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4/7/2006
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Nothing's Easy About Mobile App Development

There's much more to porting software to a mobile device than simply shrinking a PC application. And IT support gets tricky when employees use mobile devices of their choosing.

THE HOPE
Mobile devices let employees access applications anytime, anywhere--and productivity soars.

THE CATCH
There's a lot more to it than shrinking a PC-based application or Web interface to fit a small screen.

Wireless carriers and device makers want us to believe that the high-speed, third-generation cellular networks now available will make it easy to extend applications to mobile devices. It just isn't so. Giving employees access to customer records, inventory management apps, and videoconferencing from PDAs and cell phones is far more complicated than a wireless broadband boost.

A worthwhile mobile application isn't just a shrunken version of a desktop one; it has to be formatted for display on a mobile device and easy to use without a standard keyboard. While PCs are similar enough to make one-size-fits-all desktop software, mobile devices come in all shapes and sizes. So software that works effortlessly on a Pocket PC with a touch screen could be unusable on a cell phone with a numeric keypad.

MedStar Health is facing those problems. The health care company's IT department supports thousands of doctors and nurses who use BlackBerrys, Pocket PCs, Palm Treos, and other devices to access patient records and lab images. Medical practitioners like to pick their own devices, and since there's no clear technology leader, there's not a great case for MedStar IT to push for a standard device.

"There's no perfect device," says Dr. Sameer Bade, MedStar's assistant VP of clinical IT strategies. But the freedom-of-choice approach makes it difficult for the IT staff to keep up with new models and ensure that they're compatible with the company's applications.

In some cases, businesses have the motivation and resources to collaborate with vendors to develop mobile software. That's what MedStar did with Siemens Medical Solutions on PDAccess, software that lets medical practitioners access patient information from a Siemens Invision mainframe using PDAs. UPS worked with Symbol Technologies to develop the company's Delivery Information Acquisition Device IV, which its employees use to scan packages being picked up or delivered. But most companies don't want this level of involvement or aren't big enough to get vendors' attention.

A business that insists on not sacrificing any functionality when developing a mobile app may be backing its IT department into a corner. "It may not be necessary for an entire application to be ported to a mobile device structure--only those parts that drive the most value," says Ben Holder, VP and CIO of Unifi. The textiles manufacturer used that approach when porting a custom-built IT services and support application to staffers' PDAs.

New Tricks

There also are training hurdles. Application developers are typically trained on versions of Java and .Net specific to desktop development, so they'll need to learn some new approaches when using the mobile versions. That's probably a challenge they'll welcome, but it will take time. Also, developing mobile software that can access company applications typically requires middleware, such as Research In Motion's Mobile Data System or Sybase's iAnywhere division's Mobile Solutions, which synchronize data between back-end systems and the devices.

Business software vendors including PeopleSoft, Salesforce.com, and Siebel Systems offer mobile versions of their applications, but they typically don't include all the functionality of the desktop versions, says Ellen Daley, an analyst with Forrester Research. Getting what you want from mobile apps may mean considering vendors such as Antenna Software, which specializes in connecting companies' software to mobile devices.

Employees want these mobile tools, so IT departments can't ignore them. About 60% of businesses running the BlackBerry Enterprise Server deploy apps beyond E-mail, RIM says. More than 280 RIM partners have developed business applications to run on the BlackBerry. Microsoft says its Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system supports about 20,000 off-the-shelf apps.

But often the functionality of these applications doesn't match mobile workers' dreams. So off-the-shelf is often just the foundation. It's up to the IT staff to do the patchwork and integration for the various front-end and back-end applications involved in a deployment. It's usually a big effort to make an application small.

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