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.

InformationWeek Reports

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.

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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.

Why Is This My Problem?
Jazz Pharmaceuticals shows the often-maddening compromises companies have to make as they try to give employees more mobile capabilities. Jazz salespeople now carry two smartphones: a BlackBerry and a Windows Mobile-based AT&T Tilt. Jazz doesn't want to use the Tilt for e-mail syncing, because BlackBerry's service is far superior, says IT director George Gindoyan. But salespeople need the Tilt to capture physician signatures, a capability not offered on BlackBerrys.

So at Jazz, a drugmaker focused on neurological and psychiatric illnesses, Oracle's Siebel CRM runs on the Tilt. Jazz actually disables Microsoft Office on the Tilt, using Sybase's Afaria mobile management software, because some of the Office features conflict with Siebel. Ideally, Gindoyan would like to adopt an Internet-based thin-client approach, allowing salespeople to use any device, but they wouldn't always be connected. Cellular coverage can be difficult to get, and its use is often prohibited in doctors' offices.

Hologic, which makes mammography machines and other medical equipment, is moving in a different direction, trying to keep the number of devices and apps down. But CIO David Rudzinsky has had to compromise as well.

The company's IT team developed an application for salespeople that runs on BlackBerrys and connects to the back-end Siebel CRM server. Since it was impossible to put the entire contents of a customer record on a tiny screen, it used a development kit from mobile software vendor Antenna Software to craft an app that gives salespeople only the critical data likely to be needed on sales calls, such as details about the person they're meeting with.

Rudzinsky's mobile strategy is an extension of his broader IT philosophy: to consolidate as much as he can onto an integrated platform, with fewer vendors. So ideally, Rudzinsky would have left Antenna out of the picture. "Having extra moving parts and pieces with third parties like Antenna makes me nervous," he says. Yet Rudzinsky uses Antenna because he hasn't been happy with the performance of the Siebel CRM version that runs directly with BlackBerrys, which Oracle has offered since late 2007. "It's now getting better," he says. Rudzinsky wants Oracle to be an even bigger player in mobile--he says he'd be glad to see it acquire Antenna and its middleware.

Hologic and Jazz show the workarounds IT is having to go through to meet mobile goals. Look for IT leaders to put a lot more pressure on enterprise software vendors to make mobilizing apps easier. SAP and Oracle have been slow to deliver, but there are signs of progress.

SAP, which has supported only Windows Mobile for its CRM application, is due to introduce software next month to deliver a mobile version of its CRM product to BlackBerrys. But that device-by-device approach will work for only so long, so SAP has teamed with Sybase to develop software that lets customers more easily port apps to multiple devices.

SAP and Sybase will take two approaches to mobilizing enterprise apps. One, they'll make available business process widgets that handle a specific function (such as a business travel approval) to run on any mobile device. Sybase's middleware will push the widgets via e-mail to mobile phones, and then manage the communications between the widgets and back-end servers. The two vendors also plan to make it easier for SAP customers to develop full mobile client applications, building the basic functionality and selecting the data sources using Sybase's developer kit, then using a mobile device manufacturer's kit to create a user interface for each phone the company allows.

Oracle also started with a device-specific approach. In late 2007, Oracle began offering Siebel CRM for the BlackBerry OS, followed in 2008 by a BlackBerry Java client that salespeople could use to connect to Oracle's CRM On Demand hosted software service. It also worked with Nokia last year to let people run its Database Lite on the Symbian OS-based E90 Communicator, and began supporting the E90's browser to let users access Siebel applications. More recently, however, it has focused on building native apps for the iPhone, available on Apple's App Store.

Oracle now has a multidevice strategy of its own, promising later this year to enhance its Fusion middleware's Application Development Framework for iPhone and BlackBerry developers. Those enhancements will include more support for Java, says Oracle application development VP Lenley Hensarling. Microsoft's .Net and C# languages are lower priorities, he says.

