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Tony Byrne
Tony Byrne
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Do You Need Mobile Middleware?

Major software vendors seem to think you do -- and they might be right. Just don't expect mature platforms.

Enterprise investments in mobile technology are steadily transitioning from an intense focus on mobile device management (MDM) and mobile asset management (MAM) towards mobile experience management. (No, I'm not going make up a new acronym for that, but the concept is increasingly important nonetheless.)

Whether talking about mobile Web versus native apps, or B2C (business-to-customer) versus B2E (business-to-employee) mobile use cases, savvy enterprises are paying attention to the quality of interaction "on the glass."

Over the past five years or so, a large host of software platforms has emerged to support the surprisingly difficult effort of developing consistent experiences across a diverse set of mobile devices. Now these platforms are extending their reach to key post-deployment services via emerging middleware platforms that are tied closely to their mobile development environments.

[ Hurricane Sandy prompted New York City's Department of Transportation to prioritize a mobile strategy: How NYCDOT Put 'Mobile First' Dev To Work. ]

In general that's good news for all of us. But you can expect some serious bumps along the road. Real Story Group's just-released Enterprise Mobile Platforms Evaluation Report takes a hard look at 21 major vendors and concludes that the marketplace remains fairly immature -- despite the entrance of big players like Adobe, IBM, Oracle, and SAP.

Beyond Mobile App Dev

Most enterprise mobile platforms -- like Antenna Software, Appcelerator, appMobi, Kony, Motorola's RhoMobile, Verivo and others -- started out as mobile application development environments and then branched into middleware. Some offerings remain exclusively developer-focused today, including MoSync, Oracle's ADF, and niche player Sencha Touch.

In an appdev role, these systems help developers create near-native and/or hybrid apps, along with perhaps browsable mobile Web experiences, for deployment across multiple mobile operating systems. To be sure, the breadth of mobile environments supported, the underlying coding language, and the potential richness of the application experience can vary markedly today among these solutions. For example, FeedHenry’s JavaScript-based platform for developing hybrid apps can work effectively for certain B2E scenarios, but does not lend itself well to use-cases where you want to exploit certain native device capabilities or OS-specific displays.

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In many cases, however, vendors like FeedHenry are adding server-based facilities to their otherwise client-focused solutions. Categorized roughly as "mobile middleware," these services support and enhance mobile experiences after those native apps have been deployed out to app stores, or once you have created an initial mobile Web experience.

Vendors are really excited about middleware -- especially when they offer those services via their own cloud-based infrastructures -- because it brings them the ever-beloved recurring revenue stream.

What Mobile Middleware Can Offer

There are some reasons for you, the customer, to get enthusiastic about mobile middleware too. Here's a short list of potentially useful services, though to be sure, most enterprise mobile platform vendors support only a subset of them:

-- Application updates -- in conjunction with an app store or sometimes not

-- Messaging and notification services -- including potentially SMS, handy in many use cases

-- Integration brokering -- connecting mobile applications to back-end systems

-- Device detection and experience adaptation -- enabling savvy enterprises to try things like promoting higher-end products to iPhone customers or richer background information to tablet-based visitors

-- Location APIs -- to support location-based apps

-- Asset transcoding -- converting source image, sound or video assets into the right mobile format, sometimes on the fly

-- Mobile-specific analytics -- for basic traffic metrics, but also more advanced reporting on things like app crashes

-- Capacity offload -- as a kind of hosted caching layer for spikes in mobile interactions

-- Application-level security -- many important services here, not the least of which are application-specific data wipes, variable application access, and selective encryption; also overlaps with MAM.

Sounds good, huh? Well, don't get too carried away. These are early days, and mobile platform vendors still have a lot of ground to cover. Here's a selection of bumps in the road you may encounter on this journey.

You may already own "regular" middleware:
 And that middleware may want to perform those nine services listed above because it's supposed to be good at most of them. The problem here is that most incumbent middleware and enterprise portal platforms are not yet very mobile-aware. So they frequently lack services around things like adaptive experiences and notifications. Some major infrastructure vendors like IBM and Oracle are working to align around single platforms for managing across delivery channels, but progress remains slow.

Incomplete services:
 Of the nine services listed above, no single vendor offers more than six or seven, and perhaps more importantly, most vendors specialize in only a couple areas. Which brings us to...

Weak integration frameworks:
 If you're looking for advanced integration frameworks and pre-packaged connectors, for the most part you'll come away underwhelmed. Many mobile platform solutions are still just beginning to address integration requirements.

High costs:
 Remember, vendors are excited about the revenue streams here. In most cases, you pay according to traffic or transaction volumes. Maybe hosting in a vendor's cloud is cheaper than serving or brokering your mobile experiences on-premise. But maybe not.

Stack lock-in:
 Binding your middleware layer to a specific application development framework should give every enterprise architect pause. Correction: should give any IT leader pause.

Poor reporting:
 Nearly all vendors with middleware services can log application activity. But when it comes to actual reporting on metrics, the spectrum runs from non-existent to achingly bad.

Young vendors with new services:
 As you would with any jumped-up cloud software vendor, you want to investigate how well an enterprise mobile platform provider knows how to operate a 24/7 service, as opposed to just delivering software updates. This includes big-name vendors, who typically came to market by acquiring an ankle-biting competitor.

I could go on (and on, and on) adding to this list, but by now you get the idea. Forewarned is forearmed.

How to Evaluate Mobile Platforms

OK, so you'd like to standardize an enterprise-wide mobile platform. Great, now how do you decide which one?

I firmly believe that you select the right platform or platforms the same way you would choose other important enterprise applications: through rigorous testing of different alternatives by a widely representative set of stakeholders, against a solid set of realistic use cases.

Note however, that most vendors excel at very specific use-cases, so you'll want to think carefully about your business priorities. In Real Story Group's vendor evaluations, we contrast how different platforms "fit" against seven common scenarios such as "Offline Apps" and "Mobile Websites" -- some more B2E-oriented, others more B2C-oriented. Alas, you'll find that vendors tend to focus on B2E use cases or B2C needs, but not both. So in the end, you may need two platforms.

Enterprise mobile platform technology is clearly evolving quickly. But if mobility has become a critical part of your digital workplace or digital marketing strategies going forward, you'll want to investigate these solutions more closely.

Just make sure you don't let your mobile appdev horse tie you to a middleware cart that won't work for you.

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