rarely works because people need offline access, whether they're on a plane or in a coverage dead spot. Which enterprise applications must be mobilized first--HR, collaboration, CRM, supply chain? Some vendors promise mobilized apps out of the box, but most companies must bring in middleware to make them work. Finally, there's the hardware question: Can you afford to support multiple devices for a given business application? A multidevice world looks increasingly inevitable (see story, "Coca-Cola Enterprises Is Mobilizing How Employees Work").
The consumer market is driving demand for work devices with iPhone cool, and the same pressure will happen with software. Online application stores such as BlackBerry App World and the Windows Marketplace For Mobile hope to mimic the success of Apple's App Store.
Oracle, for instance, says its Business Indicators app, which lets iPhone users tap its business intelligence software, has been downloaded from the App Store nearly 44,000 times since July. That software is free, but IT shops must pay Oracle several thousand dollars for connectors to the back-end systems. Count on a growing line of employees asking IT to support mobile apps they've downloaded from various online stores.
If you haven't figured this out by now, we'll spell it out in black and white: It's time for businesses to develop a company-wide strategy for mobile IT--and prepare to adapt. Some companies are staying conservative, supporting only a single device and limiting the applications they mobilize. Others, like Kraft and Coca-Cola Enterprises, are more accommodating in the hopes of building a mobile workforce that's more flexible and productive. With any mobile strategy, you must understand which device makers and enterprise software vendors are aligning, what trade-offs come with different strategies, and, for those considering a multidevice strategy, which middleware vendors you should be talking to.
Building A Mobile Business MindsetAmong 688 respondents, 46% have deployed mobile apps, with an additional 24% planning to in the next year. Soon all apps will look like mobile apps – and it's past time for those with no plans to get cracking.