Complexity Vs. Performance
A wild card in this market is mobile middleware players, including Antenna, Sybase, and startups such as Dexterra and Spring Wireless. Antenna, a 10-year-old privately held company, offers development frameworks for the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile devices. Using Antenna's kit, developers can build an application once and render it through many mobile frameworks. Its middleware synchronizes and routes data between mobile apps and back-end systems and can be installed on-site or used as a hosted service. It sells connectors for linking ERP, CRM, and supply chain management, among other applications, to its middleware, which delivers the apps to mobile devices.

The question with mobile middleware is whether the complexity of a third-party vendor is worth the performance. Baylor College of Medicine decided it's not. Instead, the college is one of the first users of SAP's NetWeaver Mobile 7.1 middleware, released in December, which it's using to handle data transfers between its SAP R/3 system and ruggedized Windows handheld devices, used for reading bar codes on scientific equipment for asset-tracking purposes. Baylor IT manager Paul Sammons says some of the third-party mobile middleware worked beautifully during testing. "But then we'd have to deal with third-party maintenance and licensing and updates and patches," he says. "We have the SAP-trained staff here to help us deal with anything that comes up."

SAP soon will let companies connect to NetWeaver middleware mobile apps that aren't built for the NetWeaver Mobile client, a recent SAP blog post said. That would make it easier for companies to offer more mobile device choices.

Beyond the architecture questions, IT teams also are starting to push enterprise software vendors for a better user experience on mobile devices.

Nygard, a women's clothing maker and retailer, got results by pressuring its business intelligence vendor, MicroStrategy, to beef up its mobile capability. MicroStrategy helped Nygard build a program to query its data warehouse from a smartphone, letting merchandising specialists visiting stores access the stores' sales information, inventory, and order levels. MicroStrategy customized its Excel interface for the BI data to make it easier to navigate on the BlackBerry screen.

SaaS On Mobile
One of the biggest questions for mobile integration is how big a role software as a service will play. Spotty mobile Internet connectivity's the big drawback now, but SaaS vendors are getting around that by building apps that can be used offline. Oracle's and's mobile CRM apps both have offline options.

Workday this month made its first iPhone application available on the Apple App Store, free to customers of its HR SaaS offering. Managers can approve expenses, new hires, and compensation changes from their iPhones. Since it hosts the software, Workday handles the data synchronization and device-to-server integration issues to deliver data to the phone. Workday says it will make more apps available on the App Store and later this year extend it to BlackBerry users. CTO Stan Swete says Workday started with the iPhone, though BlackBerry has more business users, because it could build the app faster. Swete says the RIM development kit "was less well developed" than the iPhone kit.

Drive Financial, a car-loan company for borrowers with credit problems, subscribes to Salesforce for managing its customer data, uses the Salesforce To Go mobile application for BlackBerrys, and uses a software service from Salesforce partner Ribbit to translate voice mails to BlackBerry text messages. Drive Financial's 100 salespeople spend their days visiting car dealerships, building relationships they hope will lead dealers to steer new car buyers their way. Mobile access eliminated the need for salespeople to lug stacks of paper they used to print out each morning before starting their calls. "It's a great productivity enhancement for our salespeople but also a chance to get our feet wet with cloud computing," says Drive Financial CIO Don Goin.

chart: Are you deploying or planning to deploy mobile applications?

However, the company's salespeople must use company-issued BlackBerrys, even though Salesforce To Go works better on the iPhone, Goin says. Drive Financial deals with sensitive customer data, and Goin isn't convinced Apple offers enough in terms of IT management and security. "If someone loses a BlackBerry, we can wipe it clean from a central console," he says.

The trade-offs and tough choices business technology managers must make about mobile devices aren't going away. Setting a strategy and then understanding the mobile software ecosystem that can deliver it are the first steps to a enterprise-wide mobile strategy.

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Coca-Cola Enterprises Is Mobilizing How Employees Work

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